Richard Holmes
Richard Holmes; drawing by David Levine

In Footsteps (1985), Richard Holmes records his first, salutary, disillusionment as a self-styled “Romantic Biographer.” In 1964, when only eighteen, he undertook to duplicate Robert Louis Stevenson’s journey through the Massif Central of France in the autumn of 1878, the trek subsequently described in Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes. Wisely, remembering Stevenson’s struggles with the recalcitrant Modestine, the young Holmes declined all offers of a donkey. Otherwise, he was scrupulous about reliving Stevenson’s experience, journeying alone, along exactly the same demanding route, eager to see what his predecessor had seen, comparing his own thoughts and impressions at every step with those of the man who had walked this road almost a century before. It was at Langogne, not far along the way, that he was pulled up short.

Holmes had worked himself by now into an almost hallucinatory state in which he believed “that Stevenson was actually waiting for me, in person,” a traveling companion about to greet him from some café, hotel window, or village crowd:

And then I saw it, quite clearly against the western sky, the old bridge of Langogne. It was about fifty yards downstream, and it was broken, crumbling, and covered with ivy. So Stevenson had crossed there, not on this modern bridge. There was no way of following him, no way of meeting him. His bridge was down. It was beyond my reach over time, and this was the true sad sign.

Only after a long, troubled night did Holmes accept that just as one could not cross such bridges any more, so “one could not cross literally into the past.”

The broken bridge at Langogne gave Holmes his first real insight into the biographer’s task:

You could not play-act into the past, you could not turn it into a game of make-believe. There had to be another way. Somehow you had to produce the living effect, while remaining true to the dead fact. The adult distance—the critical distance, the historical distance—had to be maintained. You stood at the end of the broken bridge and looked across carefully, objectively, into the unattainable past on the other side. You brought it alive, brought it back, by other sorts of skills and crafts and sensible magic.

Although he was forced to abandon, at Langogne, his youthful fantasy about actual converse with the dead, Holmes’s biographical “skills and crafts” have remained those of the hunter: a man tracking “someone’s path through the past,” engaged in “a following of footsteps” that is literal as well as symbolic. He has always insisted upon visiting places of any significance for his subjects, especially those in which (however temporarily) they lived. Even when the house itself has disappeared, something may be learned from its situation, and the view its windows once embraced. His first major biography, appropriately entitled Shelley: The Pursuit (1974), led him across France, Switzerland, Italy, England, Wales, and Ireland on the trail of that very peripatetic poet. After it came Footsteps, describing other biographical pilgrimages. Dr. Johnson & Mr. Savage, his most recent book, is again haunted by the sound of footsteps: in this case those of two strangely ill-assorted men walking all night, deep in talk, through the deserted squares and streets of eighteenth-century London—Holmes himself (at the inevitable historical distance) eagerly just behind.

Unlike many of his fellow biographers, Holmes has never wanted to injure his quarry, let alone bring it down. He avoids writing about anyone he dislikes, just as he scrupulously avoids contemporary figures. When the occasional animus does appear (toward Byron, for instance) it is invariably directed at people on the periphery of his books, their chief fault often that of being less sympathetic than Holmes himself to his central figures. Self-identification with one’s subject, he has stated, is “the first crime in biography.” Personal engagement with people in the past is a different matter, and for Holmes it has always been essential. Convinced that the relationship between biographer and subject—like that between biographer and reader—must be one of “trust,” he seems perpetually torn between the objective, judicial approach he knows he must maintain, and a craving for intimacy so strong that sometimes (as with the Shelley circle) it makes him feel cruelly shut out from actual participation in the lives he explores. “There is something frequently comic about the trailing figure of the biographer,” Holmes has confessed in Footsteps: “a sort of tramp permanently knocking at the kitchen window and secretly hoping he might be invited in for supper.”

