A List of Biographies You Should Read

Last month I posted about a biography of Princess Charlotte and Prince Leopold, noting that it had closed a gap that I had in my knowledge of English Royals. Soon thereafter I read Ambition and Desire, a biography of Josephine Bonaparte and told you that it was one of the most perfect biographies that I had ever read.

Both posts garnered a number of comments asking me for recommendations of this sort. There seems to be an idea out there that reading biographies is slow, that most biographies are boring.

I would disagree. Wholeheartedly. Since it’s the holiday season and you may be looking for titles for the biography lover on your list, or you are looking for books to add to your own list, I offer you a list of some of my very favourite biographies.

A couple of years ago I wrote a post about biographies that I loved about famous women. I still stand by those so there’s no need to rehash them here.

For those looking for an unusual Royal, I would recommend Lucinda Hawksley’s The Mystery of Princess Louise. One of Queen Victoria’s daughters, she was the first to receive an education away from palace tutors, travelled all over the world and made friends in unlikely places through her work as a sculptor. She agitated for women’s rights, became the first royal to marry a “commoner” and may have had an illegitimate child. Princess Louise was ahead of her time in many many ways and Hawksley’s adept handling of the story makes for an entertaining read.

If you are looking to cover a gaggle of royals in one go, try Flora Fraser’s Princesses: The Six Daughters of George III. Their brothers and their niece, one Princess Victoria that was, have long overshadowed them but Fraser brings Charlotte, Augusta, Elizabeth, Mary, Sophia and Amelia back out of the shadows. Born at at time when daughters were only as good as the princes you could marry them to, these women suffered because of their father’s madness. None of them married young, living fairly sheltered lives under their parents. Which doesn’t sound like a very interesting read but it is. It’s more of a personal story of the life of these women at court, at a time when their brothers were the only children worth anything. I took this book out of the library when I read it and I’ve always regretted not owning a copy.

If living under the strict rules that govern a King’s court, isn’t your jam, perhaps you will enjoy Five Sisters: The Langhornes of Virginia by James Fox more. It’s the story of the beautiful Langhorne sisters, who were the creme de la creme of society from the end of the Civil War through WWII. Lizzie, Irene, Nancy, Phyllis and Nora were born to a Virginian family who’s fortunes were destroyed by the Civil War and ended up making their way across two continents, leaving fame, husbands and massive fortunes in their wake. One married Waldorf Astor and became Britain’s first female MP; another was the model for the Gibson Girl. Their lives spanned an incredible time in history and they were in the middle of it all.

Maybe a fashion biography is more your thing. If so, I would recommend Axel Madsen’s Chanel: A Woman of Her Own. I have very fond memories of reading this in the sunshine at my in-laws’. Coco Chanel did things her own way. She marketed herself as an orphan but actually she was raised by her aunt with her sister. At a young age she went to the big city to make her fortune, but it wasn’t until she got a capital infusion from a wealthy young man that she was able to become the Chanel that we are familiar with today. Chanel created her own legend but Madsen is able to show you what really happened.

I don’t usually read biographies about men but there are, of course, exceptions to prove the rule. Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl by Donald Sturrock was one of the exceptions. I adored Dahl’s books as a kid (Matilda was my favourite but I remember being blown away by Boy when I realized it was more than just a story, these things had really happened to him) but I never knew much about him. Sturrock told me everything and it’s not always a pretty picture. The man responsible for some of your favourite childhood tales hated that he found success writing for children – he always felt his adult work to be superior. In his lifetime he was called a racist, a misogynist and an anti-Semite. His romances were numerous, his marriage was turbulent, he was a pilot in the RAF and worked in intelligence. In short, he was everything you never could have expected from the mind that brought you Willy Wonka.

If stars of the silver screen are what you’re after, I’d recommend J. Randy Taraborrelli’s Elizabeth or Marilyn (he’s also written a book each about the Kennedys and the Hiltons – I haven’t read them but I want to!). Both are exquisitely rendered portraits of some the most famous women in the world. I also loved Ava Gardner: Love is Nothing by Lee Server. Ava Gardner was something else. I remember reading this, knowing very little going in, and coming away feeling like I knew her. She was irreverent, sexy and didn’t suffer fools gladly. Delightful.

