15

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?

 

24

Book rut or bad luck?

I went away for an extended weekend and was so excited to bring a bag full of books with me to read. Days and days worth of uninterrupted reading time? Please. This is the stuff book nerd dreams are made of. I tend to put more thought into what books I’m bringing on any trip than what I will be wearing. Sometimes it’s a plane trip and that kind of reading is going to be vastly different from a car trip. Lake side reading is going to be different from foreign locale reading you know?

Anyway, it’s been quiet around here because I left town and access to internet.

I also feel a little bit like I squandered my reading time with poor book material. It’s not that any of the books I brought were bad but none of them particularly grabbed me and most of the time I was hoping to finish the book I was reading so that I could start something else. This is no way to spend uninterrupted reading time!

When we went away I was in the middle of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth. I was promised that this tale of a young seamstress who falls in love with a rich guy and then gets pregnant by him before she is abandoned was the perfect Victorian novel. And in many ways it was: examination of the class system and the role of women? Check. Characters obsessed with the idea of doing and being good? Check. Idealized portraits of hard lives? Total check. But Ruth lacked any of the spunk or “vigour” that I’ve come to expect from my Victorian heroines and all we’re left with is a crappy life where a woman is punished for something that she definitely didn’t make happen all by herself.

I thought that Philippa Gregory’s The White Princess would probably make excellent holiday reading, it falling firmly in my categorization of “guilty pleasures.”  But it, like its predecessor The Kingmaker’s Daughter, frustrated me with its tale of things happening around a woman. Elizabeth of York is struggling to find her family’s footing in a world with a Tudor on the throne. When Henry VII makes good on his pledge to marry her and unite the warring families, she must figure out where her loyalties lie. But Henry VII is horrible to her, forcing himself on her before they are wed to ensure that she isn’t barren and never trusting that she isn’t trying to screw him and put her family back on the throne. The entire time they are dogged by the ghost of her brother who was supposed to die in the tower. Gregory definitely thinks that it was Henry VII (or his mother) who made the Princes in the Tower disappear. Once again we’re treated to a history lesson of all the battles and men that made history while the women, even Queens, sat at home sewing and popping out babies.

As our holiday was winding down I started reading Sarah Bradford’s Lucrezia Borgia: Life, Love and Death in Renaissance Italy. I had read Bradford’s biography of King George VI and really enjoyed it. I’m still trying to make my way through Lucrezia Borgia and it seems like a case for a Do Not Finish. I have a hard time putting a book aside so this should tell you how much I’m not enjoying it. I think part of the issue is that it’s probably really hard to put together a complete picture of a Renaissance woman; the information available can’t be super complete. But I’m getting really tired of letter fragments and all the things that all the men around her did. If I wanted to read a biography of the Borgia men, I would have picked up a biography of the Borgia men.

The one book that I did manage to enjoy was the Agatha Christie book I brought along, Cat Among the Pigeons. But then when does Mrs. Christie ever disappoint? (Never. The answer is never.)

What do you think? Book rut or bad luck?

21

I exercised zero control at the library!

I’m getting married in just under three months. Let’s just take a moment and think about how insane that is.

Sh*t’s getting real. And expensive. I may or may not have fallen off the book buying ban wagon. I have been exercising zero self control but it’s time to get my butt back to regular library trips.

So I went to the library and it was awesome. Every time I go back to the library after a lengthy absence I’m blown away all over again that all of these wonderful books are available to me for free. There is nothing better than free books.

I wandered around and started grabbing books left and right. Finally, a place where I don’t need to exercise any self control! I never get any of the Speed Reads. I don’t like the pressure. But good lord, if I was ok with that, there are so many books on those shelves that I want. Truly an embarrassment of riches.

This is the point in the blog post where I tell you about the books that I got at the library!

Every time I go, I always get an Agatha Christie. It’s probably official library policy somewhere: when one visits, one must take home one Agatha Christie mystery. This time was no different and I got Cat Among the Pigeons. I’d never heard of this one but the cover was purple and that was enough of a reason for me.

While I was in the Mystery section anyway, I poked my head around the Rs and wouldn’t you know it? Ian Rankin’s Saints of the Shadow Bible was there. Multiple copies! Mine.

Last year I realized that I loved Elizabeth Gaskell. But I thought I had already read all of her work (Cranford, Mary Barton, Wives and Daughter, North and South) but I was wrong! There was still Ruth to love! That too was added to my pile.

When I finished The Kingmaker’s Daughter, I found myself intrigued by The White Princess, despite my best intentions. I didn’t love The Kingmaker’s Daughter but the end was so…unfinished. I knew I’d eventually have to read the follow up. I haven’t come across it at very frequently – it was one book that I knew I wasn’t going to buy. But it was waiting for me at the library this time.

I keep hearing amazing things about The Storied Life of AJ Fikry. I’ve come across it in bookstores and I haven’t bought it. I ended up finding it tucked in among piles of books just returned and decided that it was the perfect time to actually read it. I can’t wait to get to this one.

I’m watching The Borgias with Jeremy Irons on Netflix right now and loving it. There’s a lot of really cool history happening but it’s an era that I’m not familiar with. I don’t know very much about different popes or the kings, dukes and leaders of Italy as it was; Italian history in general actually. The show has made me want to know more and when I found a biography of Lucretzia Borgia (one of my favourite characters on the show) I needed to have it. I suspect that this will be one of those times I’m sad that I didn’t buy the book.

Finally, I grabbed a biography of Queen Anne. I know about as much about the Stuart monarchs as I do about Italian history and I’m looking forward to remedying that.

