Passed/failed: Claire Tomalin

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The Independent Online
Claire Tomalin, 64, is an author and former literary editor of the `New Statesman' and `The Sunday Times'. She has written biographies of Mary Wollstonecraft, Katherine Mansfield and Shelley, and also of William IV's mistress, Dora Jordan. `Jane Austen - A Life' has just been published

In at the deep end? Because my father is French, my first school was the Lycee Francais de Londres in Kensington. 1938-9 was a very happy year in the jardin d'enfants. Then the school was evacuated to Cambridge, and my sister and I lodged with a family. I became ill with homesickness and remember my relief on being brought back to London in the Blitz, seeing the familiar barrage balloon in our square. Then we went to a small Christian Science school in Hertfordshire, where I discovered I could write poetry and nearly drowned by throwing myself into the swimming-pool - I thought that was the way to learn to swim.

One darn thing after another: I was moved on to Hitchin Girls' Grammar School. As boarders we were kept under a somewhat Jane Eyre-ish regime, sent to bed in our cubicles at six, even in midsummer, and not allowed to read. And we had to do all our own darning. I remember black Saturdays struggling all day long with the holes in my stockings and the buttons of my Liberty bodices.

When shall we meet again? Our parents were divorcing, and at the end of the year my father got custody and we were zipped back to the Lycee, now in Cumberland, on the banks of Ullswater. I had to relearn French, which I managed quickly, and I loved the landscape and freedom to wander on the fells; I even saw Wordsworth's daffodils for myself. On 14 July we gathered round the flag and all the French masters had tears pouring down their cheeks. I acquired a sovereign contempt for boys: at nine they seemed an altogether inferior group. (Later I revised this view somewhat.) Then, at the end of the summer term, a teacher said, "We shan't be seeing you again." I was baffled. In fact, it meant that the divorce had progressed further and my mother, now living in Welwyn Garden City, had custody.

Yanks for the memory? We returned to Hitchin - this time as day girls. I loved every moment of school, including the daily train journey on the old LNER, doing homework and observing the American soldiers who were our fellow passengers. We had terrific teachers, older women - and all the better for it - who put off retirement because of the war. I did Latin instead of geography; my husband [the playright Michael Frayn] laughs at me because I never know where anywhere is.

English without tears: My elder sister was head girl but I was rebellious, so when I was in the sixth I was sent to Dartington Hall. It was an equally outstanding school but in a very different way. The headmaster was a wise man, the other children were tolerant and I calmed down. I was taught English by a great teacher, Raymond O'Malley, who put me in for the Cambridge entrance a year early as a trial run. I was offered a place: who can forget that telegram?

Taken for Granta: The teaching at Cambridge was more pedestrian than at school. I did most of my work during the vacations in Paris, not so much during term, but I managed a first. How lucky we were as women to get to university then. There were very few of us, fewer than 5 per cent of the country, I think. It was a glittering time at Cambridge: Jonathan Miller, Karl Miller, Mark Boxer, Peter Hall and Joan Bakewell. I met Nick Tomalin [her first husband, killed during the 1973 Yom Kippur war] when he leant out of his window as I was passing and asked if I had any poems for Granta.

Up with school? I enjoyed the whole process of learning and was always happy when autumn came and school or college started up again. Even now I still feel, "Everything's going to be all right - term's starting."

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