Richard Holmes is the renowned biographer of Shelley and Keats and of books about biography, especially Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer. He is a Romantic in two senses: his subjects are Romantic poets, and his view of biography is suffused with the importance of feeling as a form of knowledge. So he writes in This Long Pursuit that the biographer should “physically pursue his subject through the past.” The biographer has to be there, Holmes insists, to get inside his subject: “He must feel how they once were.” Among biographers this notion has taken hold and made of Holmes himself a romantic figure––the fellow who has been there and done that. He serves, too, as a rebuke to armchair biographers who do not rough it (sleeping outdoors and braving all weathers) as Holmes has done in his (it must be said again) pursuit of his subjects. In short, the biographer as hero, ladies and gentlemen.
Holmes’s biographical axioms disintegrate if, like Hegel, we push a thesis to its extreme. How limited is knowledge if it depends on your gps? As Holmes himself knows, in fact it is not possible to position yourself in your subject’s place, since that place is forever changing––not only in space but in time. At best, the biographer can dredge for fragments of the past and like Proust get a whiff of history in a biscuit. For antithesis, I will cite a fictional example: In Absalom, Absalom! Quentin Compson reconstructs a Civil War scene in such vivid detail that he thinks (in italics): “No. If I had been there I could not have seen it this plain.” And when and where does he draw this conclusion? Not on a Civil War battlefield, not even in his native South, but in 1909, inside a cold––indeed, a freezing––Harvard dormitory room that Faulkner mentions fourteen times. As the novel makes clear, Quentin Compson cannot make sense of Thomas Sutpen or of his progeny when he is close to his home in Jefferson, Mississippi. Only at Harvard, only with the help of a Canadian, Shreve McCannon, who has never been to the South, can Quentin pull himself together to create what is, in essence, a biography.
It is not possible to position yourself in your subject’s place, since that place is forever changing.
Of course, it would be just as ridiculous to say to a biographer: “Don’t go there.” Nevertheless, it is a Romantic fetish to insist on proximity. Just as important to Holmes in those moments when he is not carried away by Romantic conceit is the “cumulative experience of the research journey,” a quest that can be physical but certainly is mental most of the time. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote about his travels on a donkey, but that does not mean that his biographer has to saddle up. That certain biographers cannot resist perambulation is fine with me––unless they produce bloated epics such as Norman Sherry’s multi-volume Graham Greene. Some footsteps biographers, or readers perhaps, have recarved Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s initials in a cave the poet visited so that his monogram will not fade––a touching story Holmes relates as a parable of the “essential cumulative process of biography itself.” But I don’t think we really need the story to make the point, unless you conclude I’m just not enough of a Romantic to treasure the trip.
For me the finest moments in Holmes’s book are his riveting stories of other biographers, especially John Aubrey and William Godwin. Aubrey wrote to the historian Anthony à Wood: “I here lay downe to you . . . the naked and plain trueth . . . Which is here exposed so bare, that the very pudenda are not covered.” An offended Wood called Aubrey a “shiftless person, roving and maggotie-headed, and sometimes little better than crazed.” Most biographers still have trouble with Aubrey’s degree of candor. I often hear those in my trade confess they do not want to offend this or that person, thus ignoring Samuel Johnson’s reaffirmation of Aubrey: the biographer’s obligation is to the truth, no matter what. So Godwin asserted when writing his biography/memoir of his wife, Mary Wollstonecraft. He resisted all calls to take out talk of love affairs and suicide attempts and, as a result, called down on himself the condemnation of just about everyone, including the likes of Harriet Martineau who wanted her female icons without blemish.
No one is better at the biographical essay than Richard Holmes.
No one is better at the biographical essay than Richard Holmes. In this volume, he includes deeply engaging and informative studies of Margaret Cavendish, Madame de Staël, Zélide, Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Somerville, Keats, Shelley, Coleridge, and William Blake. Especially intriguing are interactions between biographers and their subjects, as in Geoffrey Scott’s Portrait of Zélide and Alexander Gilchrist’s Life of William Blake. Holmes reveals how Scott’s sensibility drew him to his subject even as the biographer’s personality, in certain respects, got in the way. Gilchrist, on the other hand, simply buried himself in his sources and put all of himself at the service of his subject. The biographer died before seeing his work through the press, but his wife edited and carried out a faithful rendition of a work that rescued Blake from obscurity. What is even more moving is that while Gilchrist’s wife revered her husband, she was never quite sure she reciprocated his love during their marriage. The Gilchrist story, as Holmes tells it, is a profound meditation on the complex fate of biographers, biographies, and their subjects.
Holmes has spent almost all of his life outside of the academy. But on his one venture inside a university he tried to establish a kind of canon of great biographies that could serve as a model for both undergraduate and graduate study. This canon includes Boswell, of course, but also Mrs. Gaskell’s life of Charlotte Brontë, Carlyle’s life of John Sterling, Gilchrist’s Blake, Godwin’s Wollstonecraft, and Froude’s Carlyle, as well as a few biographies of nineteenth-century scientists, since Holmes believes the connections between science and literature have been sorely neglected. Holmes does not, however, have much to say about contemporary biographers––perhaps out of an undue concern for sensitivities that Aubrey and his ilk cared for not a whit.
In his chapter on Keats, Holmes does single out Robert Gittings, Walter Jackson Bate, Aileen Ward, Andrew Motion, and Stanley Plumly for praise as modern biographers he admires. Strangely enough, though, he does not mention Amy Lowell, whom Bate and Plumly extolled, the latter calling her two-volume masterpiece “the first great biography of Keats.” As Holmes knows, provenance matters. And yet, in my experience, few biographers know much about the history of the genre or want to do much more than put their predecessors in their place. It is, of course, a natural desire to tout what is new, especially in figures who are getting makeovers, but nothing is really new without a sense of history, which is exactly what Holmes brings to the practice and the study of modern biography. In the end, he is more than a Romantic, or, as he would probably have it, there is more to Romantic biography than the term implies. Above all, Holmes emphasizes the biographer’s need for empathy, but that can be acquired from where you sit as well as from where you go.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 10, on page 89
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