A marmite of reflections

This is my review of This Long Pursuit: Reflections of a Romantic Biographer by Richard Holmes.

Having read his two-part study of Coleridge, and “The Age of Wonder” which explores how the Romantics were influenced by “the beauty and terror” of the scientific discoveries of their day, I admire Richard Holmes as outstanding amongst biographers. So perhaps my expectations were too high for “The Long Pursuit”, the third in a series of reflections on the nature of biography, fleshed out with brief portraits of past lives.

Despite attending a lively talk by the author, I remain unclear about the three-part structure of this book: “Confessions” which explores the process of writing a biography, with many digressions, asking to what extent it can be formally taught as a “body of knowledge; “Restorations” which amounts to five short biographies of it would seem arbitrarily-chosen women who mostly formed part of the Romantic period, including Mary Wollstonecraft, already covered in his work “Footsteps”, and finally “Afterlives” which focuses on five “Romantic era” men, mostly poets (Coleridge, Shelley, Keats and Blake) with the at times almost invisible “common thread” of how reputations may fluctuate after death, as individuals are misremembered, judgements alter as society's attitudes change, source materials are selectively destroyed or discovered, biographers develop rival interpretations, and so on.

The book contains fascinating “nuggets” such as the author’s collection of two-hundred handwritten notebooks, with objective facts on the right-hand page, and subjective responses to the person under study on the left. There are amusing anecdotes such as the fact that, when Richard Holmes- who rightly travels in the footsteps of all his subjects – climbed on to the roof terrace at Greta Hall where Coleridge wrote and observed "the old moon with the new moon in her arms", he found that the pupils at what is now a girls' boarding school hid their vodka and cigarettes there. The portraits included as illustrations are also striking.

However, the book contains too much rehashing of “old material”, a patchwork of fragments from works by Richard Holmes which I have already consumed, leaving me with a sense of being cheated. In all the previous books of his which I have read, there has been a strong cohesive theme linking the chapters, providing a clear context for the often minute detail. Here, I felt unengaged by the continual flitting around without a clear purpose. I concluded that the book is best treated as a series of free-standing essays.

“This long pursuit” has a detailed index, and may include points of value to students. It has a “serendipitous” quality by which I mean that reading it, you may discover the odd point of interest by chance, without actively looking for it. This may make it very appealing to some readers, but I suspect others will skip through or abandon it with a sense of regret.

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars

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