Five proposals have been shortlisted for the 2015 Tony Lothian Prize, which 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).

Eadie Heyderman: “Woman in a White Coat”
Can you imagine what it is like to carry out a post-mortem on a 4-year-old on Christmas Eve, when you have small children at home yourself? Or what it is like to look into the eyes of a young mother with a baby in her arms, knowing that she will be dead in 12 months? Can you imagine being a specialist in cancer research, and discovering you have breast cancer yourself? “Woman in a White Coat” is written by a mother of four who has had a long career as a consultant pathologist, and gives a very real account of what it is like to be a doctor at the sharp end. It is also a poignant account of a young woman, brought up in a cold-water tenement in Petticoat Lane, who moves to the top of her profession. Wise, witty and direct, it grips the reader from the very first page.

Jennifer Holmes: “A Working Woman: The Remarkable Life of Ray Strachey”
Ray Strachey (1887–1940) was an exemplary 20th-century woman. Dynamic, unorthodox, courageous, hardworking, caring and full of fun, she was both a public figure of substance and a pioneer working mother. She played a leading role in obtaining the vote for women in 1918, campaigned tirelessly for women’s employment, became an accomplished writer, with novels, history, biographies and journalism to her name, as well as her classic on the women’s movement, The Cause. And as wife of Oliver Strachey, brother to Lytton, she ran a somewhat bohemian household and moved in celebrated circles, counting Virginia Woolf, Nancy Astor and Millicent Fawcett among her friends. She was, in Iris Origo’s words, “a very remarkable human being”, and this carefully researched portrait brings Ray and her world vividly to life.

Ann Kennedy Smith: “The Cambridge Wives: Caroline Jebb, Mary Paley Marshall and Ida Darwin, 1870–1946”
In 1882 a special law was passed in Cambridge – little changed since medieval times – allowing college fellows to marry at last. The new brides arrived at the same time as the first women students, and they created a new society, throwing out many of the Victorian rules and conventions and starting afresh. This book tells the story of three prominent wives: Caroline Jebb, an astute social chronicler and irresistible charmer, great-aunt to Gwen Raverat; Mary Paley Marshall, first a Cambridge student, then the country’s first economics lecturer; and Ida Darwin, a pioneer in establishing national mental healthcare and wife of Charles Darwin’s son Horace who became part of the “colony of Darwins”. Ann Kennedy Smith has mined these women’s letters, memoirs and diaries to portray lives that were spirited and courageous in fighting to become accepted on their own terms in a man’s world.

Judith Paisner: “Nothing but Letters: The Story of Ruth Loew and Taddy Rechtman and their Families, 1933–46”
This story tells of the upheaval of two Jewish families in Germany, the Loews from Berlin and the Rechtmans from Apolda, who were connected by the marriage of their children Ruth and Taddy. By the end of WWII, all that was left to preserve the families’ sense of history and identity was a collection of some 1,500 letters carefully hoarded by Ruth Loew, and handed down to her daughter, Judith Paisner, who uses them to reconstruct a fateful period for her extended family. The story encompasses life and death in ghetto Lodz, Auschwitz and forced labour camps, the ordeal of trying to reach Palestine, years spent in Italian prison camps – as well as the miracle of those who survived, and how. It is a story of the necessity of flight, and of the fate of refugees – never more relevant than now – and told through a web of vivid letters that plunge us straight into the past.

Francesca Wade: “Square Haunting: A group biography of eight women who lived in Mecklenburgh Square between the wars”
Mecklenbergh Square has always been a radical address. Nestled within Bloomsbury, between the wars it attracted not only the wider Bloomsbury group and their satellites, but an astonishing group of writers, bohemians and London luminati, many of them women. “Places explain people,” said David Garnett, and Francesca Wade uses the Square as a prism through which to explore the intersecting inter-war lives of writers Hilda Doolittle (H.D.) and Dorothy L Sayers; the stylish lesbian Nancy Morris; historian and suffragist Eileen Power; classicist Jane Harrison and her lover Hope Mirlees, whose poetic work Paris was published by Woolf at the Hogarth Press; Lorna Wishart, muse to Laurie Lee; and Virginia Woolf, considered mainly here as a chronicler of war and of the City of London, “the passion of my life”. Some well chronicled, others hardly known, these figures are brought together to illuminate a febrile and fascinating era in the life of the great city.

The Prize, worth £2,000 to the winner, will be awarded at the Biographers’ Club dinner on 4 November.