As part of Prospect's Books of the Year special, we round up the best memoirs and biographiesby Prospect Team / December 8, 2019 / Leave a comment
Few historians’ lives were as dramatic as Eric Hobsbawm’s. As Richard J Evans charts in his generally admiring Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History (Little, Brown), the Marxist’s loyalties were forged in the ideological battleground of 1930s Germany. After moving to England, he swiftly became a star of post-war history but never left the Communist Party. He knew his first marriage was in trouble, Evans says, when his wife gave him Nineteen Eighty-Four for Christmas.
Simone de Beauvoir’s personal life—especially her relationship with Sartre—often overshadows her philosophy. Kate Kirkpatrick’s Becoming Beauvoir (Bloomsbury) puts that right. Her version of existentialism escapes the charge of excessive individualism: no one becomes themselves alone. Another philosopher whose life was intertwined with their thought is Kierkegaard. In Clare Carlisle’s Philosopher of the Heart (Allen Lane), he is shown as an anguished rebel kicking against the bourgeois conformity of his native Denmark. Someone often compared to Kierkegaard is Socrates. Armand D’Angour’s concise portrait, Socrates in Love (Bloomsbury), says that his philosophy was influenced by a “wise woman” called Aspasia—Pericles’ wife—who was his “instructor in love.” D’Angour’s Socrates is a man of flesh and blood, fond of dancing, wrestling and romance.
Bauhaus guru Walter Gropius also had an energetic love life. Fiona MacCarthy’s Walter Gropius (Faber) conducts us from his affluent childhood in Berlin to his involvement in progressive design groups. The emotional heart, though, is his turbulent relationship with the composer and socialite Alma Mahler, a libertine, snob and anti-semite, beside whom Gropius can seem a trifle dull.
The women in Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five (Doubleday) are most famous for being Jack the Ripper’s victims. Rubenhold’s book, which won the Baillie Gifford Prize, movingly restores their humanity. Elisabeth Stride was born in Sweden, moved to London, faked a story about her family dying in a boat disaster, learned Yiddish after a Jewish family took her in as a servant, but was arrested for soliciting on Commercial Road. On the night of 29th September 1888, she was found murdered, with a rose pinned to her bonnet and breath-freshening sweets in her hand.
“Throughout history,” writes Lisa Taddeo in Three Women (Bloomsbury Circus), “men have broken women’s hearts in a particular way.” These stories of female exploitation—Lina was assaulted at school and then exploited by her…