Revealingly, at one point in that book, he worries whether “some imbalance, or lack of hardened identity,” in his own character might be responsible for hankerings of this kind. Yet this troubled empathy with his subjects has produced a series of remarkable biographical studies. Paradoxically perhaps, certainly unfashionably, Holmes treats individual selves as autonomous and organically unified. Indeed, he has become increasingly convinced not only of “the integrity of human character,” but of the biographer’s ability to present a coherent view of human affairs. Every human life, he has claimed, however “ordinary,” deserves its biographer. But Holmes himself has never been drawn to ordinary lives. Stevenson, Mary Wollstonecraft, Shelley, Claire Clairmont, Coleridge, and Gérard de Nerval were highly extraordinary individuals. With all of them, moreover, Holmes has felt impelled to act as advocate for the defense: restoring Claire Clairmont to what he insists is her rightful place beside Shelley; attempting to disentangle the fascination and brilliance of Coleridge’s personality from the mess of his life, or rejecting the stereotyped Shelley of Matthew Arnold’s famous description—“beautiful and ineffectual angel, fluttering in the void his luminous wings in vain”—in favor of a figure “darker and more earthly,” crueler, but redeemingly more “capable.”


With the striking exception of Stevenson, all the people whose lives Holmes has previously examined lived during the Romantic period. But then, Holmes maintains, “biography itself, with its central tenet of empathy, is essentially a Romantic form.” Coming from him, the remark scarcely surprises. Less predictable is the book in which it occurs: Dr. Johnson & Mr. Savage, the account of a personal relationship that existed briefly, for about two years, in the 1730s—considerably before the birth of Mary Wollstonecraft, Coleridge, Wordsworth, even Blake, let alone the younger generation of Romantics. In the last pages of Dr. Johnson & Mr. Savage, however, Holmes argues that when Savage presented himself as the persecuted and lonely man of genius in poems such as The Wanderer, or The Bastard, he in fact heralded Romanticism. Even more important, Savage’s mysterious and tragic story led the young Johnson not only to memorialize his recently deceased friend in the earliest (1744) of his lives of the English poets, but to crystallize the perils and possibilities of biography as a form.

Holmes has always been as much interested in the nature of his craft as in his subjects. It was perhaps inevitable that he should eventually confront Johnson, the man with whom biography as a genre in England really begins. Indeed, there is a sense in which Johnson seems to have been looking over Holmes’s shoulder from the start, not only by virtue of their joint attraction to literary lives, but because of the shared conviction—not that Johnson acted upon it any more than Holmes—that “there has rarely passed a life of which a judicious and faithful narrative would not be useful” (The Rambler, No. 60, for October 13, 1750).

More surprising is the appearance of Dr. Johnson & Mr. Savage just now, in place of the expected second volume of Holmes’s big life of Coleridge. It is not, of course, unusual for writers to interrupt a large and demanding work in order to carry a smaller, more manageable project through to completion. In this case, however, the maneuver looks almost like an exorcism: Holmes’s attempt to lay the ghost of an earlier and confessed failure—that huge, unpublished typescript in which, back in 1976, he found himself confronted by a biographical enigma he could not resolve: that of Gérard de Nerval.

As Holmes tells the story in the last section of Footsteps, the demented Nerval drove his would-be biographer almost to the brink of madness himself. Nerval seemed, first of all, to accuse Holmes from the grave of an inexcusable invasion of privacy—a charge to which he has always felt nervously open. Secondly, the evanescent and shifting identity of this spokesman for “the failing vision of Romanticism in France”—epitomized in the various pseudonyms behind which he sheltered—together with the impossibility of disentangling fantasy from fact, the “real” man from the fictional one created by Nerval himself or by his friends, brought Holmes sharply up against the limits of biography. “All the logical and traditional structures that I had learned so painstakingly—the chronology, the development of character, the structure of friendships, the sense of trust and the subject’s inner identity—began to twist and dissolve.” For Holmes, even the contemporary Paris in which he was carrying out his research became a kind of nightmare.

Richard Savage did not commit suicide, as Nerval did, nor was he ever diagnosed as clinically insane. Yet the problems he poses for the biographer are remarkably similar, and complicated by the still undetermined debate over whether Savage really was (as he insisted) the disinherited natural son of Richard Savage, the fourth Earl Rivers, and Lady Macclesfield. Or was he merely an impostor, an impoverished pretender to rank and fortune who gradually came to credit his own lie; or possibly his nurse’s craftily substituted changeling child? (Holmes’s own investigation of the evidence leads him to conclude, as Clarence Tracy did in 1953, in The Artificial Bastard, that the truth is irrecoverable, but that the Savage known by Johnson was genuinely convinced of his claim.) An earlier but equally opaque and riddling version of Nerval, Savage remains a man whose very origins cannot be deciphered or pinned down. The crucial difference is that in this instance Samuel Johnson, not Théophile Gautier, mediates between Holmes and his subject as contemporary commentator and friend. Johnson, indeed, dominates what is really, as Holmes admits, “the biography of a biography.”


