Earlier this summer, during two and a half days of sun, I was persuaded to join a Wordsworth and Coleridge pilgrimage in Somerset. One of the chief attractions was a rumour that Richard Holmes, currently working on a Life of Coleridge, would appear. For a day and a half there was much talk of Mr Holmes. How would he appear? Over what hill? Across what pond? From time to time messages would arrive which we carefully decoded. Then suddenly a man in a field called threateningly to us: were we looking for Mr Sherlock Holmes? We agreed that we were. He pointed onwards and we increased our pace, stumbling like a group of Dr Watsons, in pursuit of this now legendary figure – whom we eventually caught up with innocently poised near a cream tea.
It was no surprise, then, to learn from his book that in France this solitary and enigmatic traveller was also known as le grand Sherlock. He has the magical sleuthing abilities of his namesake: but for every new biographical clue which is gained, something of himself seems vulnerable to loss, like an old skin shed, until the biographer himself grows insubstantial, almost invisible.
Mr Holmes picked up the biographical trail early. After ten years of English boarding schools, brought up by Roman Catholic monks, he slipped the leash and set off in search of freedom and a new identity. It was 1964 and he was 18. ‘Free thought, free travel, free love was what I wanted,’ he writes. He was travelling in the footsteps of R.L. Stevenson – ‘Monsieur Steamson’, as the French called him – who almost ninety years earlier had journeyed down the Cevennes with his donkey. Mr Holmes’s pursuit is a humorous and charming adventure in which his insights into Stevenson’s character, particularly his relationship with Fanny Osbourne whom he was later to marry, run parallel to a process of self-discovery.
Though he wanted to be a poet – and he has written poetry – Richard Holmes is inescapably a biographer: oblique, vicarious, elusive, passionately suspended between two lives as he gathers material for an autobiographical narrative through the biographical evidence of others – those he has chosen rather than been given through the facts of birth and upbringing. Already in his first chapter he is no longer Richard Holmes from Downside and Churchill College, Cambridge. He has taken on the temperament of ‘Le Brun’, a remarkable hat which is always being doffed to pretty girls and which leads him uncomplainingly into all sorts of odd encounters. What we are seeing here, and in his subsequent dreams, promenades, souvenirs, pursuits, is the making of a biographer and the development of a biographical philosophy.
The second chapter catches him up in Paris in 1968. It is the time of the student uprisings which, by suspending history, he identifies with the French Revolution as seen by the English Romantics. Seeking some mirror of the present in the past, he begins by looking at the Revolution through the eyes of Wordsworth, but, needing the decisive experience of a first-hand witness, he soon becomes absorbed in the life of Mary Wollstonecraft. Once again he follows literally and imaginatively where the biographical materials lead, discovering ‘a wholly different world-view of what a revolution required of its participants’. In particular he moves away from a boyish urge for bloody and dramatic action to the revolution of sensibility which Mary Wollstonecraft underwent. The tension of his narrative comes from the balance he constructs between romanticism and realism, between an historical and a biographical perspective where public events are matched against emotional development. It is the revolution of the heart that most engages him. There is great sympathy and even-handedness in the account he gives of Mary Wollstonecraft’s love affair with the American Gilbert Imlay, and great tenderness in his description of their daughter Fanny. This is a specially fine and sensitive achievement because, as he is slowly finding out, the life of intimacy and day-to-day events is particularly difficult for a biographer to recapture. After all, much domestic life goes unrecorded in letters or even journals. The literary biographer may sometimes have a device for penetrating this silence: he uses the autobiographical subtext of his subject’s books. Richard Holmes gives a perfect illustration of how this may legitimately and convincingly be done through Mary Wollstonecraft’s little-known ‘Letters for Children’.
The third chapter, entitled ‘Exiles’, is a natural progression from what has come before. It takes the author to Italy four years later, and in particular to the Appenines and Tuscany where he follows Mary Wollstonecraft’s second daughter Mary, now married to Shelley and living in a mysterious peripatetic ménage à trois with Claire Clairmont. This section may be read as a postscript to Mr Holmes’s life of Shelley, revealing some of his second thoughts on that triangular relationship which he now thinks he may have partially distorted to the disadvantage of Mary Shelley through having himself fallen in love with Claire Clairmont – another heady risk of writing biography. This chapter gives a fascinating description of a biographer at work. Mr Holmes was possessed by Shelley – to the extent of dating one of his cheques 1772 instead of 1972. He speaks eloquently of his need to go to places as well as to papers, to balance outdoor with indoor research; of how he concentrated his mind by looking at pictures, statues, buildings and where possible the landscapes and seascapes Shelley himself looked at, finding in them clues to the sources of literary creation and giving himself the opportunity of reinterpreting Shelley’s life from the inside.
