‘Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer’ by Richard Holmes

275 p, 1985

If Richard Holmes wrote blockbuster movies instead of biographies, this book would be one of those “Making of…”  extras on the DVD.   “Footsteps” is the biographer as autobiographer, shining his spotlight onto the biographer doing biography. It combines an explanation of Holmes’ own search for understanding of his subjects, his decision-making in shaping the story of their lives in a narrative sense,  and his reflections on his own development as a biographer.

The book itself is divided into four fairly lengthy parts (about 60 pages), and each deals with a different biographical “hunt”.  Not all of these searches seem to have eventuated in a publication, although it’s a little hard to tell as there are two Richard Holmes, both historians, both British, – one a military historian (born in 1946) and then my Richard Holmes the biographer (born in 1945).  The biographies described in this book revolve around Romantic intellectuals during, and in the decades following, the French Revolution.

In Part I he starts off retracing (literally) Robert Louis Stevenson’s tour through the Cevennes  in France.  This is the biographer with his hiking shoes and backpack, embarking on a kind of pilgrimage to the places Stevenson visited.  Holmes is only 19 here, and he comes to realize as he tries to cross a now-derelict and impassible bridge that Stevenson crossed that it is not possible to for the biographer “cross literally into the past”.

Even in imagination the gap was there.  It had to be recognized; it was no good pretending.  You could not play-act into the past, you could not turn it into a game of make-believe.  There had to be another way.  Somehow you had to produce the living effect, while remaining true to the dead fact.  (p. 27)

The next section takes us to Paris in 1968, and Holmes, not yet settled in his vocation as biographer,  is swept up in the drama and historical self-consciousness of the 1968 student riots.   Yet he felt a certain distance from the events: was this, he wondered, how English intellectuals in Revolutionary France had felt too?   In particular, he considered Mary Wollstonecraft who arrived in France in 1792 and remained there during the excesses of the Revolution and when many other English intellectuals had returned home.  He focussed on her time alone at Le Havre  with her young child.  In this section Holmes uses his own experience of the 1968 riots at a touchstone by which to explore the reactions of English intellectuals in Paris over 150 years earlier.

1968 was not the break with the past that he (and many others) thought it would be.  For the Romantic intellectuals, too, the conservatism of the 1820s extinguished much of the optimism generated by the early Revolutionary days.   In the third section of the book- the one I enjoyed the most- he focusses on Shelley and his wife Mary, and the relationship with Claire Clairmont, Mary’s step-sister.  From his 1972 perspective of broken and experimental marriages, Holmes explores the emotional lives of these exiles and argues that there was a relationship between Shelley and Claire that they concealed from Mary Shelley.

The final part of the book jumps forward to 1976 when Holmes, almost against his will, is drawn into exploring the life of Gerard de Nerval, a journalist and poet who committed suicide in 1855.  This biography was never published and Holmes himself seemed to be drawn into a labyrinth of insanity, tampered documentation and shifting identities during the process of following Nerval’s footsteps.

What I loved about this book was when he talks about biography as a literary genre and the role of the biographer.  The index is brilliant for this book- without fail, each time I found a part that I thought “Oooh, I must put a post-it note here”, the indexer had noted it before me.  There’s much food for thought for me here:   the salience of place and location in writing a biography; the technique of writing from the subject’s view outwards rather than the other way round;  the biographer’s intimacy with her subject; the biographer’s trust in character and the problem of self-identification.  This is not heavy-handed- it is sprinkled throughout the book, and generally raised in the context of a particular biographical problem.  And as you might imagine, the book is beautifully written.  One slight quibble would be that the French quotations throughout the book are not translated, although usually he provides enough contextual cues to work out what has been said, and he’s challenging his reader to work a little.  Nonetheless a very little footnote wouldn’t go astray.

I loved this book.  In fact, I may even come back for more, because he also released Sidetracks: Explorations of a Romantic Biographer in 2000.  There’s an interesting article about Richard Holmes in the Guardian. His partner (in 2008) is Rose Tremain-  I wonder if they’d invite me for dinner one evening?

8 responses to “‘Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer’ by Richard Holmes

  1. English assuming everyone can read French is intellectual snobbery. I am surprised it persists.

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