“Vivid… exemplify the art of historical biography” – Shortlist for 2020 Elizabeth Longford Prize

Martin Reed

Martin Reed

Martin leads the SoA's Communications team. He oversees our strategic communications and campaign-based activities, including PR, social media, events and partnerships.
Announcing the shortlist for the 2021 Elizabeth Longford Prize for Historical Biography – four books that “exemplify the art of studying people’s lives close up”.

The shortlist for the 2021 Elizabeth Longford Prize for Historical Biography has been revealed – tracking the exceptional lives of historical figures against the backdrop of Black liberation, World War II, the fin-de-siècle and the French revolution.

Celebrating historical biographies that combine scholarship and narrative drive, the Elizabeth Longford Prize for Historical Biography was established in 2003 in affectionate memory of acclaimed biographer Elizabeth Longford. Generously sponsored by Flora Fraser and Peter Soros, it is judged by a panel of distinguished historians and historical biographers each year and awarded as part of the Society of Authors’ Awards.

This year’s four shortlisted books are:

  • Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture by Sudhir Hazareesingh (Allen Lane)
  • Something of Themselves: Kipling, Kingsley, Conan Doyle and the Anglo-Boer War by Sarah LeFanu (Hurst)
  • JFK, Volume One by Fredrik Logevall (Viking)
  • A Dominant Character: The Radical Science and Restless Politics of J.B.S Haldane by Samanth Subramanian (Atlantic)

The judges this year are Richard Davenport-Hines, Roy Foster (Chair), Antonia Fraser, Flora Fraser and Rana Mitter.

Commenting on this year’s shortlist, Roy Foster, the Chair of judges, said:

All four shortlisted books exemplify the art of studying people’s lives in close-up historical context.

Sudhir Hazareesingh’s life of Toussaint Louverture highlights an unfamiliar segment in the great canvas of the French Revolution, showing its global impact and illuminating the life of a vital if ultimately tragic hero in the history of Black liberation.

Sarah LeFanu’s Something of Themselves similarly crosses borders, subtly exploring the psychology of three influential writers whose lives were affected and complicated by involvement in the upheaval of imperialism at the fin-de-siècle.

Fredrik Logevall’s JFK establishes a legendarily glamorous politician in the making, against the complex and often surprising background of Boston-Irish culture, moneyed high-life in 1930s Europe, and the trauma of World War II.

Samanth Subramanian shows how a prominent public intellectual full of brilliant contradictions came to believe that Marxian social theory and genetic science were inseparably connected, while remaining boisterously unpredictable in his personal and professional life.

Each of these books links the character and destiny of exceptional people to the temper of their times, vividly demonstrating why historical biography remains so relevant to the general reader as well as to the specialist.

The winner will be presented with the £5,000 award in an online ceremony on Wednesday 9 June as part of the 2021 Society of Authors’ Awards.

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