This is my review of Footsteps by Richard Holmes.
“Age of Wonder”, the brilliant biography of the lives of enlightenment scientists who inspired Romantic poets like Coleridge and Shelley prompted me to read “Footsteps” published by Richard Holmes thirty years earlier. This short book is a series of four essays describing his forensic retracing of the journeys and temporary resting places at key stages in the lives four famous writers.
In 1964, a precocious eighteen-year-old Holmes, at times somewhat pretentious in his desire to develop a written style, wanders through the beautiful wilderness of the French Cevennes in the wake of Robert Louis Stephenson and his long-suffering and frankly abused donkey Modestine. Four years later, as a Cambridge graduate rejecting the security and status of a well-paid conventional career, Holmes sets off for Paris to draw some parallels between the idealistic youthful hippy revolution of 1968 and the cataclysm of the French Revolution, with a focus on Mary Wollstonecraft, the feminist icon who in fact was unable to prevent her life being controlled to some degree by dominant men, but who experienced some of the most terrifying aspects of the “Reign of Terror” under Robespierre, unlike Wordsworth who had scuttled back to the safety of the Lake District. In 1972, Holmes loses himself in Italy in order to explore the self-imposed exile of Shelley. Finally in 1976, a fascination for what C19 photography can reveal to a biographer leads Holmes to immerse himself at the risk of his own sanity, in the life of the gifted but troubled Gérard de Nerval: “one is tempted to say that, had Nerval been born earlier he would have been saved by religions; had he been born later he would have been saved by psychoanalysis”.
What makes Holmes’ biographies so remarkable is his capacity to “get under the skin” and seem to inhabit the minds of his subjects. In “Footsteps” he includes interesting reflections on the at times all-absorbing to the point of obsession process of biography, as he begin to understand it. He perceives himself as “a sort of tramp permanently knocking at the kitchen window and secretly hoping he will be invited in for supper” or even as a ghost of past writers.
More than simply the collection of factual material, there is the “creation of a fictional or imaginary relationship between the biographer and his subject… a degree of more or less conscious identification with the subject”. He identifies the “moment of personal disillusion” when the biographer is “excluded from or thown out of the fictional rapport he has established” by a lack of reliable evidence. So, in the absence of “proof”, I was surprised by his theory that Shelley had an affair with his wife’s friend Claire Clairemont which led to a miscarriage, after which the poet adopted a foundling child born on the same day only to have it fostered elsewhere and die soon afterwards.
Perhaps inevitably, the essay format makes for a somewhat fragmented work, and the autobiographical passages can appear contrived and an almost irritating distraction from his subjects. “Footsteps” is a seedbed for the later flowering of a masterpiece like “Age of Wonder”, and it has made me want to read more of Mary Wollstonecraft’s clear, perceptive and remarkably “modern” work, and brought me to appreciate more the tragedy of Shelley’s circle and the genius of his poetry, realising that I have been too quick to reject Romantic poetry for its flowery sentimentality.