Practitioners of biography have written numerous books about their calling. Authors such as Paul Murray Kendall, Catherine Drinker Bowen, and Leon Edel have analyzed the nature of biography, explained their techniques, and sometimes argued with their peers, while exemplifying the problems and convictions arising from their various researches. Richard Holmes has written an entirely different kind of book: intimate, painfully candid, sometimes confessional. What is illustrative in other books about biography becomes the substance of this one. Holmes subordinates speculation about his art to a carefully chronological and psychological tracking of his subject. In addition, the book has a structure that invites a chronological pursuit of Holmes’s own professional life as it intensifies over a period of a dozen years.
Twice in Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer, Holmes refers to biographical pursuit as “haunting.” The word is aptly chosen, conveying as it does not only his method—an old method but one nobody has practiced more assiduously—of following in the footsteps of his subjects, but also the intensity of his relationships with them. As a young man in 1878, Robert Louis Stevenson journeyed through the Cévennes in Southern France on foot and donkey. As an even younger man in 1964, Holmes followed him, succumbing at one point to “the blackest gloom,” because a bridge Stevenson had crossed had crumbled away, necessitating a detour to a modern bridge fifty yards away. His identification with Stevenson becomes at times spookily complete as his account weaves nimbly back and forth between novelist and pursuer. Holmes unabashedly described his odyssey to villagers, who did not seem to find the young Englishman particularly loony and often assisted him in tracking “Steamson,” as they called him.
This haunting is for Holmes a prod to intuition as he attempts to grasp from the juxtaposition of Stevenson’s and his own presence in a house, a village, a landscape the inner meaning of the former’s journey. This was the period in Stevenson’s life when he was contemplating joining his fortunes to those of Fanny Osbourne, an American woman ten years his senior and, moreover, a married woman with three children, one of whom was only eight years younger than Stevenson. Holmes interprets Stevenson’s trip as an “initiation ceremony,” a consumptive writer’s physical struggle with an unfamiliar mountain region while he struggled inwardly to overcome the doubts and fears attendant upon his decision to marry Fanny in California after she obtained her divorce. Holmes sees this episode in his own adventures as a pre-biographic but necessary stage in his development. The reader senses that this early choice of the author of Treasure Island (1883) and Kidnapped (1886) as subject was a felicitous one.
The year 1968 (the biographical rhythms of the young Richard Holmes were uniformly quadrennial) finds him back in France, observing in France “the new French Revolution,” which consisted of strikes and student demonstrations that nearly brought down Charles de Gaulle’s government, and meanwhile searching back into the more stupendous uprising of the 1790’s. In this second quarter of Holmes’s book, the appropriateness of his subtitle, Adventures of a Romantic Biographer, comes into focus. He is not a romantic biographer in the sense of an irresponsible fictionalizer of “dashing” historical subjects. He is a man attracted first of all to writers who, like Stevenson, wrote romantic fiction and poetry and lived unconventional lives. Second, he has a consuming interest in the Romantic era of European culture, the first great wave of which coincided with the French Revolution and drew to Paris romantic revolutionaries from all over Europe. Third, as a member of the generation that came of age in the 1960’s, Holmes obviously considers himself qualified to interpret the lives of the young men and women sympathetic to the ideals and goals of the revolutionaries in late eighteenth century France. These include William Blake, William Wordsworth, in whose Parisian footsteps Holmes began to tread, and Mary Wollstonecraft, who emerged as his subject in 1968 because she decided to go to Paris in 1792, precisely at the time the struggle was heating up and Wordsworth was leaving for England.
Holmes’s decision at age twenty-two to haunt Wollstonecraft was a crucial one, for it led in the direction of her son-in-law, Percy Bysshe Shelley, who would later become the subject of Holmes’s major biographical achievement. It also led to the next and central generation of Romantics—not only Shelley, but also John Keats and George Gordon...
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