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?



A Book Gift: The Paying Guests

As per the rules of getting married, I had a wedding shower. And it was so beautiful. My mom and my maid of honour and my sisters did such an amazing job. I was completely spoiled rotten too.

Amongst the pots and pans, kitchen utensils, towels and stemware (all of which was gorgeous) there was a bag that contained a pair of mugs and a book each for my husband-to-be and me. This friend knows us well. He got a book about hockey and I got Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests.

This week I finally read it!

paying guests

The Paying Guests is the story of Frances Wray. It is 1922 and she and her mother need to rent out a portion of their home in order to be able to keep it. Both of her brothers died in the war and her father was killed from the shock and heartbreak of the loss. After his death, Frances and her mother discovered he had made a lot of bad investments and so eventually, they rent out a set of rooms to Leonard and Lillian Barber.

The Barbers are a young married couple of the clerk class. Leonard works in assurance and spends his days in London while Lillian stays at home decorating their new home. Despite her best efforts not to get involved in the lives of the lodgers, Frances strikes up a friendship with the lonely Lillian and soon they are sharing their burdens with each other: Lillian confesses that she only married Len because there was a baby on the way and Frances admits that she had been in love once, was about to give everything up for her love but after her father died, she couldn’t leave her mother. Oh, and her love was a woman, Christina.

The novel is split into three parts. I’m not sure that I’ve ever been so aware of the distinct parts of a novel before. The first part is a novel of manners. Frances and her mother judging the renters for being of a different class to them while Frances does all the housework and her mother complains about how it must all look to the neighbours. We meet Lillian’s family and can see that they are very different from the Wrays – noisy, numerous and unconcerned about appearances. The second part is a romance as Frances and Lillian fall in love, attempt to keep their relationship and secret and make plans for leaving their current situation and striking out on their own. Surprisingly, the third part is a murder mystery.

I found myself really enjoying the first two thirds of the novel. I was intrigued by the relationship that Frances had with Christina and the one she was now enjoying with Lillian. The social structures of the time, added an element of sadness to the relationship, their having to hide who they were made me sad.

Then we get to the section of the novel that has a murder and the outfall of the murder. I normally love a murder mystery but there was no mystery since as the reader, we knew exactly what happened. This section felt drawn out with too many back and forth visits, a whole slew of brand new characters, and a nervous breakdown that just seemed really out of character. A friend reading at the same time told me she felt like the novel got a bit farcical and once I got there, I kind of agree.

So while I think this novel could have lost about 100 pages, I still enjoyed it. The whole thing was wrapped up quite nicely and there’s no denying that Sarah Waters knows what she’s doing; it was a beautifully written novel. The main cast of characters (that is, the ones that were in play before the murder section) were wonderfully detailed and felt like they could have been actual people. I just…those last 150 pages were tough going and it was mostly relief that I could start something new that I felt once I finished.