Biographies of the year: Quirky lives pushed to the margins as publishers go for gold

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IT’S inevitable, perhaps, that a certain strand of non-fiction is determined utterly by events in a calendar year.

So it is with a section of biography in 2012 – the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens, the Queen’s Golden Jubilee and the London Olympics all collided to produce a slew of, in some cases, very rashly written books.

It all raises the question of how much we’re at the mercy of events. Arnold Schwarzenegger had already caused a scandal with his affair with a housekeeper, so it was inevitable a smart publisher would persuade him to write about his life (and that it would be titled Total Recall). Simon and Schuster couldn’t have foreseen the weak sales, but I’m sure Jack Straw’s publishers had a good idea that their memoirist would stir up a hornet’s nest with his thoughts about Gordon Brown in Last Man Standing: Memoirs of a Political Survivor (Macmillan, £20). Edwina Currie’s second volume of diaries didn’t pack the punch of the first but, oh my, the fuss Lady Colin Campbell stirred up in The Untold Life of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother (Dynasty Press, £20). There’s reacting to a storm, then there’s creating one. Some are simply superb at the latter.

Literary biographies tend to fare less well in the “shocks” category, perhaps a good thing. Joanne Hodgkin started the year with a lovely exploration of her mother’s marriage to Lawrence Durrell in Amateurs in Eden: The Story of a Bohemian Marriage (Virago, £20). With all its difficulty and betrayal, this was still a remarkable relationship and will hopefully have renewed people’s interest in Durrell’s work. Alice Kessler-Harris’s biography of Lillian Hellman – A Difficult Woman: the Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman (Bloomsbury, £25) – was almost an antithesis to Hodgkin’s, eschewing the personal for the political, with mixed success. John Batchelor’s Tennyson: To Strive, To Seek, To Find (Chatto and Windus, £25), Nicholas Roe’s John Keats: A New Life (Yale UP, £25), Michael Gorra’s Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece (WW Norton, £20), Sue Prideaux’s Strindberg: A Life (Yale UP, £25) and Paul Hendrikson’s Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life and Lost (Bodley Head, £20) all vied for the top spot, but a highly acclaimed biography of the late David Foster Wallace, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story by DT Max (Granta, £20) also made a welcome appearance. But the daddy of them all is probably Artemis Cooper’s his Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure (John Murray, £25) – expect that to make a big showing in “books of the year” roundups.

There were some intimate literary memoirs too, like Gerald Hughes’s Ted and I: A Brother’s Memoir (Robson Press, £16.99), Christopher Hitchens’ Mortality (Atlantic, £10.99), Paul Astor’s Winter Journal (Faber, £17.99), Edna O’Brien’s Country Girl (Faber, £20), and Miriam Gross’s An Almost English Life (Short Books, £12.99). David Campbell’s account of Duncan Williamson in the second volume of A Traveller in Two Worlds (Luath, £14.99) helped ensure a national storyteller wasn’t forgotten this year, either. And in letters and diaries, we were well served by the third volume of The Letters of TS Eliot (Faber, £40), Stephen Spender’s New Selected Journals (Faber, £45) and Liberation: Diaries Vol 3 (Chatto & Windus, £30) by Christopher Isherwood.

When celebrities write well, there’s a cross-over effect that takes them into the literary category. A couple of those this year surely include Rupert Everett’s Vanished Years (Little, Brown, £20) and The Richard Burton Diaries (Yale UP, £25). Hunter Davies’s The John Lennon Letters (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, £25) deserve a mention too, as does Neil Young’s Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream (Hutchinson, £25). Lady Pamela Hicks published her memoir, Daughter of Empire: Life as a Mountbatten (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, £20), taking us into an aristocratic category that Downton Abbey is happily still fostering – Kate Hubbard took the “downstairs” route with her Serving Victoria: Life in the Royal Household (Chatto & Windus, £20) and Michael Paterson kept this up with Private Life in Britain’s Stately Homes: Masters and Servants in the Golden Age (Robinson, £8.99).

Royal biographies will always be with us, especially Tudor ones, with accounts this year of Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell, Anne Boleyn, Mary Rose, Catherine Howard, and so on. For those thirsty for Scottish historical biography, though, there is Sarah Fraser’s excellent The Last Highlander (Harper, £20), and a touching account by Linda Randall of the young Scotswoman who married John Ruskin and caused a scandal by running away with his protégé, John Millais, in Effie Gray: Fair Maid of Perth (Melrose Press, £17.99). Julie Davidson’s Looking for Mrs Livingstone (St Andrew Press, £24.99) is a good look at the wife of a great man, and Alexandra Popoff’s The Wives: The Women Behind Russia’s Literary Giants (Pegasus Books, £18.99) is another excellent book in a similar vein.

It’s always interesting to see what bigger publishers will take on, and what the smaller publishers will go for: yes to The last Highlander and Edna O’Brien, but no to Ted Hughes’s brother. Group biographies were notable by their absence this year, and there is a sense that national events crowded out more unusual titles. Next year, devoid of jubilees and rare sporting events, may be more fruitful.