Biography: Consuming Struggle is a rare definitive work

Miranda Seymour, one of the Whitbread judges, gives her verdict

Ask most book-buyers and they'll tell you prizes are a good thing. Read the newspapers and you'll find yourself being told - yet again, and always by one of the judges - that literary prizes are a disgrace. The reason for their ire, more often than not, is that their personal favourite failed to win. I think prizes call attention to important books and help them sell. Of course, in a good year, it seems hard that one book should be preferred, but that's no reason to do away with the prizes.

To come clean about my interest, I'm one of the Whitbread judges this year. So far, each of the three biography judges has whittled their personal choice down to three or four books. So far, I'm impressed by their impartiality. Two weeks on, with the final choice made, I may be waxing as indignant as AN Wilson. But I doubt it.

1996 has been a good year for biographies, notably in the historical field. John Ehrmann brought a lifetime's work on Pitt the Younger to a triumphant conclusion with his magnificent and astonishingly rich The Consuming Struggle (Constable, pounds 35). Handsomely produced, and written with the wisdom and insight of a man who has lived for 30 years with his subject, Ehrmann's is one of the few books which can unblushingly claim to be definitive. No 18th-century buff can afford to be without it.

Flora Fraser, who clearly has a fondness for headstrong women, has progressed from the wayward Emma Hamilton to the odious George IV's promiscuous and impetuous Queen Caroline. An accomplished historian with an eye for a good story, she kicks off with a harrowing, seamlessly researched account of the scene which used to reduce me to howls as a child, of poor Queen Caroline being turned away from her husband's coronation. The Unruly Queen (Macmillan, pounds 20), is popular history at its best, beautifully written, elegantly constructed and, tempting though it must have been, not a murmur about the modern parallels.

Diarmaid MacCulloch's Thomas Crammer (Yale, pounds 29.95) is a massive, powerful and unexpectedly moving reappraisal of the man whose position as the patron saint of the English language (we have Crammer to thank for the Book of Common Prayer) has often been overshadowed by his dramatic last-minute recantation before being burned at the stake. Drawing on a hoard of previously unstudied material, MacCulloch never lets it overwhelm him. This is a model biography, wise, revealing and wholly absorbing.

In the philosophy corner, we have The Spirit Of Solitude (Cape, pounds 25) the first volume of Ray Monk's life of Bertrand Russell. It is, astonishingly, the first time his life has been tackled by a philosopher, and Monk succeeds brilliantly. Nobody can make Russell wholly loveable - the man was, in his personal life, something of a monster - but Monk allows us to understand him and offers an original and plausible approach to the more erratic aspects of his character.

John Clay's RD Laing (Hodder, pounds 20) is a memorable account of another monster, a man who devoted a meteoric career to the study of madness and who, in the sixties, became the guru of the campuses. Laing's biographer makes a convincing case for seeing his fascination with insanity as stemming from a nightmarish Glasgow childhood with an unbalanced mother. His accounts of Laing's reckless experiments with drugs, and with his patients, make for hair-raising reading.

Literary biographies usually outweigh the competition by sheer volume - and size. This year is no exception.

Hermione Lee's long-awaited biography of Virginia Woolf (Chatto & Windus, pounds 20), big enough to act as a plinth for a smallish statue, replaces any lingering notions of Mrs Woolf as a fastidious outsider with its finely- researched presentation of her as a passionate feminist, politically aware and committed to changing public attitudes. Lee has shelved conventional narrative structure to focus on the most significant aspects of Woolf. Subsidiary characters tend to suffer from this approach, but it pays off in the magnificent sections she devotes to Woolf's various homes, to her madness, and to her suicide.

Ann Thwaite, a poet's wife, demurely hints in her introduction to a monumental life of Emily Tennyson (Faber & Faber, pounds 20) that she knows a little of what Emily might have endured. Emily has been overlooked for years as a sickly invalid who lived for housekeeping and her husband's Art. Thwaite's labour of love uncovers a more heroic and passionate figure, whose unswerving devotion to her demanding Alfred was matched by a spiritual faith of unusual intensity. This is a moving addition to the growing corpus of Lives of Wives, and a valuable contribution to Tennysoniana.

Ford Maddox Ford: A Dual Life (OUP, pounds 35) concludes Max Saunders' persuasive and immensely authoritative account of a man who has, for far too long, been overshadowed by his bitchy and thankless proteges, notably, Ernest Hemingway. Saunders brings Ford out of the shadows and shows his lumbering, philandering silver-tongued subject as one of the formative influences on twentieth-century writing.

Rosemary Ashton is devoutly to be thanked for giving us in George Eliot (Hamish Hamilton, pounds 25) scholarship worn as lightly as a feather crown. She has already written illuminatingly on Eliot's witty, supportive companion, G.F. Lewes; here, she shows the same happy mixture of elegance and good judgement. This is a book which could be read as enjoyably by a newcomer to Eliot's life as by an expert.

Of the two new biographies of Samuel Beckett, I have a sneaking preference for the livelier and more approachable style of Anthony Cronin's Samuel Beckett (Harper Collins, pounds 25). Cronin's eye for the telling detail brings his witty, complex subject vividly before us, but authorised biographer James Knowlson's Damned To Fame (Bloomsbury pounds 25), is more skilled at showing the subtle interplay between Beckett's life and his work.

Knowlson demonstrates, with resounding success, how intensely Beckett's memories of an Irish upbringing influenced all of his subsequent writing. Still, Beckett, the master of brevity, might have smiled to find himself the subject of 892 closely-printed pages. There's a certain irony in that.

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl

First look at Oscar winner as transgender artistfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month

TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel

film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island

Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Arts and Entertainment
A life-size sculpture by Nick Reynolds depicting singer Pete Doherty on a crucifix hangs in St Marylebone church
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Escalating tension: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Blackhat’
filmReview: Chris Hemsworth stars as a convicted hacker in Blackhat
Arts and Entertainment

Oscar voter speaks out

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars race for Best Picture will be the battle between Boyhood and Birdman

Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)
tvReview: Wolf Hall
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Meighan of Kasabian collects the Best Album Award
Arts and Entertainment
Best supporting stylist: the late L’Wren Scott dressed Nicole Kidman in 1997
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey


Arts and Entertainment
Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor)
tv occurred in the crucial final scene
Arts and Entertainment
Glasgow wanted to demolish its Red Road flats last year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower