Scotsman Books of the Year: Non-fiction

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Lesley McDowall talks us through her choices for non-fiction books of the year

The economic downturn has hit publishing hard, and one consequence is that publishers are playing it safe especially when it comes to fiction by women. Tudor romances in the style of Philippa Gregory, “chick-lit” for sad singletons, yummy mummies and any other female stereotype, or a combination of vampires, courtesy of Stephanie Meyer, dominate, and many fiction writers are finding their work turned down for reasons of the “marketplace” – publishers may like their novels but can’t be sure of selling them.

It’s been something of a given, though, that non-fiction does not suffer in quite the same way. Do we see evidence of exciting and controversial new work in the biography section? A superficial perusal of this year’s biographies would seem to suggest that, sadly, it’s been playing safe, too. Now that writers like Alison Weir and Suzannah Dunn are following Gregory’s lead when it comes to Tudor historical romance, so the historical biography sector is awash with Tudor kings and queens, Tudor wives and servants. It’s the era that just keeps giving.

Last year saw Alison Weir paying true to her historian’s roots with Mary Boleyn: The Great and Infamous Whore (Cape, £20), a biography about Anne Boleyn’s sister, who was also Henry VIII’s mistress. But biographers are not just channelling Gregory’s success (and some more explicitly than others – Elizabeth Norton’s Margaret Beaufort: Mother of the Tudor Dynasty, Amberley, £9.99, about the mother of Henry VII and grandmother of Henry VIII, actually references Gregory’s novel on its cover with the words “The true story of The Red Queen”). Thomas Penn produced Winter King: The Dawn of Tudor England (Allen Lane, £20) about the intrigues of Henry VII’s court, and John Cooper considered Elizabeth I’s with his investigation into the Machiavellian machinations of Francis Walsingham in The Queens’ Agent: Francis Walsingham’s Place at the Court of Elizabeth I, (Faber, £20). Elizabeth Norton looked at mistresses – this time, the mistress of Henry VIII, in Bessie Blount (Amberley, £25) and David Loades took yet another look at Elizabeth’s I’s half-sister, “Bloody Mary” in Mary Tudor (Amberley, £25). Robert Hutchinson followed in David Starkey’s redoubtable footsteps with Henry VIII’s early life in Young Henry: the Rise the Henry VIII (W&N, £20).

What with Gregory’s novels, and the TV series of The Tudors, it might be thought we’d be reaching Tudor overload, but many of these titles are bestsellers. It’s an era when women were unusually prominent as queens, and the presence of women at the top has led some biographers to look beyond the Tudor era, as Tracy Borman did in Matilda: Queen of the Conqueror (Cape, £20), and Helen Castor with She-Wolves, the Women who Ruled England Before Elizabeth I (Faber, £9.99)

A certain royal wedding meant an inevitable rash of books about William and Catherine, headed up by Andrew Motion’s biography of the married couple, but there were also some august works about the Queen, by Andrew Marr (The Diamond Queen: Elizabeth II and her People, Macmillan, £25) and Sarah Bradford (Queen Elizabeth II; Her Life in Our Times, Viking, £20 ). Anne Sebba’s claim in That Woman: The Life of Wallis Simpson (W&N, £20), that Wallis was reluctant to marry Edward VIII and preferred her ex-husband, might be the only fly in the ointment for her majesty, but Sebba’s book, whilst a highly commercial one, reflected at least a little risk-taking, where famous mistresses and hard-done-by wives emerged. Franny Moyle’s Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs Oscar Wilde (John Murray, £20) was a triumph, and did much to restore Constance Wilde’s reputation as a woman who did stand by her man.

Daughters, too, got in on the act this year, as Caroline Kennedy published Jacqueline Kennedy: Historical Conversations on Life with John F Kennedy (Hyperion, £50), and Mary Soames wrote about her father in A Daughters’ Tale: A Memoir of Winston and Clementine Churchill’s Youngest Child (Doubleday, £25), as did Erica Heller in Yossarian Slept Here: When Joseph Heller was Dad and Life was a Catch-22 (Vintage, £8.99) and Judy Golding in The Children of Lovers: A Memoir of William Golding (Faber, £16.99) by his daughter. Memoirs by Joan Didion (Blue Nights, Fourth Estate, £14.99), about the death of her daughter, and Janice Galloway, (All Made Up, Granta, £16.99), about her mother-daughter relationship, both made for moving reading and for some controversy.

But the rest have been rather predictable. For all Michael Holroyd’s complaints during the Edinburgh International Book Festival this year that single-subject biographies are on the way out, there were plenty to go around. Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens (Viking, £30) was out of the stocks early; and writers as a whole fared well. Getting plenty of attention were: Georgette Heyer (by Jennifer Kloester, Heinemann, £20); Nancy Mitford (The Horror of Love, by Lisa Hilton, W&N, £20), Ben Jonson (by Ian Donaldson, OUP, £25); Virginia Woolf (by Alexandra Harris, Thames and Hudson, £14.95); James Joyce (by Gordon Bowker, W&N, £30); JG Ballard (The Inner Man, by John Baxter, W&N, £20); Dante (Dante in Love, by AN Wilson, Atlantic, £25); Keats (The Keats Brothers: The Life of John and George, by Denise Gigante, Harvard, £25); Jules Verne (Jules Verne’s Scotland, by Ian Thompson, Luath Press, £16.99); AJ Cronin (by Alan Davies, Alma, £20), Byron (Byron in Geneva, by David Ellis, Liverpool University Press, £25); and GK Chesterton (Ian Ker, OUP, £35).

The arts did see some biographies this year, with Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones being covered (Fiona MacCarthy’s quite brilliant The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination, Faber, £25).

The many biographies focusing on the Second World War, as well as political biographies, shored up a sense of the predictable. In non-fiction not too many have upset the status quo. Perhaps next year…