More plaudits at 80 – that’s not bad going after a lifetime of winning acclaim and awards for a remarkable series of biographies that have, notably, included Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy and Samuel Pepys.
And Claire Tomalin, who is coming to the Marlborough Literary Festival at the end of the month to talk about her bi-centenary tribute to Dickens, will no doubt find a moment to mention her early 1990 biography entitled The Invisible Woman.
This told the remarkable story of Dickens secret love affair with the actress Ellen ‘Nelly’ Ternan when he was a married man of 45 with 10 children and she was just 18.
And a new film version of the saga, retaining The Invisible Woman title, directed and starring Ralph Fiennes as the author of Great Expectations – Dickens was writing it when he fell in love – has just had its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival.
Modest as ever, Claire is nevertheless enamoured with the end result but told Marlborough News Online: “A triumph at 80? I think not. They still make films about Shakespeare.”
She was approached three years ago by Ralph Fiennes after numerous attempts to film The Invisible Woman fell by the wayside, but this time she played a consultancy role in its production and has already seen the end result several times.
“Ralph is wonderful, a perfect Dickens,” she declared. “He was born to play Dickens and was so determined to make it work.
“The whole thing is beautifully done. Felicity Jones is marvellous as Nelly and the film has had such generous reviews. They have all done a terrific job.”
The movie, unlike Claire’s biography, provides a part for Dickens’ friend Wilkie Collins, played by Tom Hollander, at an appropriate moment as a major new biography by Andrew Lycett of the author of The Woman in White and The Moonstone was published last week.
“Of course Wilkie was there and it is perfectly legitimate for them to do so,” said Claire. "He went off on trips to Paris with Dickens."
Scriptwriter Abi Morgan continually consulted Claire, who revealed: “I was allowed to criticise as she went along. At one stage I was asked to help her write it. But that was not for me.
“Writing a film is very different to a biography. A film is fiction. What I wrote is fact.”
Meanwhile she is looking forward to the Marlborough Lit Festival. “I’m a bit worn out at the moment,” she admitted. “But I shall enjoy coming to Marlborough. Everyone there is so nice.”
Although the UK release date for the movie is not until next year, the film has already enjoyed critical approval, the Telegraph’s Tim Robey declaring: “Fluid, handsome and confidently contained, it benefits from the actor-manager air of Fiennes's presence as Charles Dickens, which is bustling and authoritative but frequently offstage.
“The film's main character is the altogether sadder Nelly Ternan, the young, aspiring actress whose affair with Dickens in his later years Claire Tomalin handled in her book of the same name.
“Felicity Jones takes the role, and very accomplished she is too. Abi Morgan's script – better, for my money, than her work on either Shame or The Iron Lady – elegantly straddles two timelines to illuminate a deliberately obscured life, opening the book at both ends on this other woman and her divided state of being.”
Tobey adds: “Dickens's relationship to the theatre world, rarely explored on screen, is a major asset here, giving Oscar-winning costume designer Michael O'Connor (The Duchess) plenty of scope to flex his imagination.
“The milieu plays to Fiennes's strengths, too – his film's splendid on both the shonky, hurried artifice of period staging and the evanescent magic that's still capable of bursting through.
“There's dry comedy in these scenes, thanks to a reliably mischievous Tom Hollander cameo as the floppy-haired Wilkie Collins, but it's also, exactly as any portrait of the performing arts should be - a world of tactful phoniness, smiling lies….
“The film's tough enough to ponder the irony of a famously compassionate novelist turning a blind eye to the upsets his own life caused – on top of its overall class, this gives it a needed edge of controversy, too.”
Claire Tomalin will be appearing at the Marlborough Literary Festival, sponsored by Brewin Dolphin, on Saturday, September 28.
For tickets phone 01249 701628.
How Dickens was torn between love and social suicide
Ralph Fiennes has presented his own very different – and disturbing -- view of the remarkable Charles Dickens in the new movie The Invisible Woman, in an interview he gave at the Toronto Film Festival.
"Dickens was tormented, he had huge extremes of emotion,” he said. “We tend to get the sort of Christmas card Dickens – the smiling, jolly father-figure, entertaining the family. But when you read about him, you can identify this very disturbed man: a man in anguish."
He sees him as a complex character torn between love and social suicide, which has reverberations in the novelist's work, and added: “Great Expectations was written when we know he was involved with Ellen Ternan (played by Felicity Jones).
“And Felicity and I had a lot of conversations about the degree to which Estella might be inspired by Nelly. It's very interesting the extent to which you can identify elements of Nelly in many of his female characters, especially in his later books.”
