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.