This, however, despite Holmes’s title, is not yet Dr. Johnson, the formidable and respected sage of Boswell’s Life, but a man Boswell (and most other members of the Johnson circle) never knew, and later tried to obscure: the gauche, physically grotesque, failed schoolmaster who came up to London from Lichfield in 1737, at the age of twenty-seven, encumbered with a much older wife who was already an embarrassment, in the hope of succeeding with his tragedy Irene while, for the moment, squeezing a meager subsistence out of Grub Street. It may have been in the latter context (although Holmes prefers the river bank at Greenwich, scene of the farewell to Thales in Johnson’s “London”) that he first met Savage, a man more than ten years his senior, whose situation at the time was even more desperate than his own.

In 1727, Savage had been sentenced to death, and then pardoned, for killing a man in a brawl. Ironically, his circumstances improved for a time after his release from Newgate Prison, partly because of public interest in “unusual” prisoners (The Beggar’s Opera, Gay’s “Newgate pastoral,” appeared in 1728), and also because Lord Tyrconnel, Lady Macclesfield’s nephew, set himself up for a time as patron. Won over by the brilliance and charm of Savage’s conversation, and persuaded that he was fostering a genius—as well as deflecting awkward demands on Lady Macclesfield—he installed Savage under his own roof with a handsome pension of £200 a year. Unfortunately, Savage was a man constitutionally incapable of living within the bounds of any income, however large, and whatever its source. Before long, Tyrconnel’s resident poet was pawning the handsomely bound books his patron gave him and also (more alarmingly) introducing his drinking companions into the house at all hours, where they proceeded to pillage Tyrconnel’s wine cellars and create general mayhem. Not surprisingly, Tyrconnel soon abandoned his role as patron of the arts. Savage, pensionless, found himself back on the streets. It was then, after the friends acquired during his brief period of fame and prosperity had mostly abandoned him, that he met Samuel Johnson.

Their friendship, as Holmes points out, seems to have been both intense and invisible. No one knows exactly when it began, or can report ever seeing them together. Boswell, who found Johnson’s affection for Savage—and acceptance of his “wrongs”—incomprehensible, relied largely in his Life on things his friend had let slip to others about what Boswell called, revealingly, “those almost incredible scenes of distress,” in which Johnson and Savage, too poor either to eat or pay for a lodging, were accustomed to wander all night together through the London streets, talking about politics and poets. Johnson himself, of course, speaks eloquently about these nocturnal perambulations in his magnificent and somber Life of Mr. Richard Savage, and about Savage’s enforced sojourns in the cardboard cities of the day: cellars, abandoned market stalls, or—in winter—among the warm ashes of a glass-house. What he never reveals is the fact, let alone the extent to which, he himself had been Savage’s companion in misery.

In restoring to view a young, politically and socially indignant Johnson, a passionate man whose powerful and largely frustrated sexual desires did not prevent him from falling romantically in love with a series of unattainable “princesses,” Holmes also stresses another aspect that Boswell later recognized and tried to play down: Johnson as a Jacobite Tory and non-juror, a supporter of the exiled house of Stuart and its current claimant to the throne. “Non-jurors,” men known or suspected to have refused the required oath of loyalty to—in this case—the reigning Hanoverian dynasty, were officially debarred from university degrees (except honorary ones) and from public office, as well as being objects of government suspicion.

Here (although he seems unaware of the work of either) Holmes puts himself in the camp of Howard Erskine-Hill, and of J.C.D. Clark in his recent book, Samuel Johnson: Literature, Religion and English Cultural Politics from the Restoration to Romanticism. Both Clark and Erskine-Hill (the latter with greater caution and literary sensitivity) have for some time challenged Donald Greene’s contention, inspired by Sir Lewis Namier, that Johnson was a political moderate, scarcely distinguishable from opposition Whigs. Erskine-Hill has been readier than Clark to see a softening of Johnson’s attitude toward the Hanoverians after 1749, even before he accepted the Crown’s pension, and also to stress his understanding of the events of 1688 as having created an essentially tragic dilemma.* Basically, however, both support Holmes’s reading of Johnson’s somewhat risky politics. Although Greene’s view profoundly influenced Walter Jackson Bate in what, up to now, has been the standard modern biography of Johnson, it now looks distinctly shaky.

