Sidetracks: Explorations of a Romantic Biographer
Literary Lives: Biography and the Search for Understanding
Reflections on Biography
A recent issue of the London Review of Books had as its front page lead “The Corruption of Literary Biography.” The heading referred to two reviews. One was a scathing demolition of James Atlas’s biography of Saul Bellow by Richard Poirier, who described it as a “censorious” and “condescending” work, fueled by “craven hostility” toward its subject. The other was a skeptical inquiry by John Barrell into the reliability of the second volume of Richard Holmes’s life of Coleridge, Coleridge: Darker Reflections.1
Barrell recalls his admiration for Holmes’s Shelley: The Pursuit (1974), which set Shelley’s “emotional, intellectual and imaginative life” in “a generous cultural and political context,” and then describes, sadly, what he sees as a decline from that magnificent achievement. By contrast, the two volumes of Holmes’s more recent biography of Coleridge, especially the second volume, seem to Barrell to be the story of a “vie privée,” and to eschew a “more general sense of cultural or social or political history.” He goes on to make some rather damaging detailed comparisons between Holmes’s version of Coleridge’s journey to Malta and Coleridge’s notebooks and letters for that period, which Barrell finds that Holmes has rearranged and made more orderly and coherent, perhaps out of “the artist’s desire to reshape his material where it can be done without violence to it.” He regrets this, and he regrets Holmes’s belief that “he has the right to speak for his subjects.” The “corruption” of literary biography, then, is in the Poirier/Atlas example that of an inferior talent demeaning and traducing a greater man’s life out of envy and incompetence; in the Barrell/Holmes example, that of an outstanding talent making over and making up the meaning of a life at the expense of real facts.
In another recent review, in the Times Literary Supplement, of Claire Harman’s biography of Fanny Burney, the critic Simon Jarvis writes that he is weary of “the deadening convention” of most literary biographies, and argues that there should be more “partial lives,” which take only a small section of a life and are not driven by the demands of chronology. The “total” biography, the dominant literary form of our time, Jarvis calls “a genre which has become quiescent to the point (if we can hope for so much) of its demise.”
So questions about the health of biography and impatience with its long life have succeeded those cries we used to hear about the death of the novel. But by an intriguing cultural irony, this is happening just as biography has started to be analyzed in theoretical books and university courses, where, for a long time, there was no place for this popular, heterogeneous, impure form. Academe distrusted a genre that ignored the “death of the author,” structuralism, and deconstruction, which blurred and muddled T.S. Eliot’s powerfully influential separation between the work and the personality of the author, and relied heavily on the conventions and traditions of the nineteenth-century realist novel.
Barrell complains about Richard Holmes’s increasingly novelistic use of biography, but in fact Holmes, England’s leading Romantic biographer, has always valued the form because it can’t be pinned down as any one thing. For Holmes, biography is never monolithic, never conclusive or “definitive,” but always in motion, complex and experimental. As he says in his two collections of essays on biography, Footsteps (1985) and now Sidetracks, he finds analogies for it not just in fiction but in all kinds of other forms of expression: photography, dreams, ghost stories, plagiarism, travel-writing, radio plays, and theatrical performances. He is unembarrassed about the autobiographical dimension of his version of biography: “For me biography has always been a personal adventure of exploration and pursuit,” he writes.
Holmes’s biographies—Shelley: The Pursuit (1974), Coleridge: Early Visions (1989), Dr. Johnson & Mr. Savage (1993), and Coleridge: Darker Reflections (1998)—are characterized above all by the notion of the “pursuit.” They are famous for following every step of their subject’s journey through life, and for creating, through their passionate attentiveness, an exceptionally vivid and thickly substantial account of place and context and events. They deploy an immensely detailed accumulation of evidence in the service of a strong, dramatic, personal story. So, to take one example, in a paragraph on the aftermath of the drowning of Shelley, with the weight of the whole life story pressing on this moment, he provides us with a brilliantly rapid, curious, precise inventory of the evidence, intensely moving (without any emotional commentary) because so immediate and informed:
The bodies of Shelley, Edward Williams, and Charles Vivian were eventually washed up along the beach between Massa and Viareggio ten days after the storm. The exposed flesh of Shelley’s arms and face had been entirely eaten away, but he was identifiable by the nankeen trousers, the white silk socks beneath the boots and Hunt’s copy of Keats’s poems doubled back in the jacket pocket. To comply with the complicated quarantine laws, Trelawny had the body temporarily buried in the sand with quick lime, and dug up again on 15 August  to be placed in a portable iron furnace that had been constructed to his specifications at Livorno, and burnt on the beach in the presence of Leigh Hunt, Lord Byron, some Tuscan militia and a few local fishermen. Much later Shelley’s ashes were buried in a tomb, also designed by Trelawny, in the Protestant Cemetery at Rome, after having remained for several months in a mahogany chest in the British Consul’s wine-cellar.
