Christmas gifts 2012: the best biographies

Kathryn Hughes chooses her favourite lives

In a year when (almost) everyone became a royalist, if only for one squally summer afternoon, Jane Ridley's Bertie: A Life of Edward VII (Chatto & Windus) was required reading. Ridley's book, a decade in the making, does much more than recycle antique gossip about "Edward the Caresser". She gives us the women, the champagne and the enormous girth, but she also shows us a clever and effective statesman. Drawing on new material from the Royal Archives, Ridley reinforces the case for Bertie as an instinctive European, using his web of family connections to draw France into an entente in 1904, followed by Russia three years later. Along the way the fat man known as "Tum-tum" also found the time to invent trouser turn-ups.

If Edward VII was many-sided, Robert Oppenheimer was positively polymorphous. This makes Ray Monk's task of getting to grips with the man who invented the atom bomb and then regretted it a slippery one. In Inside the Centre: The Life of J Robert Oppenheimer (Jonathan Cape) Monk goes after a man who was pretty much master of everything he turned his hand to: Sanskrit, particle physics, causing death on an unimaginable scale. His personality was similarly fractured – one of his friends said "Oppie" was like something composed of "bright, shining splinters". Whether or not Monk ever quite manages to see Oppenheimer whole, his 800 pages of deep research and lucid prose constitute a masterclass in how biography, done well, gets us closer to the mindset of an age than any other kind of inquiry.

Susannah Clapp's A Card from Angela Carter (Bloomsbury) is a much more slender proposition. Clapp has gathered together some of the many postcards that Carter sent her over their 15-year friendship to produce what she calls "a paper trail, a zigzag path through the 80s". The result is a reminder of Carter's fierce humour, as she mocks Thatcher, Charles and Diana, and mid-heeled court shoes. It's also a salutary reminder of what a palaver it was to stay in casual contact with friends in an age before email – choosing the card, finding a stamp, carrying it around at the bottom of your bag until you found a postbox. It's a miracle anyone bothered.

With Strindberg: A Life (Yale) we're back to a maximalist approach. There isn't really any other option: it took the logorrhoeic Swede nine volumes to get his memoir down on paper, and that's not forgetting his 18 novels, three books of poetry and, of course, the 60 ground-breaking plays. It's a shame, says his biographer Sue Prideaux, that he did not write in a more widely read language, for then we might know him as something more than an alarming misogynist who, in writing Miss Julie, paradoxically created one of the great theatre roles for women. Prideaux doesn't really have the space to go through Strindberg's entire oeuvre pointing out the kind and funny bits. So instead she gives us his life, so badly broken and twisted back on itself, that it starts to make sense of the wild discontinuities in his work.

If it's bad boys you're after, then another contender would be the Tudor courtier and poet Thomas Wyatt. In Thomas Wyatt: The Heart's Forest (Faber), the Oxford historian Susan Brigden circles the man who made a career out of ambiguity. He was Catherine of Aragon's "slave", yet Anne Boleyn's lover too; he was a supporter of Thomas Cromwell and then he wasn't. Wyatt's verse is equally shifty, double-hinged so that it faces two ways at once in order to make a quick get-away. Brigden never pretends that she's going to pin her man down on the page. What she does instead is deploy fresh archive finds so that a little more of Wyatt comes fleetingly into view.

When Robert A Caro began his multi-volumed biography of Lyndon B Johnson it was 1982 and Angela Carter had only just started sending larky postcards to Susannah Clapp. The fourth installation of Caro's masterwork came out this year and, cheeringly, there is no slackening of plot or pace. This volume, The Passage of Power (Bodley Head) covers 1958 to 1964, so it includes the moment when Johnson loses the Democratic nomination and is obliged to serve a humiliating term as vice president. Until, of course, that November day in 1963, when he finds himself propelled into something approaching greatness. What Caro wants us to understand is that, in the early days of his shock presidency, LBJ managed to achieve things that Kennedy had botched. It was Johnson, not Kennedy, who drove through the legislation that ended segregation in the South and who allowed everyone to breathe a little easier, thanks to Medicare and Medicaid.

Finally, you really should take a look at Dotter of Her Father's Eyes (Jonathan Cape), which is a graphic – literally, it is a comic strip – account of James Joyce's daughter Lucia, who spent most of her adult life in a mental hospital. Into her narrative Mary Talbot has woven the story of her vexatious relationship with her own father, the eminent Joycean James S Atherton. It sounds, well, dotty. But Bryan Talbot's artwork carefully delineates the two stories, so that you're never confused about whether you're following the adventures of Lucia or Mary. It won't be for everyone but, in a year when mainstream readers comfortably migrated from page to screen, it seems short-sighted to balk at this parallel shift from script to image. Given that Dotter of Her Father's Eyes is one of two graphic works on this year's Costa prize shortlists, it seems that we're going to be thinking and talking a lot more about this way of telling life stories as 2013 unfolds.

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Kathryn Hughes

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