Like Clark and Erskine-Hill, Holmes discerns carefully planted Jacobite innuendo in “London” (1738). He also argues that the figure of Thales in this first of Johnson’s published poems was indeed meant, despite Boswell’s denial (but as several of Johnson’s contemporaries believed), to represent a Savage already contemplating his ultimately fatal retreat to Wales in the following year. Johnson may or may not have known that in 1715 Savage had produced Jacobite propaganda verse and been arrested and questioned in that year of rebellion. It seems clear that the two men, during their brief friendship, were united in their opposition to Walpole and to the legitimacy of the Hanoverian dynasty in England, as well as in a common concern with the outcast or persecuted writer. Johnson, moreover, Holmes argues, not only linked Thales with Savage’s own poetic personae of the Hermit or the Seraph Beggar in The Wanderer, but included, if obliquely, “a typical catalogue of Savage’s obsessions,” not even forgetting the perjury of witnesses at his trial in 1727 for the murder of James Sinclair.

Johnson was never blind to Savage’s weaknesses of character: to the exasperating personal and financial habits that ended by alienating his patrons, and most of his friends. He admitted sadly that Savage was irresponsible, untrustworthy, and self-deluded, a man incapable of learning from his sufferings, and (perhaps most penetratingly of all) that “the reigning Error of his Life was, that he mistook the Love for the Practice of Virtue, and was indeed not so much a good Man, as the Friend of Goodness.” Johnson is acutely judgmental about Savage. But he also loved him, with all his faults, as it seems likely no other human being ever did. In consequence, objective analysis and empathy, Holmes’s two great desiderata for the biographer, coexist in The Life of Savage in a manner so striking and uneasy as to make his own concern with it appear almost mandatory.

In one copy of the second edition (1748), a marginal note in Johnson’s hand reveals that the work really has two endings. Against what became the last paragraph, Johnson wrote the single word “Added.” Initially, it seems, he had concluded with an impassioned defense of his friend:

For his Life, or for his Writings, none who candidly consider his Fortune, will think an Apology either necessary or difficult….

Those are no proper Judges of his Conduct who have slumber’d away their Time on the Down of Plenty, nor will a wise Man easily presume to say, “Had I been in Savage’s Condition, I should have lived, or written, better than Savage.”

That is deeply felt, but it also allows Savage to escape on his own terms, as a victim of adverse circumstances, in no way responsible for all that is sordid or culpable about his life and literary productions. As such, it threatens to destroy the balance previously held (if with difficulty) in Johnson’s account, as he himself clearly saw. Hence that further paragraph urging readers to profit from Savage’s life as from a cautionary tale: a reminder that the “common Maxims of Life” cannot be disregarded, that “nothing will supply the Want of Prudence, and that Negligence and Irregularity, long continued, will make Knowledge useless, Wit ridiculous, and Genius contemptible.” The two endings, contradicting each other, epitomize a conflict always just under the surface in the biography as a whole.

Dr. Johnson & Mr. Savage is arrestingly different in format from any previous book by Holmes. A provocative list of the seven quotations from Savage which Johnson used in his Dictionary to illustrate the words “elevate,” “expanse,” “fondly,” “lone,” “squander,” “sterilise,” and “suicide” confronts the reader at the outset. Holmes invites us to ponder them, in all their disparity, as words that for Johnson evidently summoned up the memory of Savage. The contemporary obituary of Savage that follows (“Report has just reached us in the Bristol mails, of the Demise of Mr. Richard Savage, son of the late Earl Rivers, in the debtor’s Confinements of Bristol Newgate gaol. Mr. Savage will be recalled as the unhappy Poet and author of ‘The Wanderer’…”) is so convincing that most readers are likely to wonder why they have never encountered it before—until enlightened by Holmes that, in fact, he composed it himself. With the second mock obituary, for a Johnson imagined as having died in 1749, at Savage’s own probable age of forty, Holmes plays no tricks. Both exercises in pastiche, however, testify to his almost alarming ability to think himself back into the eighteenth century, and to write in its idiom. The chapter in which they appear—starkly called “Death”—is the first of ten with similarly uncompromising, single-word titles. Among them, “Mother” and “Murder,” as they did in Savage’s own existence, stand out.