Though Claire Tomalin's biography stops short of declaring the couple definitely suffered a miscarriage, 50-year-old Fiennes is confident in his film's changed version of events between him and Ellen Ternan.
"Claire argues that although there is no absolute proof, she believes there was certainly consummation,” he revealed. “And absolutely she believes there was a child, even possibly two. Other biographers have started to acknowledge that this is probably the best bet."
The couple also spent time in France, and great chunks of time are unaccounted for in Dickens's diaries. "France was the place people went to in England when they had to deal with illegitimate births,” Fiennes explains. “So I just followed the hints and the leads that Claire writes."
But Fiennes also felt it was important not to sensationalise the story of passion and infidelity.
"I was wary of the quick leap to judgment – 'Dickens was a scoundrel.' An Irish friend of mine said, 'Oh he was a bit of a bollocks, wasn't he.'
“But there's a whole spectrum of Dickens. He was very loyal to his friends, incredibly generous, devoted to social causes that he really delivered on, wrote these amazing books, and then at home possibly was a very difficult father figure."
Fiennes in fact had barely any contact with the immortalised novelist until he started work on the film.
"It's true that I was pretty ignorant about Dickens,” he admitted. “I'd read Little Dorritt and seen some films, but Dickens had never been prescribed to me and I had never chosen to go through the canon of his work.
“And in a way that may have been a plus, I came open, and became completely fascinated."
AN Wilson, pic: Magali DelporteControversial author and columnist AN Wilson will not doubt enjoy his visit to the Marlborough Literary Festival at the end of the month -- because he is a true monarchist and admirer of the Duchess of Cambridge, who was educated at Marlborough College.
And so too was the late Poet Laureate John Betjeman, the subject of one of Wilson’s admired biographies.
Wilson will be revealing his own surprising antecedents, exposed in his first novel for five years, called The Potter’s Hand, in which he explains that his father was managing director of the famed Wedgwood factory, and that his grandfather too was a master potter.
But very much the historian, his interest in the royal dynasty is linked to the birth of Prince George since, at 62, Wilson has had his own “awe-inspiring experience” and the thrill of becoming a grandfather – he has six grandchildren of his own.
“How much more must this be the case with the birth of a great-grandchild,” he writes. “And with a royal great-grandchild, the feelings are shared by everyone who has an interest in the future of the monarchy and of our country.
“The great-grandmother in this story has not been a passive observer. Now the Duchess of Cambridge has had her son, the Queen will know that she has secured her dynasty, and the monarchy, up to three generations into the future — perhaps into the 22nd century.
“The Queen will know that she has secured her dynasty. This is not something purely accidental. It is something in which, discreetly, she has been more involved than many people would think.”
Writing in the Daily Mail, Wilson praises Her Majesty or steering the monarchy out of trouble waters, something she has been able to do because she gets on so well with Prince William with whom – since the death of his mother Princess Diana – she has enjoyed a warm relationship.
And she realises too that the best hope for the future of the Crown was for Prince William to marry for love.
“Republicans like Tony Benn have always reiterated that the monarchy is just the apex of a pyramid of privilege from which ‘ordinary people’ are shut out,” adds Wilson.
“The Queen’s extraordinary triumph — and the single most valuable gift she bequeaths to her new great-grandchild — is to have made those arguments seem oddly quaint and irrelevant…
“In spite of her diffidence and her innately small-c conservative nature, this is the woman who has transformed the British monarchy.”
AN Wilson will be appearing at the Marlborough Literary Festival, sponsored by Brewin Dolphin, on Saturday, September 28.
For tickets phone 01249 701628.
Jackie KaySome of the biggest names in literature will be descending on Marlborough in September... and we'll find out who when the programme is confirmed and tickets go on general sale this week.
The Marlborough Lit Fest will be opening its box office on Thursday (July 4) to sell tickets for the 22 events that will be held over a three-day period between September 27 and 29.
Some big names have already been confirmed. This year’s Golding Speaker – performing at an event named in honour of local author William Golding – will be acclaimed author and playwright, Fay Weldon, who is known for her trademark joie de vivre style and feminist slant as well as discussing the war between the sexes.
Awarded a CBE in 2001 for services to literature, she has been writing fiction for 50 years, spanning 34 novels, numerous TV dramas, including the pilot episode of Upstairs Downstairs, several radio plays, five stage plays, five collections of short stories and currently teaches creative writing at the University of Brunel.
Fay will be discussing her latest novel, Long Live The King – the second in her Love And Inheritance trilogy. Set in 1901 London as the coronation of Edward VII approaches, it continues the lives and loves, morals, manners and misbehaviour of the aristocratic Dilberne family and their servants below stairs.
