Came across Richard Holmes (1945- ) via a review of his latest, This long pursuit: reflections of a Romantic biographer, “a glorious series of essays on the art of life writing and a worthy successor to his earlier volumes on the craft” (vs DJ Taylor in The Times: a “career-celebrating miscellany”). The library obliged with said earlier volumes.
The first, Footsteps: adventures of a Romantic biographer (1985), at first glance dwelt rather more on nuts and bolts than anything particularly essayistic and didn’t live up to the blurb (“a daring mix of travel, biographical sleuthing and personal memoir”), possibly because biography, or maybe creative non-fiction, has changed a lot in the last 30 years. A further issue was the subject matter, centred around the English Romantics in France and Italy and hence neither my time nor place. Possibly not the best place to start – chronological order doesn’t always work : p
Better luck with the second volume, Sidetracks: explorations of a Romantic biographer (2000), which consists of shorter pieces, described thus in the prologue:
A biographer’s collection of short pieces, rather like a novelist’s collection of short stories, but it has a theme and a purpose. It is the fragmented tale of a single biographical quest, a thirty-year journey in search of the perfect Romantic subject, and the form to fit it. It is my personal casebook…it includes two radio-plays, several travel pieces, a large number of character-sketches, some autobiographical fragments, some formal essays, and a very informal short story. All of them were written as different ways of investigating biographical material; to see how far certain hints and possibilities could be taken down the path, explored and relished.
This is useful, and in the best tradition of curated reading sent me back to Footsteps (which we now know was compiled from sketches written during 1980-85), where Holmes “questions his own art and the impulses which drive him on a quest” through the lens of place.
The first section of Footsteps takes on Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a donkey in the Cevennes (1879). Holmes retraced Stevenson’s journey in 1964, accompanied by a 1936 textbook edition “on the curriculum of generations of English and Scottish schoolchildren” (including I suspect my mother, a fan of Modestine) and described as a “model of polite essay-writing”. Essay-subjects (clearly a fan of the hyphen) given in an appendix include, delightfully, “What are the respective advantages of a walking, cycling, motoring, and caravaning tour?”
This was Holmes’ initiation into the art of biography, and while he notes that the route of Stevenson’s travels has been marked out, “leading the pilgrim from one point de vue to the next and bringing him safely down each evening to some recommended hotel”, he has no desire to return.
Section two marks 1968, the year of revolution in Paris, with a foray into that earlier revolution of 1789, as witnessed by the English Romantics and the White’s Hotel group of expats. He hits his stride with Mary Wollstonecraft, discussing the various likenesses of her which survive and chronicling her two year sojourn in France (1792-94), when she lived for a period in Le Havre with Gilbert Imlay and the ill-fated baby Fanny.
Holmes sees the impact of the French Revolution for the English as lying in the thirty years after Mary’s death, when the next generation, “one of the most brilliant literary circles that has ever existed”, returned to Europe. This is explored in section three, Exiles, on Shelley, Mary Shelley (who spent some time in Dundee at the age of 15/16) and Claire Clairmont in Italy, anno 1972: “my urge was to go directly to the original materials – and most especially to the places – for myself…I drifted without contact through the tourist crowds of the cities”.
Section four covers unfamiliarly unfamiliar ground, in Paris once more in 1976: “a calm, picturesque city; that is to say, a city of pictures. It celebrated the idea of the flâneur, the man who drifts round the streets, gazing at everything that meet his eye”. This results in an interest in photography, in particular the birth of portrait photography, via the archives of Felix Nadar, and to a new subject, Gérard de Nerval (of pet lobster fame), described by Proust as “one of three or four most important French writers of the 19th century” (he also features in Gros’ The philosophy of walking). At the end of this section Holmes comments: “My taste for travel and my ear for footsteps had diminished, it seemed. I was thirty, and it was time to consider the way I should go myself.”
Sidetracks, made up of seven sections each with a brief introduction, covers much of the same ground, but this time from the angle of how Holmes has moved from subject to subject over a nearly thirty year period. An early essay on 18th century poet Thomas Chatterton, described as “my own version of Virginia Woolf’s ‘room of one’s own'”, led Holmes onto his first major subject, Shelley, while a period in Paris in the 1970s resulted in an unpublished 400 page biography and a radio play with the leitmotif of de Nerval.
Sketches and essays written for The Times present a series of experiments with style and storytelling aimed at ‘sidetracking’ the reader, such as “different narrative voices, entering at odd angles, reading facts through fiction or poetry, risking melodrama, facetiousness and sentimentality”. Holmes also returns to Mary Wollstonecraft, persuading Penguin to republish William Godwin’s memoir coupled with the essay she wrote on her travels in Scandinavia (invaluable material for another day) – the piece here is his expanded introduction, a blend of historical research and literary criticism.
Two further sections consist of more Shelley, with pieces written during research for a biography on Coleridge (“a case of pure sidetracking” in the form of an account of a found manuscript and a radio play on Shelley’s last days in Italy) and more Paris in the form of three pieces celebrating the city during 1994-95 while enjoying a “long dreamy trail of daily walks and wanderings” with novelist Rose Tremain. (My personal sidetrack from here leads us back to Tremain’s Music and silence (1999) about Christian IV of Denmark, which I have failed to read several times, and once again the story of Caroline Matilda – and now its contemporary reception via Mary Wollstonecraft – described in A royal affair, a novel I did read by Stella Tillyard, remembered as by Tremain…)
The final section, with the title Homage to the Godfather, consists of three pieces on (or around) James Boswell, written during a research period on Dr Johnson (1990-94). This is where things start to get really meta, with biography as a literary form increasingly popular, a new sub-section of creative non-fiction.
So where did Holmes go next? As it turns out to the bestselling The age of wonder: how the Romantic generation discovered the beauty and terror of science (2008) and Falling upwards: how we took to the air (2013; review), on the history of ballooning. This breaks his hitherto meticulous chronology, which resulted in a major work around every 15 years and roughly four year periods of research, not necessarily overlapping.
His latest however continues the 15 year cycle of meta-works on the art of biography. Now in reflective mode, it consists of five personal confessions, five restorations and five afterlives, including a “fantasy alternative of Shelley’s middle age”.
The Amazon excerpt dishes up two approaches to writing biography:
- the Footsteps principle: the biographer must physically pursue his subject, going to all the places s/he has lived, worked, travelled or dreamed – the temporary places, the passing places, the lost places, the dream places
- the two-sided notebook concept: a notebook with a form of ‘double accounting’, consciously dividing between the objective and the subjective (in Footsteps he describes the fragments of his own travels becoming scattered and disjointed, while those of Shelley’s become “ever more intricate and detailed and dark”
Taking the three volumes together gives an interesting insight into the work of the biographer, with in Holmes’ case 200 working notebooks used and reused over a period of decades.
And while it’s still a moot point for me how far you need to have an active interest in the subject, it proves the adage that the more you know about something the more interesting it becomes. I’ll be taking a look at Holmes’ latest just as soon as the library can supply it.