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 Wednesday, 29 January, 2003, 12:53 GMT
Claire Tomalin: A life in words
Claire Tomalin
Claire Tomalin wrote her first book at the age of 40
Author Claire Tomalin has won the 25,000 Whitbread Book Award for her biography of Samuel Pepys, beating her husband and fellow contender Michael Frayn.

Before the 17th Century naval administrator Samuel Pepys got the Claire Tomalin treatment to award-winning effect, Tomalin had written acclaimed biographies of literary figures including Wollstonecraft, Shelley and Austen.

Her fans must now be hoping an autobiography is near the top of her list of priorities after a life of success and tragedy, of which the Whitbread prize is the latest chapter.

Claire Tomalin and Michael Frayn
Tomalin and Frayn: No hard feelings
Born to a French father and an English mother in 1933, she went to a French lycee in London aged four and discovered writing at seven.

At first, she used poetry to help her through the war, the break-up of her parents and years spent moving between homes and schools.

"I fell in love with Shakespeare when I was 12 and I read the whole works. Yes, I was precocious," she recently said.

Accepted at Cambridge a year early, she was in the year above Sylvia Plath and emerged with a first.

Despite her academic prowess, one profile said she was rejected by the BBC, who told her "the competition for general trainees is confined to men".

She finally got a job elsewhere as an editorial assistant, apparently because her bosses liked her looks.

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The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft
Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life
The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens
Jane Austen: A Life
Mrs Jordan's Profession: The Story of a Great Actress and a Future King
Several Strangers: Writing from Three Decades
She had five children with first husband Nick Tomalin, one of whom died before reaching one month old. Another was paralysed from the waist down.

In a strange twist of fate, her future husband, Michael Frayn, sent her into labour the fifth time.

''In the summer of 1970 my husband was away in New York and I'd been to the theatre with my mother and daughter, to see a tremendously funny play by Michael Frayn. It made me laugh so hard that I went into labour," she said.

Her first professional writing jobs came in the form of newspaper book reviews, and she agreed to write a biography, of radical writer Mary Wollstonecraft, after having an article on her published.

The Tomalin household even inspired a cartoon strip in The Listener, The Stringalongs of NW1, a parodying trendy literary life.

But in 1973, the year she finished the book, her husband was killed by a missile while reporting for the Sunday Times from the Golan Heights during the Yom Kippur war.

Professional success followed personal tragedy when her Wollstonecraft biography won the Whitbread first book prize and she was offered the job of literary editor of the New Statesman.

Michael Frayn
She married Michael Frayn in 1993
There, she worked with Julian Barnes, Clive James and Martin Amis - and had an infamous fling with Amis.

"I was a widow, he was a bachelor. I think it's quite normal for people to have love affairs," she said.

She moved to become the literary editor of her husband's former paper, the Sunday Times, in 1979, shortly before her daughter, Susanna, committed suicide while at Oxford.

But she did not become a full-time biographer until she left the Sunday Times in 1986.

Her departure came after parts of the workforce had been engaged in a bitter battle with owner Rupert Murdoch, and Tomalin fiercely defended those below her.

"It was more than just a job to her - it was the paper her husband had worked for, and died for," a former colleague said.

'Problems and pleasures'

She married Frayn in 1993, and added biographies of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Charles Dickens' secret lover Nelly Ternan and King William IV's mistress Dora Jordan.

"I'm interested in history, in trying to relate the past to the present and to understand how people thought about their problems and pleasures," she said.

Now approaching 70, the Whitbread spotlight has illuminated her seemingly comfortable marriage to Frayn, and the pair have even been dubbed the "Posh and Becks of books".

 Whitbread prize
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29 Jan 03 | Entertainment
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