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Wednesday, 29 January, 2003, 09:54 GMT
Tomalin wins Whitbread prize
Claire Tomalin and Michael Frayn
Michael Frayn congratulates his wife on her win
Biographer Claire Tomalin has won the prestigious Whitbread book award, beating her husband Michael Frayn to the 25,000 prize.

Tomalin was the bookmaker's favourite for the prize, which is awarded to the outstanding book of the year.

She won for Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self, which judges said was a "superb, humane and compassionate portrait".

Each of the five finalists had already won a Whitbread prize in their respective categories of novel, first novel, poetry, biography and children's book.

Tomalin and her husband were the first married couple to compete for the prize.

The finalists
Claire Tomalin
Michael Frayn, Spies
First novel:
Norman Lebrecht, The Song of Names
Paul Farley, The Ice Age
Claire Tomalin, Pepys: The Unequalled Self
Children's Book:
Hilary McKay, Saffy's Angel

The 69-year-old told BBC Radio 4's Today programme she felt "dazed" by her win.

But she considered it significant a book like hers could win a top literary award.

"One of the things that does delight me about doing well with this book is that it is a pure book," Tomalin said on Wednesday.

"It is not connected to a television series, it's not connected to a film, it's just something I wrote sitting in a lot of libraries, sitting at my desk quite alone.

"It is very heartening to know that a book like that, with no glamorous connections, can be a prize-winning book."

'Best husband'

Her husband won the novel award with his wartime coming-of-age book Spies, described by judges as "subtle and beautifully rendered".

It follows two boys who grow up in a suburban cul-de-sac, one of whom discovers his mother is a German spy.

Tomalin told Today that Spies was a "wonderful" novel.

"It is one that will last and people will be reading it in 100 years time," she said.

"Prizes are great and one is thrilled and grateful to get them but actually what matters is writing a good book and that is what he has done."

Paul Farley
Poet Paul Farley was another finalist
She added there was no rivalry between the couple over the Whitbread award.

"My husband celebrated more than I did, he is the best husband in the world," Tomalin said.

"He made me feel as if he would have been terribly disappointed if he had won."

Frayn is also known as a playwright, acclaimed for works including Noises Off and Copenhagen.

Paul Farley, journalist Norman Lebrecht and Hilary McKay were the three other finalists for the prize.

Speaking prior to the award, Claire Tomalin said some of their friends found the literary marriage "quite difficult".

She said: "Some of them write to us and say 'I hope you both get the prize' although some do take me aside secretly and say 'Of course I would be delighted if Michael won but I'm rooting for you'".

Judging panel

She is one of the most respected biographers in the literary world and has written highly-acclaimed biographies of Mary Wollstonecraft, Katherine Mansfield and Jane Austen.

Private Eye editor Ian Hislop led the judging panel for the main prize, which included authors Joanna Trollope, poet Wendy Cope and Sunday Times fiction editor Peter Kemp.

Mr Hislop said the vote for the Pepys book had been overwhelming.

"We know a lot about Pepys from his diaries but they only covered nine years and Tomalin has covered his whole life, that is what is so impressive."

The ceremony at the Whitbread Brewery in central London was hosted by newsreader Kirsty Young, who was dressed in 50,000 worth of diamonds.

Last year's Whitbread Book of the Year was awarded to Philip Pullman for The Amber Spyglass, the first time that a children's book had been the overall winner.

Biographer Claire Tomalin
"I believe we're now sitting side by side on the bestseller list"
The BBC's Nick Higham
"Five rather uncomfortable authors paraded for the cameras"

See also:

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