Opposite the title page of “This Long Pursuit: Reflections of a Romantic Biographer” is a list of Richard Holmes’s previous books. Over the years I seem to have read nearly all of them except “Shelley: The Pursuit ” (1974), a biography of the English poet and freethinker, and “Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air ” (2013), a history of ballooning. Sooner or later, I will probably get around to the Shelley. That history of pre-Wright Brothers air travel — maybe.
Holmes’s remaining books, I can testify, are among the most engaging literary biographies of our time, belonging in the same class as — to name a few of my favorites by his British contemporaries — Claire Tomalin’s “Samuel Pepys,” Jenny Uglow’s “The Lunar Men,” Hermione Lee’s “Penelope Fitzgerald,” Peter Ackroyd’s “Blake” and Michael Holroyd’s “A Strange Eventful History.”
In “Dr. Johnson & Mr. Savage ,” (1993) for instance, Holmes takes us into the alleyways of 18th-century Grub Street as he tracks the rise of Samuel Johnson and the downward spiral of his onetime mentor, Richard Savage. “Coleridge: Early Visions” (1989) and “Coleridge: Darker Reflections” (1998) together form a 900-page life of a major poet, intellectual, plagiarist and laudanum addict. More recently, “The Age of Wonder” (2008) proffers a group portrait of British science in the era of naturalist Joseph Banks, astronomers John and Caroline Herschel and chemist Humphry Davy.
Holmes’s “This Long Pursuit” is itself a complement to two earlier volumes: “Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer” (1985) and “Sidetracks: Explorations of a Romantic Biographer” (2000). All three are, essentially, collections of essays, talks, reminiscences and reviews held together by their author’s description of himself as a “romantic biographer.” That phrase carries multiple meanings: While Holmes’s field is, roughly, England in the age of Coleridge, he sometimes writes about romantic figures of other nations and periods (poet Gérard de Nerval, novelist Robert Louis Stevenson) and he himself clearly possesses an adventurous, romantic spirit.
In this new book’s first essay, “Travelling,” Holmes suggests that “biography is not merely a mode of historical enquiry. It is an act of imaginative faith.” To attain the requisite empathy, he early on adopted two key practices. The first he called the Footsteps principle. “I had come to believe that the serious biographer must physically pursue his subject through the past,” he explains. “Mere archives were not enough. He must go to all the places where the subject had ever lived or worked, or travelled or dreamed.” The biographer must then try to grasp their impact on his subject. “He must step back, step down, step inside the story.”
Holmes’s second principle was “the Two-Sided Notebook concept.” On the right-hand page of his working notebooks — there are now nearly 200 of them — he sets down objective facts, “as minutely and accurately as possible.” But on the left-hand page he records “my most personal responses, my feelings and speculations, my questions and conundrums, my difficulties and challenges.” Only by bringing these two aspects of his research together can he begin to inhabit a subject’s life.
This system certainly seems to work, because Holmes’s books, while biographically persuasive, always feel subtly personal. The “Footsteps principle” allows the narrative to build on clearly visualized scenes, even as the overall tone is that of intimate, civilized conversation. Above all, Holmes never comes across as stiff or stuffy, but rather, at 71, almost boyishly eager to share his delight in the surprising vagaries of a human life or the odd factoids of history. Did you know, for instance, that Voltaire attended Isaac Newton’s funeral at Westminster Abbey? In these newly collected pieces, Holmes discusses, among much else, Coleridge’s lecturing technique; William Godwin’s tell-all biography of his feminist wife, Mary Wollstonecraft; German romantic philosophy; the scientific achievements of Mary Somerville and Ada Lovelace; Edgar Allan Poe’s hoax journalism; the portrait paintings of Sir Thomas Lawrence; the afterlife of Keats; and the relative neglect of Madame de Stael.
Periodically Holmes also comments on how biographies both interpret their subjects and reflect their authors. Geoffrey Scott’s celebrated “Portrait of Zélide” (1925) traces the life of Isabelle de Charrière and naturally dwells on her middle-aged love affair with the 26-years-younger Benjamin Constant. In fact, this concise biography draws some of its power from Scott’s own intense relationships with distinguished older women, including Mary Berenson and Edith Wharton.
In 2001, Holmes tells us, he quite hesitantly agreed to offer a course on biographical writing at the University of East Anglia. As he recalls in “Teaching,” he initially put together a list of 27 classics of English-language biography, including John Aubrey’s “Brief Lives,” James Boswell’s “The Life of Samuel Johnson,” Williams Hazlitt’s “The Spirit of the Age,” Elizabeth Gaskell’s “Life of Charlotte Brontë,” Lytton Strachey’s “Eminent Victorians” and Richard Ellmann’s “James Joyce.” Aware that even classics are regularly superseded by the discoveries of later scholars, Holmes made mutability — all the “shifts and differences — factual, formal, stylistic, ideological, aesthetic — between early and later biographies” — a major theme of his course. Students would consequently “discover how reputations developed, how fashions changed, how social and moral attitudes moved, how standards of judgment altered, as each generation, one after another, continuously reconsidered and idealized or condemned its forebears in the writing and rewriting of biography.”
All in all, “This Long Pursuit” offers an abundance of literary entertainment and instruction, though Holmes is probably still groaning about calling the great Stuart beauty Virginia — instead of Venetia — Stanley. His title, which on the surface refers back to Holmes’s own youthful biography, “Shelley: The Pursuit,” also strikes me as doubly suggestive, or am I wrong to hear a faint echo — happier and more active — of the sickly Alexander Pope’s most haunting phrase, “This long disease, my life”?
Michael Dirda reviews books on Thursday in Style.
At 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Richard Holmes will be at Kramerbooks, 1517 Connecticut Ave. NW.
By Richard Holmes
Pantheon. 360 pp. $30