Marsh Biography Award

This Award was presented to the author of the best biography by a British author, written in the previous two years. The judges looked for a work that was historically important, recorded significant human achievement and was representative of the highest standards of writing and research.

The Award was presented biennially from 1987 until 2011.

D.R. Thorpe, Supermac: The Life of Harold Macmillan (Chatto & Windus, 2010) 2011

D.R Thorpe has many qualities of a first-rate biographer, he is an extraordinary scholar and prefers using primary sources when researching for his books. He does not just write about politics but is able to capture the character of the politician he describes. Supermac explores the major events of Macmillan’s time as Prime Minister including the Suez Crisis, the Profumo scandal and his Winds of Change speech of 1960.

Previous winner Rosemary Hill described Thorpe as having “a steady hand, a shrewd critical eye and a wide and deep knowledge not just of the subject but of the background, foreground and context.”

Previous Winners

Rosemary Hill, God’s Architect: Pugin and the Building of Romantic Britain (Penguin Books, 2008)

Dr Alastair Niven, representing the judging panel for this year’s Award stated:

“Rosemary Hill’s book on Pugin is one of the best biographies of recent times. It brings back to our attention the most influential interior designer and architect of the high Victorian period, a man strangely under-recognised in his time and even now coming across to us as vulnerable and in need of re-discovery. This is more than the life of an endearingly human and compulsively energetic artist. It is a study of the social, spiritual and aesthetic life of mid-nineteenth century England. God’s Architect is as close to being a masterpiece of biographical writing as we can be entitled to expect.”

Maggie Fergusson, George Mackay Brown: A Life (John Murray, 2005)

Maggie Fergusson’s book warmly captures the life of poet George Mackay Brown in her carefully researched and sensitively written biography. She interviewed him several times and is the only biographer to whom this reluctant subject was willing to assist. The result is an uplifting and fascinating life of one of Scotland’s most interesting literary sons.

John Guy, My Heart is My Own: The Life of Mary Queen of Scots (Fourth Estate, 2004)

John Guy’s book is a compelling work of historical scholarship that offers radical new interpretations of an ancient story. The life of Mary Stuart is one of unparalleled drama and conflict and Guy returns to the archives to explore the myths and correct the inaccuracies that surround this fascinating monarch. He reveals why Mary would have consented to marry her second husband’s alleged killer only three months after his death and explores the secrets behind the spectacular assassination.

Amanda Foreman describes John Guy’s work as “…a triumph of biography, artistry and historical detective work…a masterpiece full of fire and tragedy”

Brenda Maddox, Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA (Harper Collins, 2003)

Brenda Maddox tells a powerful story of a single-minded, forthright, tempestuous young woman who, at the age of 15, decided she wanted to be a scientist. However, she was airbrushed out of the greatest scientific discovery of the 20th Century, by distortion of facts, professional marginalisation and the failure of professional ethics. In 1962, Maurice Wilkins, Francis Crick and James Watson received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, but it was Rosalind Franklin’s data and photographs of DNA that led to their discovery.

Maddox seeks to set the record straight in her book by highlighting Rosalind Franklin’s crucial role in the most important biological discovery of the 20th Century.

Anthony Sampson, Mandela: The Authorised Biography (Harper Collins, 1999)

Anthony Sampson is regarded as one of the greatest journalists and writers of his time, writing extensively about South Africa and publishing his award-winning biography of Nelson Mandela in 1999. Sampson was educated at Oxford University before moving to Johannesburg from 1951 to 1955 where he formed a close relationship with Mandela. He even advised Mandela on his 4-hour address at the ‘Rivonia’ sabotage trial in 1964 on his dreams of a non-racial South Africa.

In his biography, Sampson reveals the man behind the very familiar figure whose opposition to apartheid and his 27-year incarceration are globally famous. With unprecedented access to the former South African President – the letters he wrote from prison, his unpublished jail autobiography, extensive conversations and interviews with colleagues, family and friends – Sampson depicts the realities of Mandela’s private and public life and the tragic tension between them.

Richard Holmes, Coleridge: Darker Reflections (Harper Collins, 1998)

This is Richard Holmes’ second volume on the life of ST Coleridge and reads as a brilliant evocation of the Romantic Age when Coleridge sat at the helm of England’s rigorous literary discourse. Holmes charts Coleridge’s oscillation between narcotic oblivion and the nightmares of withdrawal with the skill of a novelist. Despite these conflictions, Coleridge produced some of the finest poetry and philosophical prose in history. At the heart of the story is Coleridge’s volatile relationship with Wordsworth, who is presented as an anally retentive, vain, ambitious operator who betrays Coleridge’s love and friendship.

