Books of the year 2014: The best biographies

From Andrew Roberts's Napoleon the Great to the dysfunctional relationship between Tennessee Williams and his mother in Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh

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The Independent Culture

It's been a good year for revisiting old friends and one old foe. Andrew Roberts's Napoleon the Great (Allen Lane, £30) is a remarkable achievement: using primary sources and a new edition of 33,000 of the emperor's letters, he brings Bony dazzlingly back to life. We follow him on his meteoric rise, from his modest birth in 1769 to his glittering coronation, and accompany him on the battlefields (Roberts walked 53 of them) and finally to his exile and death.

Napoleon's great successes (his military genius; his enlightened reforms) and failures (the hubris that drew him into Russia) are well known, but it is the human details that seem so fresh here: Josephine's black stumps for teeth; the omelette Bony ate on his way to Austerlitz and the post-mortem that revealed his cancerous stomach filled with a dark substance "resembling coffee grounds".

Queen Victoria ruled over a nation still reeling from the Napoleonic wars. But in Victoria: A Life (Atlantic, £25), A N Wilson treats the revolutionary politics of her reign with a light touch, devoting equal space to her "fissiparous feuds" with her family, and drawing out the unexpected wit of this fascinating woman. He is particularly good on her early widowhood ("a sleepwalk of psychological torture"), her diet (she poured whisky into her claret – no wonder she had a fall) and her death (she was buried wearing the wedding ring of John Brown's mother). There's not much new material here but Wilson serves up his stories with waspish relish.

The aristocratic writer and gardener Vita Sackville-West was born at the end of the Victorian age and Matthew Dennison's enjoyable biography, Behind the Mask (William Collins, £25), shows her determined to break free of the shackles placed on women of her generation. From an early age, Vita ("Kidlet") was inclined to cross-dressing, and Dennison wisely balances the sensational details of her lesbian romances with serious analysis of her novels and poems. His astute reading of her marriage to the homosexual Harold Nicholson is that it allowed them to be "child-like together". I enjoyed his account of the creation of Sissinghurst, while his colourful tales of Vita's rows with her unstable mother left me marvelling at their melodrama.

But surely no familial relationship could be as dysfunctional as that between Tennessee Williams and his mother, Miss Edwina, the model for so many of his female characters. In Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh (Bloomsbury, £30), John Lahr describes Edwina as "a narrative event", a woman who talked so incessantly and who was so sexually repressed that she drove her daughter, Rose, mad and – Williams claimed – both her sons gay. Along with his abusive father – who called Tennessee "Miss Nancy" – Williams's family acted as his "own repertory company". Lahr shows us how Williams's promiscuity and violent sexual relationships also fed into his drama. The book is a thrilling roller-coaster ride from its opening act to the tragic last scene, with Williams lying dead on the floor of a New York hotel room, his bloated body finally overwhelmed by drink, drugs and sadness.

Philip Larkin also liked a drink, and his beautiful bittersweet poems were fuelled by alcohol and melancholy. James Booth's Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love (Bloomsbury, £25) sets out to review the poet's reputation as a racist misogynist which has lingered since Andrew Motion's 1993 biography. He does a good job of putting Larkin's more unpalatable comments into historic context, and the man who emerges is brilliant, funny and kind. The words of his late poem, "Aubade", are a bleak reminder of "the dread/Of dying, and being dead" which he felt so keenly, and yet here, through biography, he lives on.

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