This Long Pursuit

For reasons at which I can only guess, a cohort of great English biographers was born in the 1930s and 1940s, among them Claire Tomalin, Michael Holroyd, Hilary Spurling, Selina Hastings, Jenny Uglow, Hermione Lee, Peter Ackroyd, and the recipient of today’s attention, Richard Holmes. Speaking generally, Holmes and the others share a particular sort of empathy with their subjects that — perhaps? — reflects their having come of age as writers in a postwar era of loosening British reticence and, more important, of growing impatience with the notion of empirical objectivity. For Holmes, whose writing career began in the last third of the twentieth century, biography implies a certain intimacy; it is a “handshake across time” and “a simple act of complex friendship.”

Best known for his fine biographies of Percy Bysshe Shelley and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Holmes is also the author of any number of other works, including The Age of Wonder on the Romantics’ discovery of the sublimity of science, and now, with the publication This Long Pursuit, three collections of shorter pieces. In “Travelling,” the first chapter in the present book, Holmes writes that empathy is the biographer’s “most valuable but perilous weapon.” Empathy of some sort is a fairly obvious requirement for the biographer of any era, but like all abstract qualities its nature and meaning mutate over the generations. For Holmes, empathy involves more than sympathy or intellectual grasp, but something akin to union. He decided early on that biography demanded that he “physically pursue his subject through the past,” putting himself in every place the subjects lived, visited, passed through, and even dreamed of, to recapture what they experienced.

As he travels and pursues his research through texts, correspondence, journals, and what have you, he engages in “a form of double accounting,” keeping a record of the objective facts of his subject’s life on the right side of a notebook and his own questions, speculations, impressions, emotions — all his reactions and puzzlements — on the left side. In this way he edges into the life, getting as close to his subject’s experience and inner world as possible. In Holmes’s view, biography is a “an act of imaginative faith,” and I would say that it is not given to everyone to pull it off — the faculty is a rare one.

The book includes a chapter on the questions he raised in his own mind in writing The Age of Wonder, which is to say, questions on the relationship of science and creative literature — a subject that I, in a distinct minority, find interesting only in its loonier manifestations. There is an excellent chapter on the teaching of biography writing and the changing nature of biography over time, the latter being one of his persistent themes. There’s another fine essay on memory, which is to say, forgetting; and a chapter on ballooning — the author’s eccentric obsession, about which he wrote his last book, Falling Upwards.

After all this, Holmes gets down to business — his business: biographical writing. In separate chapters he looks at the lives of ten writers who flourished — artistically, if not materially — in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Some are his old pals, notably Shelley, Coleridge, and Wollstonecraft, and in taking them up again he demonstrates how never-ending the writing of one life truly is. In a wonderful essay, “Shelley Unbound,” Holmes discusses the warping effect the actual events in a subject’s life have on our later assessment of that subject. This is a very odd, very astute observation, and one he explores brilliantly in showing how Shelley’s untimely death “was used to define an entire life, to frame a complete biography,” producing “what might be called thanatography.” Prime mover in this respect was Shelley’s friend, “the incorrigible myth-making” Edward John Trelawny, who, over fifty years, continued to rewrite his account of the fatal shipwreck “accumulating more and more baroque details, like some sinister biographical coral reef.”

The emphasis put on the Romantic tragedy of the poet’s death — which Holmes shows to have been the result of imprudence, bad luck, and incompetently altered boat design, rather than destiny — affected not only assessments of Shelley’s character but also how his poems were interpreted, lending them a fatalistic and prophetic import. As a tonic, Holmes throws the Romantic version of Shelley as “a youthful, sacrificial genius” up against an alternate history in which the poet does not die at twenty-nine in 1822. Given the trajectory of his unfinished work and his political beliefs, Shelley, Holmes suggests, would likely have put his pen behind the Reform Bill of 1832, “sharpened up” John Stuart Mill, “hobnobbed with Coleridge at Highgate (‘a little more laudanum, Bysshe?’),” and eventually be “scandalously elected as the first Professor of Poetry and Politics at the newly founded, and strictly secular, University of London.”

In addition to Shelley, Coleridge, and Wollstonecraft, Holmes devotes a chapter to Margaret Cavendish (“Mad Madge”), developing the theme that women, excluded from membership in the Royal Society for 285 years, were more alert than men to the social implications of science. Other chapters cover Isobelle de Tuyll, known as Zélide, and her first biographer, Geoffrey Scott; Madame de Staël and her influence of the Romantics and later writers; Mary Somerville, first to write about science for the common reader; the interpretations and uses of John Keats (though Holmes is strangely silent on the adventures of Keats and Chapman in Myles na Gopaleen’s ludicrous columns in the Irish Times of yore); the portrait painter Thomas Lawrence; and William Blake and the reclamation of his reputation.

Holmes has called himself “an experimental biographer . . . fascinated equally by lives as they are lived, and lives as they are told.” The pieces here are an expression of that, of “the infinitely puzzling difference between chance and destiny in biographical narrative; between the contingent and the inevitable, between the phrase ‘and then . . . ‘ and the phrase ‘and because . . . ‘ ” as each sends the story off in a different direction. Life may be short, but biography never ends.