Holmes’ work is described as “one of the greatest autobiographies of the century” and “a shimmering portrait of the mature artist veering between brilliance and despair” by the Financial Times.

Jim Ring, Erskine Childers (John Murray, 1996)

Erskine Childers was orphaned at an early age, received an English education that culminated in a clerkship to the House of Commons, voluntary service in the Boer War and the writing of his great novel. Until he married a strong-willed Bostonian and increasingly became interested in Irish affair, he appeared patriotic, imperialist and largely conformist. He still served England in the war, but, traumatised by the Easter Rising of 1916, finished the war profoundly divided in his loyalties. Childers ended up becoming the official propagandist for the Republican movement. He opposed the treaty that established the Irish Free State and joined the IRA before being captured and executed in November 1922.

Jim Ring’s acclaimed biography does full justice to Childers’ dramatic and intriguing story, against a backdrop of Britain’s imperial zenith, the naval arms race and the First World War. The Independent on Sunday described the work as “a fine and fluent biography of an extraordinary man, navigating the angry waters (of Irish politics) with a sure hand but dodging none of the difficulties.”

Selina Hastings, Evelyn Waugh: A Biography (Sinclair Stevenson, 1994)

Evelyn Waugh was one of the foremost and eccentric writers of his time, with a life full of comedy and conflict. Selina Hastings was granted unrestricted access to his personal papers and has uncovered a wealth of new material including letters, diaries and photographs which shed a light on all aspects of his life and friendships. Her work is perceptive, fascinating, hilarious and at times tragic.

The Daily Telegraph describes Hastings’ work as follows – “Evelyn Waugh was the most complicated of men…It is the first great virtue of Selina Hastings’ splendid biography that she never forgets it. Consequently, she has written a sympathetic and highly intelligent book which also – rarity of rarities these days – reads rapidly. It is sympathetic also because, like Waugh himself, the author adores gossip.”

Patrick Marnham, The Man Who Wasn’t Maigret: Life of Georges Simenon (Bloomsbury, 1992)

Georges Simenon had published more than 200 hundred novels before his 30th birthday, thrillers, detective stories, erotic tales and many more under a variety of pseudonyms. His first two novels featuring Inspector Maigret were issued in 1931 and in total there were 76 titles in the series, as well as 119 darker novels on which Simenon believed his reputation would rest.

Patrick Marnham’s biography traces Simenon’s incredible life, from his childhood in Liege, through the World Wars, his years in America, marriage, affairs and of course his literary career. While Marnham clearly admires Simenon, he maintains his objectivity and is able to identify Simenon’s flaws and his personal demons.

Hugh and Mirabel Cecil, Clever Hearts (Victor Gollancz, 1990)

The Cecils present a biography of Desmond and Molly MacCarthy, two figures at the centre of 20th Century English literary life in the influential between-the-wars period. Desmond was a famous theatre and literary critic with ‘New Statesman’ and ‘The Sunday Times’ and along with his wife Molly, who was Virginia Woolf’s cousin, are portrayed as the literary lovers of their time. Coincidentally, Hugh Cecil is the grandson of the MacCarthys.

David Gilmour, The Last Leopard (Quartet Books, 1988)

This biography of Giuseppe di Lampedusa unearths the life of the creator of ‘The Leopard’, one of the greatest novels of the 20th Century and a book whose imagery haunts the reader forever. ‘The Leopard’ described the golden era of 19th Century Sicily in its sensual, fading. Aristocratic glory, while under the surface lurk its millennial contagions of corruption, brutality and inequality.

David Gilmour writes a fantastic meditation on what it is that makes a writer and was described in The Independent as “A triumph of fine writing: elegant, witty, concise and everything a good biography should be”.

Roland Huntford, Shackleton (Hodder & Stoughton, 1985)

Sir Ernest Shackleton, the Anglo-Irish explorer, never achieved his goal of reaching the South Pole, but was knighted in 1909 for having come within 100 miles. He sought to top this accomplishment by landing on one side of Antarctica and travelling the width of the continent by sledge. When his ship became trapped in pack ice, the journey turned into a raw struggle for survival as he was forced to lead his team on a desperately dangerous trek over hundreds of miles. He made it home but continued to take financial risks and ended his life mired in debt.

Roland Huntford’s biography presents a balances and lively portrait of a man who has been described as both a national hero and a contemptible rogue. His work has been described as “utterly absorbing” and Huntford had “done justice to this great and complex man. That in itself is a triumph”.