A. N. Wilson’s The Mystery of Charles Dickens (HarperCollins) has won the 2021 Plutarch Award for the best biography of 2020. Wilson is a prolific writer, whose previous books include biographies of Charles Darwin, Prince Albert, C. S. Lewis, and Queen Elizabeth II, among many others. He is also a prize-winning novelist.
Named after the famous Greek writer, BIO awards the Plutarch to the best biography of the year, chosen by a committee of five distinguished biographers. The award comes with a $1,000 honorarium.
“During an unprecedented year marked by political upheavals, the COVID pandemic and many publishing challenges,” said Kate Buford, chair of the Plutarch Committee, “we were struck by the compelling humanity and deft artistry of Wilson’s biography. It is a biographer’s biography.”
Buford added in her taped remarks for the 2021 BIO Conference that Wilson “passionately and elegantly manipulated the genre, the form [of biography] to get at the mystery of Dickens’s craft.”
In his acceptance remarks, Wilson said he was “left speechless to have been put in such wonderful company”—both the biographers judging the award and the other writers who made the Plutarch longlist. Although Dickens might seem like a character from the distant past, Wilson said, he was “constantly arrested by how much he is our contemporary, how much he realizes that we carry around in ourselves our own childhoods, which never leaves us; the inner child is always directing us.”
In addition to honoring Wilson, the Plutarch Award Committee gave a Special Citation to Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Lessons for Our Own, by Eddie S. Glaude Jr. (Crown), in recognition of its summoning of Baldwin’s penetrating voice and eyes that remind us of the post–Civil War and post-civil rights betrayals of racial justice. In announcing the citation, committee member Ray Shepard said that Glaude “reminds us of the post-Civil War, post-civil rights betrayals of racial justice. He warns us of slipping into a 21st century betrayal unless we begin again and heed Baldwin’s prophetic words.”
Along with Shepard and Buford, members of the 2021 Plutarch Award Committee were Barbara Burkhardt, Andrew Lownie, and Holly Van Leuven. The committee originally chose ten semi-finalists before selecting five finalists for the 2021 prize and then choosing Wilson’s book as the winner. You can see all of this year’s semi-finalists and finalists here.