London, Jan. 29: It was the wife who came 1up trumps on the night. Claire Tomalin, the red hot favourite, beat her husband, Michael Frayn, to win the £30,000 Whitbread Book of the Year award yesterday.
The pair, who married in 1993 and are one of literary London’s most celebrated couples, had found themselves in the unique position of being pitched against each other on the shortlist for a major literary prize.
Tomalin, 69, was 5-4 favourite for her biography Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self. Frayn, also 69, was second favourite at 5-2 for his wartime novel, Spies.
Before last night’s prize-giving, each had gallantly said they expected and hoped the other would win. They had also predicted some dark looks and awkward words over the breakfast table this morning.
Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye and chairman of the judges, said: “We were not allowed to share the prize so that there was no ‘aah, they are married’.”
He said no blood was spilled over the decision and that Tomalin won “by an overwhelming majority”. Had the biography of Pepys not been shortlisted, Frayn might have won, he confessed.
Though Pepys has been the subject of several biographies in the last dozen years, Tomalin took a new approach to the 17th century diaries, revealing his personal side — his marriage, the man who preyed on innocent girls and his financial and political ambitions.
Hislop said Tomalin had “filled in the gaps wonderfully”.
He added: “It’s quite a romp. It’s already a bestseller so I don’t think Whitbread is doing it a big favour.”
Tomalin, the third woman to win the prize, said before the ceremony: “I would be thrilled to win but I suppose, being a woman, what I really think is that I would be very pleased if Michael won.”
Tomalin did not write her first book until she was 40. Previously, she had been dogged by tragedy.
She had five children with her first husband, war reporter Nick Tomalin. One died aged one month, another was born with spina bifida, her husband was killed by a Syrian rocket on the Golan Heights, and another daughter committed suicide.