But Holmes’s “pursuit” is not just of settings, external details, or circumstantial evidence. His journeys into his subjects’ lives are interior as well as historical and geographic. Always deploying their letters, notebooks, manuscript writings, and published work as part of the texture of his narrative, he works his way into their thoughts, and speaks with empathy and confidence about their states of mind. There is no biographical writing so eloquent or intimate, or which negotiates so revealingly between the inner workings and outer actions of the subject. Here is Coleridge, aged twenty-eight, living at Greta Hall at Keswick, working on “Christabel” for Lyrical Ballads, expecting the birth of his and Sara’s third child, tramping over the hills to see the Wordsworths, keeping his fell-walking notebooks:
On 29 August  Coleridge had a large section of Part Two completed, and with the manuscript in his pocket made a triumphant journey to Grasmere along the entire ridge of the Easter Fells—crossing Great Dod, White Side, and Helvellyn, and slithering perilously down by Nerthermost Pike to Dunmail Raise in the dark. He recorded this first of his epic solo fell-walks in a brilliant series of running plein-air sketches, which catch not only the physical sensation of the climber—“as I bounded down, noticed the moving stones under the soft moss, hurting my feet”—but also the spiritual effect of moving alone through such a high, wild, naked landscape. These prose-notations were a new form of Romantic nature-writing, as powerful in their way as his poetry; rapid, spontaneous, miraculously responsive to the changing panorama of hills he moves through, and containing a sort of telegraphic score of his emotional reactions.
Holmes is here as “miraculously responsive” to his subject’s inner and outer experience as he says Coleridge is to the landscape around him. But in such remappings or reconstructions, there is a latent danger to which Holmes is extremely alert. It’s his extraordinary gift for “speaking for” his subjects that has recently provoked some doubts in his critics: Barrell is skeptical about “the ventriloquial [sic] magic of the free indirect style, which allows him to pass off his own thoughts as the thoughts of Coleridge…[as if] he can speak Coleridge’s mind for him.” But Holmes himself is well aware of the potential risks of this form of Romantic, empathetic biography. In his highly inventive and experimental “joint” biography of Samuel Johnson, as a young man in the 1730s, and the wild, violent, mysterious, and reckless poet Richard Savage, he imagines their friendship as a kind of night journey taken by two lonely misfits. The effect is to remake Johnson, against the Boswellian image, into a precursor of Gothic Romanticism.
We can instantly imagine the scene: the cobbled streets, the stinking rubbish, the tavern signs, the shuttered house-fronts; the moonlight and the dark alleys; the slumbering beggars, the footpads and the Night Watch; and the two central figures striding along, bent in conversation, convivial and ill-matched. Here is the huge, bony Johnson with his flapping horse-coat and dirty tie-wig, swinging the famous cudgel with which he once kept four muggers at bay…; and here the small, elegant Savage with his black silk court-dress…, his moth-eaten cloak, his tasselled sword and his split shoes, which well-wishers were always trying to replace.
It is a night-scene: these friends are outcasts from society, without money and without lodgings, talking of poetry and politics and reforming the world, while the wealthy complacent city slumbers in oblivion. They are in a sense its better conscience, ever wakeful; or its uneasy dream of oppression and injustice. It is a romantic, Quixotic, heroic or mock-heroic picture, depending on one’s point of view. But how true is it?
“But how true is it?” If biography is a form of “pursuit,” using and interpreting all the available evidence to get as close as possible to the interior life of the subject, there must always be an unresolvable tension within it between closeness and distance. In the wonderful Footsteps (1985), subtitled “Adventures of a Romantic Biographer,” Holmes meditates on exactly these dilemmas: on the relationship between fiction, autobiography, and biography; on the ceaseless negotiation in biography between objectivity and “possession”; and on the dangers of overinvolvement. Footsteps traces Richard Holmes’s apprenticeship to the art of biography from 1964 to 1976, starting with his youthful journey through rural France in pursuit of Robert Louis Stevenson and his donkey, then on to Paris and his own experience of the événements of 1968 as an entry point to the story of Mary Wollstonecraft and 1790s radicalism, then to Italy and Shelley, and then, post-Shelley, to a deeply depressive period in Paris, on the trail of the poet-suicide Gérard de Nerval, and the attempt to write a “Dream Biography” of Nerval that was never finished.
Footsteps‘s retrospect on the induction of the Romantic biographer makes an emotional and eloquent case for biography as a form of autobiography, not as a clinical historical project: “The past is not simply ‘out there,’ an objective history to be researched or forgotten, at will; but…lives most vividly in all of us, deep inside, and needs constantly to be given expression and interpretation.” Holmes’s own experience, for example, of life in the 1960s, with friends who were living “in various forms of communities and groups,” fed directly into his version of Shelley’s marital and political experiments: “When I wrote about Shelley I seemed to be writing about my own friends, practically at first-hand.” But at exactly the same time that it feeds off autobiographical experience, the writing of biography also resists autobiographical identification: “I craved after intimacy with my subject, knowing all the time that I must maintain an objective and judicial stance.”