The shortlist for the 2016 Tony Lothian Prize has been announced. The prize awards £2,000 to the best proposal for an uncommissioned first biography. The Prize, run by the Biographers’ Club, is sponsored by the Duchess of Buccleuch in memory of her mother, Antonella, Marchioness of Lothian, OBE (1922-2007).
The shortlisted titles are (in biographical order):
John Jenkins, Lady Spitfire
Poppy Radmall deserves to be better known. A one-time chorus girl with a beguiling smile and a bewitching figure, she became one of the richest women in Britain, and played a crucial role in saving her country from the Nazis. Swept off her feet at the age of sixteen by the heir to the Bass brewing millions, she fled with him to Paris, and became upwardly very mobile. Three marriages, a divorce and countless lovers later, Poppy Radmall – in turn Lady Brinckman, Lady Byron and finally Lady Houston – was the richest widow in England with a yacht to match. She was also a suffragette, a philanthropist, and a pamphleteer, scourge of any politician who attempted to appease Hitler or kowtow to Stalin.
In 1931 she stepped in with a cheque for £100,000 when Ramsay MacDonald refused government subsidy to Vickers, and the result was the Vickers Supermarine seaplane, forerunner of Mitchell’s Spitfire which played such a vital role in the Battle of Britain. She financed the first flight over Everest, and purchased the ailing Saturday Review, using its pages to berate the politicians of the day. Feisty to the last, to the RAF pilots who dipped their wings in salute every time they passed her yacht or her house she had one final title: Lady Spitfire.
Eric Laursen, The Last Humanist – The Life and Passions of Alex Comfort
Alex Comfort’s The Joy of Sex was one of pivotal texts of the sexual revolution, selling more than 7 million copies worldwide in the first decade of its publication. The man behind it was one of the most versatile intellectual figures to emerge from post-war Britain: an accomplished poet, novelist, essayist, broadcaster, and pundit as well as a major figure in the study of human ageing. The Last Humanist traces a remarkable life, from the suburban 1950s to a distinguished scientific career and profound commitment to civil disobedience; the counter-culturalism of the 1960s, during which he rediscovered sex in a love-triangle with his wife and her best friend; the southern Californian lotus-land of the 1970s and world-wide success as an author; and back to Thatcher’s Britain in the 1980s.
His lifelong project was to discover ‘the nature of human nature’ and this biography sets out to unravel his own complex and creative nature, and to ask how successfully he bridged the fundamental gap that C.P. Snow once perceived between science and letters.
Judy O’Kane, Thirst
A journey into wine, and an exploration of terroir, wine’s sense of place. It allows the writer to play with time, evoking past and future, the year of its harvest and its capacity to age. Tracking the Pinot grape from Burgundy to the New World vineyards of New Zealand, and back to the Old World, O’Kane ‘footsteps’, in the tradition of Richard Holmes, through lands, histories and memories, the wine becoming a metaphor for her own life and its displacements. Along the way, we learn much about an ancient culture, from the rigours of the vendange and the pioneers of the New World to the ancient monastic traditions of Burgundy and the new horizons of the Napa Valley in California.
This is a quest in many registers, and a celebration of the mystery of wine. Written with verve and insight, it’s a very modern form of memoir, and one that leads its readers into many different worlds along the way.
Deborah Spring, A Woman of Ideas – Lady Anne Bacon 1528–1610
Lady Anne Bacon was a formidable sixteenth-century woman, embedded in the network of power at the heart of the Tudor court. A woman of the Reformation, she intervened to save her family in the crisis around the succession of Mary I, served both Catholic Mary and Protestant Elizabeth I as a woman of the Privy Chamber, translated and published a book central to the revival of the Protestant religion after Mary’s death, and, was the mother of Francis Bacon, the great statesman and philosopher. This book brings her out of the shadows and reveals the extraordinary part she played in shaping Tudor history.
Educated, connected and astute, Anne Bacon had the confidence to deal on equal terms with the great statesmen and churchmen of her day. Her father had been tutor to the young Edward VI, her brother-in-law was William Cecil, the king’s secretary. Her story unlocks a fresh new perspective on tumultuous times; it deserves to be heard.
Sarah Watling, Noble Savages
Noble Savages is the story of the four Olivier sisters: Margery, Brynhild, Daphne and Noel. Daughters of the Fabian Sir Sydney Olivier, governor of Jamaica, they were raised at the centre of the Fabian milieu, and expected to be independent and unhindered by convention. At Cambridge all four were introduced to Rupert Brooke and formed the Neo Pagan group. The youngest, Noel, would prove the love of Brooke’s life, and joined the tiny minority of female doctors before the First World War. Her sister Daphne became a pioneering educationalist who set up Britain’s first Steiner school.
Inspiring love and awe in many, they proved again and again to be ahead of their time, refusing to be restricted by the expectations of others. This book brings them in from the margins, and straddles the colonial leisure of the Caribbean, the bucolic life of Victorian progressives, the frantic optimism of Edwardian Cambridge, the bleakness of war, their links with the Bloomsbury Group, and a host of evolving philosophies for life over the course of the twentieth century.