The Fortunes of Francis Barber by Michael Bundock, a professional support lawyer at Stephenson Harwood, has been shortlisted for the Best First Biography Prize 2015. The prize, which is worth £3,500 to the winner, is sponsored by the literary quarterly Slightly Foxed, and will be presented at the Biographers' Club Dinner on 4 November. The judging panel will be Damian Barr, Fiona MacCarthy, and James Naughtie.
Bundock's book tells the story of the extraordinary relationship between a former slave and the great man of letters, Dr Samuel Johnson, tracing the young boy’s journey from the horrors of Jamaican slavery to the heart of London’s literary world. Such was the strength of their friendship that on his death Johnson left the bulk of his estate to Barber, at the time a scandalous legacy. There were thousands of black Britons in the eighteenth century but few accounts of their lives exist. The Fortunes of Francis Barber opens a window onto life in London at a time when slaves had yet to win their freedom.
Reviewing the book in the Sunday Times, John Carey described it as, "A joy – elegant, precise, formidably informed … Bundock is a lawyer by profession, and one of the great pleasures of reading his completely captivating book is to watch him gathering all the evidence and teasing out the truth."
Michael Bundock commented, "I'm delighted that the book has been so well received, and very pleased that it has been shortlisted for such a prestigious prize. Barber's story is a remarkable one, and deserves to be much better known."
The full shortlist is:
- Anita Anand, Sophia, Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary (Bloomsbury)
- Michael Bundock, The Fortunes of Francis Barber (Yale University Press)
- Alan Cumming, Not my Father’s Son (Canongate)
- Lyndsey Jenkins, Lady Constance Lytton – Aristocrat, Suffragette, Martyr (Biteback)
- Sarah Knights, Bloomsbury’s Outsider: A Life of David Garnett (Bloomsbury)