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The best biographies of 2023, from Burton and Taylor to Mrs Orwell

Hollywood royalty: Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor on the set of Cleopatra
Hollywood royalty: Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor on the set of Cleopatra - Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

The most startling revelation in Spare (Bantam, £28), this year’s bestselling memoir, is that the one piece of literature Prince Harry has enjoyed is Of Mice and Men. I recommend as his second book Barbra Streisand’s full-throated self-celebration My Name Is Barbra (Century, £35), which breaks the mould of the showbiz memoir in terms of candour, and weighs in at 1,000 pages, because everything Streisand does is larger than life.

Harry and Meghan might together enjoy Roger Lewis’s Erotic Vagrancy: Everything about Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor (Riverrun, £30), a tribute to the golden age of Hollywood royalty. Lewis’s subject is fame, vulgarity and mutual obsession (the Burtons married and divorced one another twice), but what propels the prose is his own obsession with the celebrity couple, about whom he does indeed say everything. “I adore the Burtons for going too far with their drinking and smoking and f-----g”, Lewis writes, going much too far himself. He describes Taylor as “a filthy beast” who “would always be appreciative of meaty c--ks”, and even her bowels get a mention.

If Burton’s voice, as Lewis puts it, is “one of the twentieth century’s great noises”, his own voice, which starts on page one with the volume turned up, gets louder by the minute. An outsized book about outsize lives, Erotic Vagrancy is nostalgic, unhinged, addictive, very funny and much too long. “Intoxication of words”, as Taylor said of Burton, is a “Welsh disease, I’m sure”, and Lewis, who has the unstoppable volubility of a man on his second bottle, is also Welsh to the core.

By contrast, Clare Carlisle’s The Marriage Question: George ­Eliot’s Double Life (Allen Lane, £25) is as subtle and silent as a Dutch still life. Marriage was George Eliot’s abiding fascination, with Middlemarch, her greatest novel, centring on the catastrophic union of the young and idealistic Dorothea Brooke to the desiccated and malign Edward Casaubon. The nation’s sage, as Eliot became known, was also a national scandal, because George Henry Lewes, with whom she shared a happy “double life” for 24 years, was not her husband. Unable to divorce the mother of his children, Lewes lived with Eliot “in sin”, and in doing so nurtured her genius as a writer. Beautifully balancing literary interpretation with biographical and philosophical reflection, Carlisle explores the gamble of yoking your happiness to “the open-endedness of another human being”.

Barbra Streisand in a publicity still for the film Funny Girl, 1968
Barbra Streisand in a publicity still for the film Funny Girl, 1968 - Moviepix/Getty

Wifedom: Mrs Orwell’s Invis­ible Life (Viking, £20) is about doublethink rather than double lives. Applying Orwell’s own theory to his treatment of women, Anna Funder reveals his contradictory beliefs about power and equality. While Sonia Brownell, whom Orwell wed on his deathbed in 1949, ensured his posthumous sanctification without having to keep house for him, Eileen O’Shaughnessy, whom he married in 1936, died nine years later – exhausted by the duties of being his wife – in a hysterectomy operation.

Eileen, never mentioned by name in Orwell’s books, typed and edited his manuscripts – often working in near darkness so that he could use their only lamp – humanised his writing, influenced his style, sorted out the septic tank, financially supported him when he was out of work, and put up with his infidelities. He described her when she died, aged 39, as “not a bad old stick”. How, asks Funder, could the spokesman for the underdog, a man famous for his kindness, treat Eileen so indifferently? And why are his contradictions never discussed by Orwell’s male biographers, who – according to Funder – similarly erase Eileen’s existence while excusing her husband’s serial sexual harassments?

The biographers challenged by Funder include D J Taylor, whose Orwell: The Life was published 20 years ago. In Orwell: The New Life (Constable, £30), Taylor takes a ­second look at his childhood hero in the light of fresh material, including letters from Eileen to her best friend Norah Symes Myles, in which she describes married life. “I lost my habit of punctual correspondence during the first few weeks of marriage,” Eileen writes, “because we quarrelled so continuously and really bitterly that I thought I’d save time and just write one letter to ­everyone when the murder or ­separation had been accomplished.”

Invisible life: Eileen Orwell
Invisible life: Eileen Orwell - Pictorial Press/Alamy

While Funder reads between the lines of these letters, Taylor interprets them as written, in part, for “comic effect”. The woman whom Funder finds vividly masochistic, Taylor describes as “elusive” and unreadable; Taylor’s Orwell is “attractive to women”, while Funder sees him as an unappealing sex pest for whom women largely feel sorry. At one point, Taylor describes sharing a panel on Orwell with the feminist critic Beatrix Campbell, who “lamented The Road to Wigan Pier’s sexual bias”. It was like, he says, “watching a small child trying to bring down an ­elephant with a pea-shooter”. Funder, however, fills the barrel of her rifle, takes aim, and shoots the elephant in the room.

Biographies by super-fans can paper over the cracks, but Love Me Fierce in Danger (Bloomsbury, £14.99), Steven Powell’s authorised life of James Ellroy, the author of LA Confidential, inspects the writer’s psyche with a scalpel. Ellroy’s mother, for whom he had developed a sexual obsession, was raped and murdered when he was 10 and the killer never found. Relieved to be rid of her, Ellroy moved in with his father, Rita Hayworth’s former business manager, who was less strict about sex and drink. He then also died, advising his son on his deathbed to “pick up every waitress who serves you”. Ellroy has described what he remembers of his life in his 1996 memoir My Dark Places, but alcoholism and drugs have blanked out a good deal; ­Powell sheds light on the darkness by interviewing everyone who has ever crossed paths, or swords, with the Demon Dog of American letters.

Monet: The Restless Vision (Allen Lane, £35) is the first account of the impressionist’s private life and a work of impressionism in its own right. Jackie Wullschläger captures her subject in sun and shade and shifting colour; when the women in his life changed, Monet’s art changed, too. He never painted a naked figure, a religious scene or historical narrative, focusing instead on the medium itself. He created great art from “nonchalant amplitude”, “lightness of being”, and what Monet called his “wild” “need to put down what I experience”. This bold and inspiring biography describes a man who had no agenda other than being himself.


Frances Wilson’s Burning Man: The Ascent of D H Lawrence (Bloomsbury, £12.99) won the 2022 Plutarch Award for Biography. To order any of these books, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books