I have a number of biography type books that are on my own Christmas list this year. A.N. Wilson’s Victoria: A Life; The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra by Helen Rappaport; In Triumph’s Wake: Royal Mothers, Tragic Daughters and the Price They Paid for Glory by Julia P. Gelardi; and Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History by Rhonda K. Garelick. There’s also a book about the servants of Queen Victoria that I need to get my hands on!

OK that went on a lot longer than I meant for it to! If you read all the way to here, thanks for sticking it out. Now, what’s your favourite biography?


15 thoughts on “A List of Biographies You Should Read

  1. I completely agree: there is nothing boring about biographies! I’m reading Those Wild Wyndhams by Claudia Renton right now. It won the 2014 Slightly Foxed Best First Biography Prize and appears to have been a well-deserved win. It is wonderful. A.A. Milne by Ann Thwaite is a personal favourite, as is anything by Robert K. Massie. Jenny Uglow’s biography of Elizabeth Gaskell made me wish Gaskell and I could have been best friends, and Mary S. Lovell’s The Sisters started off my fascination with the Mitfords. Nope, nothing boring here! (BTW, have you read Jane Riley’s Bertie? It’s excellent and fits nicely in with your interest in Royalty.)

    • Massie is a fantastic biographer and I loved Lovell’s bio of the Mitfords! Have you read her book on the Churchills?? So good. I’m going to look into all those other ones you mentioned! I love Elizabeth Gaskell’s books, I keep meaning to read about her! Thanks!

  2. I’m not typically a biography person, mainly because I’m one of the people you mentioned who assumes they’re slow, but these sound great! I have a Zelda Fitzgerald biography waiting patiently to me read, too! I need to give them another chance.

    • I think a Zelda Fitzgerald biography would be extremely interesting and entertaining. If for no other reason than all the name dropping that’s sure to happen.

      You just need to find the biographers that are really good at laying out a life in a way that reads more like a novel. And there are lots of them out there.

  3. I love this post! What an awesome list. I really want to read the Romanov biography as well. Have you read Unbroken? that’s a biography no one could call boring. I really want to try David McCullough’s books too when I need some American history.

    • I haven’t read Unbroken but it’s one of my husband’s favourite books. I was looking for it the other day to read it and apparently he leant it to a colleague and…well you know how that ends.

      I haven’t read a ton of American history – although The President’s Club was fantastic and anything about the Kennedys is like crack. I have the book that Lincoln the movie was based on but haven’t read it yet. I want to read her other one, The Bully Pulpit about Teddy Roosevelt but should probably give the Lincoln one a go first!

  4. I so rarely read biographies, but I don’t know why. I can only say that it is the same reason I rarely read any non-fiction; because I prefer fiction. I love the idea of reading about all these people, though. I would love to learn more about them. All of these ones sound good, especially the ones about the sisters. For some reason, the biographies about sisters appeal to me more than the ones about just one person. I would have thought I’d like to read one about Dahl, but now I think I will pass on it. I’m just going to pretend I didn’t read that paragraph.
    Your list makes me think it would be fun to challenge myself to read some biographies!

    • hahahaha if reading about what a douche canoe he could be will turn you off his work, then maybe give it a pass.

      I’m with you on sister biographies. They are fantastic. Mary S. Lovell wrote a fantastic one about the Mitfords. And I will always push for people to read Born to Rule (although that one is about cousins). Sister dynamics are fascinating to begin with and when you add the time they lived in and piles of money…there’s nothing better.

  5. Great list! I used to read so many biographies, but have strayed away. Maybe next year I should start reading more and this is a great place to start.

    • The looming start of a new year is always a good time to think about what you’ve been reading and make changes if you want. I tried to read more classics this year but I’ve kind of failed at that. I think I want to read more non-fiction next year too. Putting together this list has made me think of all the non-fiction I still want to read!

  6. Last one I read was of George Eliot. I have to say that I find the childhood part of biography often the most fascinating, because in a way that seems to set the character and subsequent actions of the subject of the biog. A good biography written in the right voice almost seems like a friend coming over to gossip.

    • Oh George Eliot would be a good one. Do you remember the title?

      I feel the EXACT same way! I love the childhood portions of biographies the most. And you’re also right that the good ones are like friends coming to gossip. If more people looked at biographies like that, I think they’d be more willing to give them a chance.

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