Best biographies of 2009: All manner of conflict lurks in these sketches of larger-than-life personas from Dame Vera to Floyd

The 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War has helped along that staple of historical publishing, the "Hitler industry". Among the many books that have nourished this genre are a hefty biography of his confidant, Joseph Goebbels: A Life and Death by Toby Thacker (Palgrave Macmillan, £19.99) and an elegant and well-researched portrait of Americans in Paris: Life and Death Under Nazi Occupation by Charles Glass (HarperPress, £20), chronicling the literati and intelligentsia who stayed there against the odds.

The blockbuster of 2009, though, is Max Hastings' The Finest Years (HarperPress, £25), a muscular volume on Sir Winston Churchill's time as prime minister from 1940-1945. There's no doubt that Hastings is inspired by the great war leader, but the admiration for his military prowess is tempered by excellent research which brings to the fore the misgivings of his contemporaries. Using this as his means of attack, Hastings disentangles the less glorious actualities of the war from the mythology of Sir Winston, a man whose oratory at times seemed more deadly than the Luftwaffe.

I saw Hastings recently, signing his book. He was asking the store attendant at Waterstone's whether he or William Shawcross's new biography of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother (Macmillan, £25) was selling better. It may have just been a petty rivalry between the two popular historians, but it may also have been a gauge as to which national hero most stirred the popular sentiment. It was, according to the attendant, the Queen Mother.

Seven years after her death, her official biographer Shawcross has finished sifting through her extensive archive of letters and brought together a memorial tome that, because of her longevity, is also a history of the 20th century told through the crests and troughs of the British monarchy.

The letters, which he reprints at length, are fascinating as a record of the development of Elizabeth's rise to queenhood, but also the development of a woman. It is rare to find a life documented so well from the interior as well as the exterior, and in some ways her letters can elucidate more than mere biographical details. Her early writing, from a time nursing wounded soldiers staying at Glamis Castle during the First World War, is girlish, filled with ampersands and underlinings, and words written backwards when she is talking about boys who had caught her eye. That straightens itself into formal, if slightly melodramatic language, as Elizabeth marries into the Royal Family and counsels and sympathises with them through the abdication crisis. Her style ultimately develops in her finely written recollections of the Second World War, which in turn signal her rise to the status of mother of the nation. If anything, Shawcross's biography is there to reassure us that our love of the Queen Mother was not misplaced.

In a very different tune, the 92-year-old Dame Vera Lynn issued the second volume of her memoirs, Some Sunny Day (HarperCollins, £18.99), this year. To those who don't recall, her first rendition came out 40 years ago, but time has not dimmed British affection for the wartime sweetheart. Indeed, this was also the year that "We'll Meet Again" topped the charts (albeit in album form) for the second time. Her story – born in Essex, playing the East End music halls as a child, and hitting the new boom industry of radio in the late 1930s – is told in a chirpy but modest voice. At one point she notes that she had to buy a car to get her back from her musical engagements, making her one of a handful of women in Britain who drove in the late 1930s. There's barely a beat on how exceptional she is, but instead a few nice details on black-out etiquette for car headlights. It's a brilliant tale of hard work, patriotism and bearing the weight of a nation's love.

Dame Vera and the Queen Mother are both hallowed in 20th-century culture and, as such, there may be some veiling of truths to keep their reputations pure. For a vital account of being a woman in the 20th century, one can turn to Diana Athill. Aged 92, she has released Life Class (Granta, £25), a selection of her memoirs that chronicle the growth of a woman from a privileged childhood of horses and country estates to a middle-class existence in Andrew Deutsch's publishing house and love affairs, to a late contemplation on old age. The prose is breathtaking, and the honesty exhilarating.

Something that makes a good memoir is a sense of a life lived with gusto. Athill has it. So too does Keith Floyd, the man who became the first celebrity chef. His memoirs are sporadic, wild, fun, like talking to a drunk at the end of the night, with a fog of cigarette smoke and tragedy in the air. A tumultuous personal life, vast riches, even vaster spending, and a love-hate relationship with fame all surface through Stirred but Not Shaken (Sidgwick & Jackson, £18.99). In between sips of his preferred tipple of whisky, Floyd reveals himself as a man for whom the media was almost an amusing accident that got out of control. His true love was his cooking. As a footnote, Floyd died in September this year, just before his memoirs were published. He had been celebrating getting the all-clear from cancer that day with a hearty lunch of oysters and partridge, a bon viveur to the last meal.

Two other bon viveurs were subjects of biographies this year. One was of the Tory MP Alan Clark, by Ion Trewin (Weidenfeld, £25), who had previously edited Clark's riotously indiscreet diaries. One wonders what a biography could add to Clark's own writings, which were filled with more self-criticism than even a hostile critic could manage. What Trewin does is pull together a comprehensive picture of Clark, the renegade politician, the philandering yet hopelessly faithful husband and the vain but vulnerable man, and finds the legacy beyond the diaries. It may not have the style of Clark's writing, but it does put some substance into the Clark swagger.

The other bon viveur is Charles II, about whom Jenny Uglow has written a classically brilliant biography, A Gambling Man (Faber, £25). Examining the first 10 years of his rule, which marked the Restoration of the monarchy, Uglow portrays a double-edged king, one who was given the soubriquet "the merry monarch" for the return of pomp and finery to the Royal Court, the other a man who had used pragmatism and dark politics to secure the nation, and his own throne at the head of it.

Finally, it is rare that a biography of a Belgian makes it across the Channel, so an honourable mention must go to Pierre Assouline's volume Hergé: The Man Who Created Tintin (OUP USA, £16.99). Born George Remi in Brussels, a young man who doodled his way through school eventually reversed his initials to come up with his pen name and landed a slot doing cartoons on a news- paper. And thus Hergé and Tintin were born. Assouline researches in meticulous detail and draws together the lives of the fictional character and his creator. An intriguing biography and, if nothing else, one learns a lot about Belgium.

Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tv
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
music
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
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.

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
    There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

    In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

    The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

    It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
    The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

    Staying connected: The King's School

    The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
    Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

    Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

    Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

    The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
    Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

    When two worlds collide

    Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?