The third in the author’s series of riveting titles about the histories, activities, duties, and effects of biographers.
Holmes (Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air, 2013, etc.), who has written major biographies of Shelley, Coleridge, and others, has published previously on his current themes (Footsteps and Sidetracks), and his new volume brings together thoroughly rewritten pieces that had earlier incarnations as speeches, essays, and various ruminations. Early on he reiterates his fundamental belief that biographers must pursue their quarry: follow their footsteps and explore their sidetracks. Holmes proceeds to do so again here in sections that revisit the lives of the celebrated (Wollstonecraft, Shelley—both Mary and Percy Bysshe—Coleridge, Keats, Blake), but he also reacquaints us with some lesser-known notables like Margaret Cavendish, Isabelle de Tuyll, and Mary Somerville. The author’s focus remains sharp throughout, as he sketches his individuals’ lives, discusses the published biographies of them (from the earliest to the latest), and reveals his theories and beliefs about the writing of biography, beliefs that he has used to develop graduate courses in biography. Holmes proves to be a generous critic of the work of his predecessors and contemporaries—the word “superb” appears more than once—and he evinces awe when he considers what some early biographers experienced and endured to complete their work. In a few chapters, the author revises what we have previously thought about Coleridge’s early lectures and about the importance of Shelley’s drowning. Most impressive, though, are Holmes’ erudition—is there a relevant text he has not read or a significant site he has not visited?—and his clear, sharply focused prose. Throughout, he manifests the patience and the persistence to do right by his subjects.
Unparalleled research, transparent prose, and wide eyes can serve as a model for other biographers—indeed, for all other writers.