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False Scents

Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer

by Richard Holmes
Viking, 288 pp., $18.95

Buoyant, adventurous, intimate, vivid, and occasionally silly are some preliminary adjectives to describe Footsteps, a book about a biographer in pursuit of his subjects. Richard Holmes is the author of a life of Shelley, published in 1974. Part of the present volume describes the research and writing that went into that book. In addition, there are three separate essays, on Mary Wollstonecraft, on Gérard de Nerval, and on a two-week walk through the Cévennes on the trail of Robert Louis Stevenson and his donkey Modestine. The common theme is the effort to understand, even to resurrect briefly, figures from the distant past; it will occasion no surprise that some of the essays turn out better than others.

Perhaps because it is more of an adventure story and less of a psychological inquisition, the hike through the Cévennes comes off as the most successful piece of writing. Holmes was just eighteen when he made his journey (Stevenson was twenty-seven when he made his march about one hundred years before). Like Stevenson, Holmes walked alone, covering about the same distance each day, spending (if anything) even less money, and sleeping most nights in the open. The biographical point about Stevenson, which Holmes says he uncovered on his walk, is not very recondite; Stevenson himself made it clear in a letter to his brother. He was taking stock of his life, testing his penchant for a hard, nomadic existence, preparing to break ties with his protective family, abandon Europe, and marry Mrs. Fanny Osbourne, whom he had met earlier near Barbizon. (She was twelve years older than Stevenson, the mother of three children, and still married to her first husband when he met her. In preparing for his trans-Atlantic—soon to be extended into a trans-Pacific—plunge, Stevenson obviously had a lot to think about. It’s not surprising that he left abruptly, just two months after publishing Travels with a Donkey, without even trying to explain himself to his parents in Edinburgh.)

But all this is on the surface of the Stevenson story, and Holmes when he made his own trip either knew it already or could easily have found it out in a library. The real motive for his trip—of which there is no reason to be ashamed—was nothing more profound than a boyish case of hero worship. And as such the story comes off very well. Holmes’s accounts of the scenery are as exhilarating, and his encounters with peasant characters as amusing, as Stevenson’s own. Like Stevenson on his trip, Holmes evidently took the occasion to practice his prose style—the form invites one to be airy, confessional, and self-derisive by turns—and despite one or two overportentous moments, he sustains his part admirably.

But following Robert Louis Stevenson on a two-week hike through the Cévennes is a very different project from writing the life of that deeply hallucinated, visionary man, Gérard de Nerval. From childhood, Gérard lived in a world of reverberant echoes, names in which were hidden like fossil shells the ancient memory of other names. One of his best-known stories, for example, is called “Sylvie”; and Sylvie is a genuine acquaintance of Gérard’s boyhood town, Mortefontaine—a pretty, unassuming provincial lace maker, whom (in the course of the story) Gérard takes to a special midsummer’s-eve dance. There is no reason to question her “real” identity. But the dance is a nineteenth-century survival of primitive, perhaps Druidical rites; and because Sylvie recalls some of the old folk songs of the Valois countryside, her presence is interwoven, for Gérard, with the traditions and historic personages of the land. In her name she recalls the sixteenth-century Duchesse de Montmorency who lived in the nearby Château de Chantilly, and whom all the poets of her day celebrated under the name of “Sylvie.” And a thousand years before that era, even before Christianity came to the Valois, it was the country of Frankish tribes known as the Sylvanectes—whose name is still enclosed in that of the modern Sylvie’s brother, Sylvain.

Everybody and everything in Nerval’s world are not just what they are today, but also what they were a hundred or a thousand years ago. Ermenonville, the nearby estate of the Baron de Girardin who was Rousseau’s last patron, gets its name (according to Gérard) from a German tribal chief named Hermanus; but before that it was named after the Greek god Hermes. And the name “de Nerval” which Gérard Labrunie assumed to himself, taking the name from a tiny property owned by his father near Mortefontaine—what did it imply if not a reminiscence of, or even a connection with, the Roman emperor Nerva?

To write the life of a man whose mind slithers so deviously along the back paths of verbal analogy and association, who exists so largely in a dream fed by underground springs of arcane reading, is obviously a delicate imaginative undertaking. Holmes wrote a book of seven hundred pages on Nerval, and confesses with engaging frankness that it came out such a mess that no publisher would touch it. The essay that he has salvaged for these pages suggests some of the reasons for his failure; it is literal and one-dimensional. When it ventures into symbolic meaning, it moves stiffly with the support of inflexible props like the Tarot deck, and mostly it relies on such imperceptive evidences as the sneering “appreciations” of the poet’s journalistic contemporaries. Very likely biography is a basically inappropriate way to approach this illuminated mind which continually invited the dream, from within and from without, to encroach on its definition of reality. Certainly one can’t go very far with Nerval unless one gives far more importance to his imaginative writing than Holmes seems prepared to grant; and no doubt this accounts for the fact that the study of Nerval is the most overt failure of the book.

