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…

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