FOOTSTEPS: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer by Richard Holmes
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FOOTSTEPS: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Seductively charming memoir about Holmes' retracing the footsteps of his heroes--Robert Louis Stevenson, William Wordsworth, Mary Wollstonecraft, Percy Shelley, and Gerard de Nerval--in pursuit of their original feelings and for writing his various biographies. At 18, Holmes, a child of the '60's, left an English education tended by Roman Catholic monks and set out on foot through the central French countryside of the Cevennes, following every hill and vale mentioned by RLS in his early travel diary Travels with a Donkey. RLS says that the point of his 12-day trek was not to get anywhere but ""to get down off the feather bed of civilization, and to find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints."" Holmes meets the ghost of RLS everywhere but finds the going arduous, at last berating himself for keeping too assiduously to Stevenson's every footstep in the unattainable past. ""Somehow you had to produce the living effect, while remaining true to the dead fact. . .'Biography' meant. . .a kind of pursuit, a tracking of the physical trail of someone's path through the past, a following of footsteps. You would never catch them; no, you would never quite catch them. But may be, if you were lucky, you might write about the pursuit of that fleeting figure in such a way as to bring it alive in the present."" Through this ""pre-biographic"" haunting of RLS's trail and budding love life, and a deepening of his sense of RLS's utter physical being, even his smells and bone structure, Holmes finds that his subject is as illusory as a subatomic particle, definable only as a wave passing from here to there. Through his identification of Wordsworth's turmoil in Paris during the Revolution with Flower Power in Paris of the 1960's, Holmes is led to recover the experiences of captivating firebrand Mary Wollstonecraft in Paris during the same time. And her triumph and tragedy bring on some of Holmes' most moving pages, especially in his quotations from her works. She leads him into the pursuit of Shelley, her daughter's husband, and of his restless, hunting spirit's exile in Italy. This focuses on a spellbinding m‚nage … trois Shelley, Mary, and her stepsister Claire Clairmont (who also bore Byron's illegitimate daughter Allegra). In their eight years of companionship, Claire brought to Shelley's writing a vivid dark side that the literal-minded author of Frankenstein could not. Holmes bleaches Shelley of the angelic luminosity seen in him by the Victorians and brings him down to earth; in fact, he experiences Shelley's drowning as a death in his own family. The last chapter, about the mad poet Gerard de Nerval and the history of portrait photography in Paris in the 1850's, filled with finely observed facial imagery (like police photographs) of Baudelaire and others as they aged, is exceptional. This is Holmes' breakthrough book and will bring his quirky, personalized biographies to the larger public they deserve.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1985
ISBN: 0679770046
Publisher: Viking