Fay will be opening the LitFest at 7.30pm on Friday, September 27at the Town Hall.
Headlining Saturday's lineup, Claire Tomalin is one of the UK’s most respected literary biographers and her work includes books on Jane Austen, Samuel Pepys and Thomas Hardy.
Her most recent book, Charles Dickens - A Life, vividly portrays the energy, complexity and contradictions of the 19th century novelist, as well as historical detail of the time he was writing.
Claire was Literary Editor of The New Statesman and The Sunday Times and is married to novelist and playwright Michael Frayn, who appeared at the LitFest last year. Claire will be appearing at 7.30pm on Saturday 28 September at the Town Hall.
And a big LitFest welcome will be reserved for Carol Ann Duffy, who will be closing the festival on Sunday, September 29.
The UK’s current poet laureate and the first woman to be awarded the position, her poetry has won many awards, including the Whitbread Prize.
She has written for both children and adults, addressing issues such as oppression, gender and violence in an accessible language which has made her writing popular in schools.
Carol Ann’s poetry is now part of the National Curriculum for both GCSE and A Level English. Carol Ann will be performing from 7.30pm at Marlborough College.
Other festival attractions include The LitFest Café, which will be open all weekend in the Town Hall, providing a welcome refreshment stop for visitors between author talks.
And in The Marlborough Big Town Read – a new initiative for 2013 – organisers are encouraging fiction fans to pick up a copy of Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay. The author will be at the Assembly Rooms from 4pm on Sunday, September 29 to give a talk and answer questions about her work, and White Horse Bookshop is offering the title at a discount.
Red Dust Road was the selected read for World Book Night earlier this year, and non-regular readers were offered free copies of the book through Wiltshire Libraries.
Mavis Cheek, founder patron of the festival, said: “The LitFest puts the very best of writing first, we don't invite celebrities, and two of our previous guests are on the Granta list for the 20 top young writers.
“We are thrilled with this year’s attendees and look forward to another successful year.”
Tickets will be available from the LitFest website at www.marlboroughlitfest.org or directly from the White Horse Bookshop in Marlborough from Thursday.
Fay WeldonOld age has its advantages, according to Fay Weldon, at 81 the author of more than 30 novels, who has been given the honour of being Golding Author at the forthcoming Marlborough LitFest in September.
The title celebrates Marlborough’s link with William Golding, the Nobel Laureate and Booker Prize winner, who grew up in Marlborough and taught at its original grammar school.
Fay’s 34 provocative novels include The Fat Woman's Joke, Growing Rich and What Makes Women Happy, and her work for film and TV includes the original Upstairs, Downstairs series, The Life and Loves of a She-Devil and Pride and Prejudice.
And interviewed in the June edition of The Oldie magazine, Fay, now living with her third husband in Dorset, is asked whether wisdom comes with age?
“Yes, if only because you know what’s going to happen next inasmuch as something like it has happened before,” she replies. “Some people think it makes you cynical, but you’re not.”
Before you reach 80, you pretend you’re younger, but when you’re 80 you realise there are advantages to age, she insists.
“You can babble on at parties. Once upon a time you’d go away thinking, ‘Oh my God, did I make any sense?’
“Nowadays you know it doesn’t make sense, but it doesn’t matter. I don’t feel any different but the world looks at you differently.
“The natural thing is for the young to wish the old to be dead. But more and more we just won’t die. So many of us.”
Indeed, Fay, whose latest historical novel, Long Live the King, was published last month, worries about attitudes today compared with the world in which she grew up.
“One only knows one’s own little pocket of the world,” she says. “Mine seems in a worse state then when I arrived (from New Zealand) in 1946.
“There was a feeling, then, of building things, of hope and change, and people working together to survive, far more than there is now.
“The world looks very gloomy to younger generations. We had the best of it.”
Once an icon for feminists whom she has also outraged, Fay is asked where she stands now.
“I didn’t set out to preach,” she explains. “I was writing novels in which there was a view of the world around me dictated by the society we were living in.
“Life was grossly unfair and insulting to women in the 1970s. You think everybody must think the same as you but they don’t. Later on I realised I was a middle-class woman trying to impose my opinions on women who really just wanted to get on and have babies.
“I think the vast majority would rather stay at home and be kept by a man and chatter to the neighbours than go to work. If I didn’t have a particular sort of work that’s probably what I’d do.”
Fay will be interviewed by Valerie Grove when she takes part in the Martlborough LitFest.