What do you think of my library haul? Have you read any of them?

8

Why I love reading books by Julia P. Gelardi

I am a disciple of the brilliant Lainey Gossip and she always says that girl sh*t is the best sh*t. What she means is that the kind of gossip that goes down between girls is always the most interesting/fun/hilarious.

(Incidentally Lainey, or Elaine Lui to use her actual name, has a book coming out! Listen to the Squawking Chicken arrives in Canada on April 1st and the US on April 21st. Don’t worry, I already ordered my copy!)

This is true in Hollywood today and 60 years ago (Elizabeth Taylor and Debbie Fisher anyone?) and it was true at the Russian court in the 1800s.

I just finished reading From Splendor to Revolution: Romanov Women 1847-1928 and it was full of girl sh*t.

Julia P. Gelardi has got to be one of the best biographers of famous women. I’ve mentioned it loads of times before, but her book about the five granddaughters of Queen Victoria who all went on to become Queens in their own right, is among my favourite biographies. From Splendor to Revolution is another excellent example of the talent of this woman to take the incredible lives of four women and the times they lived in and break them down into a 389 page book. That’s a tall order.

splendor

The book follows the lives and loves of the Empress Marie Feodorovna (who had been Princess Dagmar of Denmark), and her sisters-in-law Marie Pavlovna (a German princess who married a Russian Grand Duke, also known as Miechen), Marie Alexandrovna (daughter of Alexander II who married Albert, the Duke of Edinburgh and became the Duchess of Coburg), and Olga Constantinovna (a Russian Grand Duchess who married Marie Feodorovna’s brother George who became King George I of Greece, making his wife Queen Olga of Greece).

Did you get all that?

Aside from all the Maries (and Olgas and Alexanders) to keep track of, this book was full of gossip. The Russian court loved to gossip and compete with each other. Marie Feodorovna and Marie Pavlovna did not like each other and things only got worse as Russia headed ever faster towards Revolution. Meanwhile, Marie Alexandrovna, used to the level of status she had in Russia as the daughter of Alexander II, fought her English relations for her level of precedence in their society.

Of course their lives weren’t all about gossip and fighting and the most exquisite jewels; Russia’s Imperial family were living on borrowed time and their Greek relations were no better off. By the time the 1920s rolled around, most Russian royals were living in exile (if they were living at all) while the Greeks made one last attempt at maintaining the throne.

One of the reasons why Gelardi is so adept at making these sprawling biographies of hers so accessible is that she is able to show the human side of history’s personalities. If you look at portraits or photos of these women, you see them covered in the garb of their position, dripping in jewels that don’t seem like they could be real. But when you get the chance to read their letters to each other during one of the most tumultuous epochs of human history, you get to meet the person beneath the crown. Queen Olga was an affectionate and empathetic woman, writing adoring letters to her nephew, the future George V; Marie Alexandrovna was a proud Russian and an involved mother, looking out for the interests of all her daughtes, especially Missy who became Queen Marie of Romania; Marie Pavolvna was an excellent hostess who loved to surround herself with the most glamourous people and in the end was a most loyal mistress; and Empress Marie Feodorovna was incredibly devoted to her husband and her children, and adored by Russia while she shared the throne with Alexander III.

I learned a lot from this one. The period of time covered seems so available because their lives bled into the 20th century – their descendants still exist! They’re not that far removed either. Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, is a grandson of Queen Olga after all.

So that’s another fantastic book about woman from Julia P. Gelardi. Now I just need to get my hands on In Triumph’s Wake: Royal Mothers, Tragic Daughters and the Price They Paid for Glory!

4

Big Books

I’m making my way through another big book. This time it’s Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity. Which actually looks worse than it is. It’s a massive, very heavy hardcover absolutely crammed full of information. But while the page numbers run well past 900, once you factor in all the notes and the bibliography, it’s only 700 pages of actual reading.

The same could not be said for Les Miserables, because my copy did not have any notes. I read all 1202 of those pages.

Because I have a goal of the amount of books that I read every year, I tend to shy away from tackling really big books. The thinking is that taking time on those books will hurt my chances of achieving my goal. (One year I was one book short of my goal and I was super sad about it.) I clearly also have terrible memories of taking 3 weeks to get through Daniel Deronda.

But I digress.

I’ve been working at 2 very intimidating looking books in a fairly short amount of time and, as we’re all aware, people like to comment on reading material. Especially if they also fancy themselves readers (I’m afraid that I have a rather lofty impression of what actually constitutes a reader). Aside from the “whoa that’s a big book” comments, what I’m hearing most often is that they would never read a book that big.

And I’m left wondering why that is?

Don’t you ever finish with a book and wish that there was more to it? Big books have more!

Don’t you ever feel like maybe the book was wrapped up too quickly, like they ran out of space? Big books do not do that. They wrap up perfectly in their own sweet time.

You could argue that big books are heavier and you don’t want to lug them around. I’d be inclined to agree with you today – Far From the Tree is a heavy mofo. But with ereaders as popular as they are, there’s no reason for you not to attempt to read War and Peace (there shouldn’t be any pages missing anyway) or Anna Karenina or Middlemarch.

Are long books always classics? No – there are plenty of recent books that are long too. I just can’t think of any… biographies can be long! The Queen Mother’s biography was massive. But then, she did live until she was 102 so that was a lot of life to cover. I know that you can get a 3-volume biography of Winston Churchill as well. But that’s broken up into sections.

What’s my point here?

Don’t be afraid of long books! Sometimes they are the very best ones.