Every season a couple of wonderful biographies emerge whose reviews and sales might lead one to believe that they will stay bestsellers for ever. A year or two later they are in no greater demand than thousands of other backlist titles. Examples of this might be Amanda Foreman’s Georgiana or David Gilmour’s Curzon. Both were rightly acclaimed, but after the flurry of reviews, after Christmas had come and gone, they joined others on the shelves as definitive works on rather specialized subjects whose future sales will be steady, but modest. This is not to derogate the books: it is just what happens.
There is another type of book, which may not have made such a splash in the media on publication but which a bookseller is likely to keep within reach of the till for a quick response to the question, ‘Can you recommend a good biography?’ Such books may be personal favourites and they are liable also to be more personal in content. They probably won’t depend on any extraneous knowledge for enjoyment. At one extreme might be The Last Leopard (David Gilmour again), a superb biography of Lampedusa that makes vivid the inner drama of a writer’s life. At the other end lies perhaps Joe Simpson’s Touching the Void, the story of a mountaineering accident in the Andes whose drama turns on a harrowing dilemma.
Somewhere along the scale lie Axel Munthe’s The Story of San Michele and books by a tough, self-sufficient sisterhood of plucky women: The Past Is Myself (Christabel Bielenberg), A Mother’s War (Fey von Hassell), The House by the Dvina (Eugenie Fraser), and The Berlin Diaries (‘Missie’ Vassiltchikov). My own clear favourite in this group is Christine Sutherland’s The Princess of Siberia. As a well-researched historical biography, it has the authority of good history, but its brilliance lies in the personal nature of its focus, its skilful unpicking of
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