Best biography books for Christmas

Boyd Tonkin
Friday 11 December 2009 01:00 GMT

For years now, critics and commentators (such as this one) have been predicting the demise of the full-dress literary biography as strong subjects run out, sales slip and attention spans decline. So what happened in 2009? Against all the trends, the form flourished. Authoritative, but still fluently readable, lives of era-defining voices tumbled from the presses.

"I want to hear about the shortcomings of great men," gloats the biographer figure - a fictionalised version of Humphrey Carpenter – in Alan Bennett's new play The Habit of Art. But a quartet of the finest lives did much more, tracing with subtlety and insight the connections between authors' personal conflicts, and the drive to refine the art that made sense of their, and our, fractured existence. John Carey's William Golding: the man who wrote Lord of the Flies (Faber, £25); Blake Bailey's [John] Cheever: a life (Picador, £25); Selina Hastings's The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham (John Murray, £25), and Martin Stannard's Muriel Spark: the biography (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25) all proved at robust length that this genre can deliver not just the facts but the meaning of a creative career. Biographers still excel, but will readers follow them in the numbers the genre urgently needs?

Further back in the canon, anniversaries prompted two lively, learned accounts of often misinterpreted lives. Robert Burns, lent renewed vitality in Robert Crawford's The Bard (Cape, £20), and the legendary subject of David Nokes's Samuel Johnson: a life (Faber, £25), between them trademarked our idea of literary celebrity. Both books find the man behind the myths, and offer a clear-sighted, deeply informed view of the cultural marketplace that sold their fame.

Biography, and indeed intellectual history, always benefits from a radical re-think. No book did that more deliciously this year than Logicomix: an epic search for truth by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos H Papadimitriou (artwork by Alecos Papadatos and Annie di Donna; Bloomsbury, £16.99). To choose a graphic-novel format for the life and thought not only of Bertrand Russell himself but his colleagues and rivals in the re-foundation of mathematics and philosophy sounds like utter hubris, but the book is a triumph, its words, ideas and images gloriously in sync. But then connoisseurs have long known that comic-book narration may have hidden depths. Pierre Assouline, in Hergé: the man who created Tintin (translated by Charles Ruas; Oxford, £16.99), fashions a succinct, illuminating and doggedly researched investigation of the famous or - after his wartime collaboration - infamous Belgian.

To dramatise the lives of thinkers who dwell so much in the interior will always challenge biographers. Sometimes the external career, full of action, will offer a fair wind, as in The Frock-Coated Communist (Allen Lane, £25), Tristram Hunt's richly rounded portrait of Friedrich Engels: Marx's sidekick and patron, Manchester mill baron, keeper of mistresses and master of foxhounds, the would-be gravedigger of his own class, and of all the privileges that he enjoyed.

When, however, a philosopher thinks in isolation, from the received wisdom of his age as much as from the busy world, then biography has a peak to climb. In History Man (Princeton, £23.95), Fred Inglis scales it in style, reviving the reputation of the great idealist maverick RG Collingwood – a contemporary of Bertrand Russell, but pretty much his opposite. From his native Lake District through Oxford, Italy, Greece and Java, Collingwood's sacred places – as a sailor and an archaeologist as much as an academic - helped to mould his ideas about the living past. Inglis brings both outer and inner landscapes winningly to life.

The lives of quick-witted witnesses on the edge of great events continue to raise the spirits of biography. That means, for most of human history, clever women of a status high enough to leave traces behind. The 18th century swarmed with them. Caroline Moorehead's Dancing to the Precipice (Chatto & Windus, £20) rescued Lucie de la Tour du Pin, the adventurous Irish-French aristocrat turned diarist of Revolution, terror and exile, from the condescension of posterity. Mary Eleanor Bowes, heiress and heroine of Wendy Moore's Wedlock (Phoenix, £8.99), faced not the guillotine but – arguably worse – a swindling bully of a husband and Georgian England's barbaric marriage laws. Her survival makes for a grimly uproarious journey.

In his double anniversary year, Charles Darwin garnered a whole new shelf of studies. The most original included Adrian Desmond and James Moore's Darwin's Sacred Cause (Allen Lane, £25), which not only rooted his horror of slavery and devotion to fraternity in family history, but challenged the distortion of his thought by racists. Ruth Padel's Darwin: a life in poems (Chatto & Windus, £12.99) seized on key moments from the life and work of the poet's ancestor. Nimbly and seamlessly, her verse also managed to include revealing extracts from Darwin's own ever-eloquent prose.

Elsewhere, no scientific life supplied richer food for thought than Graham Farmelo's The Strangest Man (Faber, £22.50). Here the spiky personality and soaring achievements of quantum-physics pioneer Paul Dirac converge, without the petty reductionism that often, and rightly, offends biography sceptics. Never blind to the shortcomings, Farmelo – like all the brightest of his trade - gives us the greatness too.

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