The two essays on Mary Wollstonecraft and on the Shelley circle in Italy deal with material more accessible in itself and more familiar to English readers. Neither of these essays is likely to produce much fresh material on its subject, since there have recently been five full-length biographies of Wollstonecraft, as well as interpretative articles and annotated editions galore; while Holmes’s own biography of Shelley, though not large by the standard of Shelley biographies, contained more than eight hundred pages. But the essays in Footsteps have to do less with actual biographies than with the biographer’s approach to his subjects. And here it becomes clear what Holmes means by calling himself, in his subtitle, a “romantic biographer.” In the most literal sense, he is concerned with some Romantic poets of the early nineteenth century and figures associated with them. Byron is an unsympathetic exception, and of Keats Holmes has relatively little to say. It’s not likely that he would find Wordsworth congenial, but his present project is said to be a biography of Coleridge. In short, he is drawn to the more visionary of the visionary company, and this because his biographical method is itself committed in considerable degree to the visionary approach.

Holmes aims at a quality of sympathy with his subjects that is intuitive rather than documentary. Much of this empathy he gains by revisiting the places where his subjects lived and trying to relive the experiences he imagines they must have had. If he cannot have exactly the same experiences (they are frequently hard to arrange), he makes the most of what he conceives to be analogous ones. It is a specially intimate relation between biographer and subject that he invokes; and of course it sometimes involves a good deal of make-believe. The quiet Italian piazzas where the Romantic poets dawdled over their brandy and coffee are now crowded parking lots; the villas they rented have largely disappeared in urban sprawl, industrial squalor, and the zoom of the Autostrada. In any case, it is the ultimate delusion to suppose that when we look at the exact same thing as some figure out of the past, we are capable of looking at it with his eyes.

Supplementing the past with analogies and imaginings is a natural consequence of pretensions to intimacy inhibited by a very imperfect historical record. Holmes considers himself naturally sympathetic with Stevenson because Stevenson had abandoned his childhood Presbyterianism while his biographer had left the Catholic fold. He has special insight into Wollstonecraft’s involvement with the French Revolution because some people he knew were engaged in the French student riots of 1968. (He did not, by his own account, know these people particularly well, and he never considered mounting a barricade himself; but he had insight, or so we are to think.) He has been acquainted with some people who set up unconventional ménages or broke up conventional ones; so this gives him special sympathies with the Shelley–Mary–Hogg–Claire–Byron complex of sexual partners, whatever its full ramifications amounted to. Holmes is, in a phrase that recurs rather too often, “a child of the Sixties” (he was born in 1945), and this gives him special understanding of his subjects, especially the less staid ones, like Claire Clairmont.

All biographers, of course, have a right to their favorite characters, starting with the original sympathy that leads them to choose a particular subject. But sympathies founded on one’s association with a particular decade seem pretty thin. And when Holmes says (page 135) that he has avoided reading too much of the work of his predecessor in Shelley biography, Newman Ivey White, lest his own spontaneous reactions be inhibited thereby, he’s on thin ice indeed.

I hold no particular brief for White’s biography, or for its just as densely documented though more critically inclined companion by Kenneth Neill Cameron. But these volumes, though long, are not dangerous; and if Holmes had consulted them more regularly, he might not have announced so often, as his original perceptions, ideas that in fact have a long pedigree. Indeed, Holmes is not altogether immune from the temptation to exaggerate his own innocence in order to announce a dramatic “discovery.” Thus, after spending some time communing with the departed spirits at Shelley’s last house in San Terenzo by the gulf of La Spezia, he reaches a climactic resolution to write a biography that will replace the Victorian image of Shelley as an angelic, unworldly creature. A proper resolution, indeed; but one needn’t journey to La Spezia to make it; in fact Holmes wouldn’t have gone to La Spezia in the first place if he hadn’t decided that the Victorian view of Shelley needed replacing. And if he had combed more carefully through Newman Ivey White’s second volume, he might have learned how little that resolution was original, how long is the record of dissatisfaction with Matthew Arnold’s wretched formula of the beautiful ineffectual angel, etc.

By all odds the oddest of Holmes’s fantasies is that when he was photographing the house at Bagni di Lucca where the Shelleys spent a couple of months in the summer of 1818, a young boy who accidentally stepped in front of his camera was actually the ghost of little William Shelley, who died in Rome in 1819, and can hardly have been more than two and a half years old when the Shelleys were at Bagni di Lucca. In reciting this adventure, it’s hard to tell if Holmes is pulling the reader’s leg or his own. From the biography it is wisely omitted.

Within limits, every age is entitled to create the past it wants and needs, but the authority that comes with being “the latest word” on the Romantic poets, or anything else, is very transitory. On average, eight books a year appear on the subject of Shelley alone. Holmes’s biography was a generally respected and welcomed addition to this ongoing discussion. Reviewers, including one in this journal (G. M. Matthews, June 12, 1975), took major exception to his “solution” of the much disputed “Hoppner mystery”—Holmes argued implausibly that Shelley fathered the child of an Italian nursemaid—and in the present volume that solution is retracted. But the book was, and remains, a useful one. Holmes’s new account of his adventures on the biographical trail is less substantial, but it is well written, and will amuse those who don’t mind having their historiography (if the word can be stretched that far) served up highly seasoned.

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