In honor of some of the most celebrated geniuses of the past, here is a roundup of our favorite biographies of literary luminaries. From Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte to Ralph Ellison and Oscar Wilde, these revered biographers explore the lives of classic authors as well as the masterpieces that have captured our attention for generations. Starting with the “mesmerizing and comprehensive” (New York Times) biography of Sylvia Plath, peruse this list and dive headfirst into the lives of a few of history’s most studied authors.
Red Comet by Heather Clark
This highly anticipated biography of Sylvia Plath focuses on her remarkable literary and intellectual achievements, while restoring the woman behind the long-held myths about her life and art. A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, Clark’s meticulous, compassionate research brings us closer than ever to the spirited woman and visionary artist who blazed a trail that still lights the way for women poets the world over.
Jane Austen: A Life by Claire Tomalin
At her death in 1817, Jane Austen left the world six of the most beloved novels written in English—but her shortsighted family destroyed the bulk of her letters; and if she kept any diaries, they did not survive her. Now acclaimed biographer Claire Tomalin has filled the gaps in the record, creating a remarkably fresh and convincing portrait of the woman and the writer.
Ralph Ellison: A Biography by Arnold Rampersad
Ralph Ellison is justly celebrated for his epochal novel Invisible Man, which won the National Book Award in 1953 and has become a classic of American literature. But Ellison’s strange inability to finish a second novel, despite his dogged efforts and soaring prestige, made him a supremely enigmatic figure. Rampersad skillfully tells the story of a writer whose thunderous novel and astute, courageous essays on race, literature, and culture assure him of a permanent place in our literary heritage.
Virginia Woolf by Hermione Lee
While Virginia Woolf—one of our century’s most brilliant and mercurial writers—has had no shortage of biographers, none has seemed as naturally suited to the task as Hermione Lee. Subscribing to Virginia Woolf’s own belief in the fluidity and elusiveness of identity, Lee comes at her subject from a multitude of perspectives, producing a richly layered portrait of the writer and the woman that leaves all her complexities and contradictions intact. Such issues as sexual abuse, mental illness, and suicide are brought into balance with the immensity of her literary achievement, her heroic commitment to her work, her generosity and wit and her sanity and strength.
Oscar Wilde by Richard Ellmann
Winner of both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize, Oscar Wilde is the definitive biography of the tortured poet and playwright and the last book by renowned biographer and literary critic Richard Ellmann. Ellmann dedicated two decades to the research and writing of this biography, resulting in a complex and richly detailed portrait of Oscar Wilde. Ellman captures the wit, creativity, and charm of the psychologically and sexually complicated writer, as well as the darker aspects of his personality and life. Covering everything from Wilde’s rise as a young literary talent to his eventual imprisonment and death in exile with exquisite detail, Ellmann’s fascinating account of Wilde’s life and work is a resounding triumph.
Parisian Lives by Deirdre Bair
National Book Award–winning biographer Deirdre Bair explores her fifteen remarkable years in Paris with Samuel Beckett and Simone de Beauvoir, painting intimate new portraits of two literary giants and revealing secrets of the biographical art. Parisian Lives draws on Bair’s extensive notes from the period, including never before told anecdotes. This gripping memoir is full of personality and warmth and gives us an entirely new window on the all too human side of these legendary thinkers.
Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart by Claire Harman
Charlotte Brontë famously lived her entire life in an isolated parsonage on a remote English moor with a demanding father and with siblings whose astonishing creativity was a closely held secret. The genius of Claire Harman’s biography is that it transcends these melancholy facts to reveal a woman for whom duty and piety gave way to quiet rebellion and fierce ambition. Drawing on letters unavailable to previous biographers, Harman depicts Charlotte’s inner life with absorbing intensity.