There are dangers in craving such intimacy with the dead and sensing the past rather than the present as a living influence. Part of what lies behind this process is a lack of self-esteem which may cause the biographer to ‘disappear’ – and then reappear by mixing his identity with that of the biographee. This is one of the cardinal sins of biography, the aim of which is to resurrect the dead and not be absorbed into a dead world oneself. During his researches Richard Holmes kept a diary recording his own experiences on one side of the page, and Shelley’s on the other. Before long Shelley’s narrative greatly exceeded his own. Footsteps is the product of this intertextuality and the imaginary conversations scored over those contrapuntal pages. Though he wears his learning with the lightness of a helium balloon, Mr Holmes is a considerable scholar whose command of facts and chronology saved him from the wrong sort of involvement with his subject. He achieved intimacy, but not subjective intimacy: the objective thread in the biographical pattern is preserved. He can look in at Shelley’s life as well as look out from it – literally so from the houses where Shelley lived, using one of the biographer’s technological aids to research: the camera.
Like many of our best modern biographers, Mr Holmes has sometimes dreamed of writing in one of the more venerable, not to say shorter, genres of literature. Once he had wished to be a poet; then he wanted to write novels. ‘I would follow no one’s footsteps but my own,’ he declared. But by 1976, once more in Paris, his imagination is alerted, and that part of the past which lies dormant in us all is awakened in him by a remarkable photograph of Gérard de Nerval – and he is off again in someone else’s footsteps. This is the most dangerous journal of all. Nerval had been a solitary traveller accompanied only by his schizophrenic other self. He was also a labyrinthine dreamer whose physical and metaphysical rovings could not be fitted into the logical structures of biography that Mr Holmes had so painstakingly acquired since his Stevenson days. There were too many hallucinations and not enough facts. Besides, the romance that Nerval embodied, and Mr Holmes seeks, was extinguished by the modern industrialised society, with its railways and banks and materialistic values, then emerging in France. ‘The spirit of Romanticism was being overcome by Realism,’ writes Mr Holmes, ‘like a candle being carried into a room fitted with electric light. One is tempted to say that, had Nerval been born earlier, he would have been saved by religion; had he been born later, he would have been saved by psychoanalysis.’
As it was, he could not be saved. When the solid ground started to slip away, ‘my own position as biographer began to be shaken with doubts,’ Mr Holmes records. Nerval was a manic depressive whose mental alienation seemed to call for a psychoanalytical study beyond the limits of biography. In addition, there were dangers in being trapped in the mind and memory of someone who had spent periods in an asylum and eventually hanged himself. To these dangers Mr Holmes was alerted by an alarming accident, falling through a skylight at the top of a building where, astrologer-like, he was searching for his phantom quarry in the skies. He was rescued by a femme inspiratrice – another vital element in the male biographer’s career – who glimmers romantically through the pages of this book as a guiding spirit, first appearing at the end of his Stevenson journey, then summoning him to Paris during the students’ revolt, also taking him at the end of his Nerval misadventures to a late-night showing of Les Enfants du Paradis, and finally returning him, in the last sentence of the book, chez toi.
Mr Holmes’s dream-biography of Gérard de Nerval, opening with his death and ending with his birth, was never published. Instead he channelled the material into a radio play and has now translated his experiences and some of his research into this moving and exhilarating dream-essay which charts the frontiers of biography. The cumulative effect of the travels, revolutions, exiles and dreams that form this book is to extend those frontiers.
Some fifty years ago Virginia Woolf likened the biographer to the miner’s canary ‘testing the atmosphere, detecting falsity, unreality, and the presence of obsolete conventions’. Compared to fiction and poetry, biography had only recently begun its career, but such experiments as Lytton Strachey’s Elizabeth and Essex or A.J.A. Symons’s The Quest for Corvo pointed the way to further discoveries. Richard Holmes’s Footsteps is another such experiment, and an enterprising example of biography-in-action that may be read at several levels of literary and psychological detection. It is also a work of originality that offers a solution to the main problem of biography identified by Virginia Woolf. The biographer wants the best of both worlds – the artistic freedom to invent and the reliance on authenticated fact – to make a book ‘that was not only a biography but also a work of art’, she wrote. But ‘fact and fiction refused to mix’ because biography, needing facts provided by people other than the writer, imposed conditions in which they destroyed each other.
Richard Holmes has overcome this obstacle by imposing different conditions. He selects those facts from other people’s lives that have been signposts on his own journeys. But he also maps his occasional misreadings of these signposts and his wanderings from the authenticated route when enticed by visions, speculations, fantasies, and other inventions which are nevertheless the facts of his travels. These facts and fictions do not destroy one another, but achieve that ‘amalgamation of dream and reality’ Virginia Woolf looked forward to, ‘that perpetual marriage of granite and rainbow’.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.