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
Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker and Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham
Downton

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

art
Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised

art
Arts and Entertainment

Review: Series 5, episode 4 Downton Abbey
Arts and Entertainment

Music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
    Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

    How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

    'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

    Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

    Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
    Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

    Terry Venables column

    Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
    The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

    Michael Calvin's Inside Word

    Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past