Johnson was by no means the only contemporary of Savage persuaded that he was indeed—as Johnson defiantly proclaimed on the title page of his life—“Son of the Earl RIVERS.” More difficult to understand is Johnson’s unquestioning acceptance of Savage’s claims to have been persecuted throughout his life by the woman he believed to be his mother, Mrs. Anne Brett, the former Lady Macclesfield. Johnson returns to the attack again and again, professing amazement that a mother could so far overcome the natural affection of a parent as to

look upon her Son from his Birth with a kind of Resentment and Abhorrence; and instead of supporting, assisting, and defending him, delight to see him struggling with Misery; that she would take every Opportunity of aggravating his Misfortunes, and obstructing his Resources, and with an implacable and restless Cruelty continue her Persecution from the first Hour of his Life to the last.

As the indictment, and Johnson’s indignation, mount—abandoned at birth, maliciously defrauded of his father’s legacy, narrowly avoiding forcible apprenticeship to a shoemaker, or being kidnapped and sold into slavery, escaping the gallows after the Sinclair affair despite his mother’s attempt to block his pardon—the reader too feels amazed. How could Johnson swallow wholesale a story that sounds as though it came out of Smollett’s picaresque novel, Peregrine Pickle, of 1751? (Peregrine’s mother, indeed, although conceivably based on Johnson’s account of Lady Macclesfield, proceeds against her son moderately by comparison.) How could he applaud Savage for the blackmail and public shaming of his supposed parent in that very embarrassing poem The Bastard?

Mother, miscall’d, farewell!—of soul severe,
This sad reflection yet may force one tear;
All I was wretched by to you I ow’d,
Alone from strangers ev’ry com- fort flow’d!

Below Johnson’s text another and very different story begins to suggest itself: one of a terrified and harassed woman, already traumatized by proceedings in two unfriendly divorce courts, who believed on good evidence that her illegitimate son had died and been buried in St. Paul’s Covent Garden, shortly after being put out to nurse, but who then some sixteen years later found herself persistently and clamorously besieged by an impostor of uncertain sanity who even, on one occasion, broke into her London house and forced his way into her bedchamber.

Holmes speculates that Johnson, confronted with Savage’s Cruel Mother, may have lost his grip on biographical objectivity as completely as he did because of his own troubled relationships at the time with women, and also because he suspected that unnatural monsters like Lady Macclesfield might be agents of a cosmic evil undreamed of in Shaftesbury’s benevolent universe. Perhaps, but it also seems likely that Johnson knew—and feared—that if he questioned even one allegation, the whole story might collapse, leaving him with an unmistakably vicious Savage, Lady Macclesfield’s persecutor rather than her helpless prey. According to Boswell’s London journal for May 15, 1768, Johnson later said uneasily of his own hounding of Lady Macclesfield, “Sir, I don’t know but I’ve been wrong.” In the months that followed Savage’s death, he could not entertain such an idea. Nor, when he came to incorporate his biography of Savage in The Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets in 1781, did he tone down the passages dealing with her. To have done so even then would presumably have seemed to him like a betrayal.

“The process of a trial,” Holmes declares, “with its conflict of evidence and various possible interpretations of the truth, is to some extent a paradigm of the whole biographic enterprise.” In “Murder,” one of the most absorbing chapters of Dr. Johnson & Mr. Savage, Holmes sifts and analyzes in detail the confused accounts of what really happened at 2 AM on the night of November 20, 1727, at Robinson’s “Coffee-house” (in effect a brothel) near Charing Cross, when Savage engaged himself, with two companions, in a drunken brawl that ended only when James Sinclair, one of the other customers, was fatally run through by Savage. Self-defense, or the intemperate killing of a man whose own sword was said by witnesses to have been touching the floor, “the Point from him”? In the subsequent trial at the Old Bailey, the verdict was murder. Savage was lucky (mother or no mother) to obtain a royal pardon. Predictably, Johnson as counsel for the defense does everything he can in his biography of Savage to appeal against and overturn that verdict. Now, over two-and-a-half centuries later, Holmes has re-opened the case as prosecution lawyer, concerned to establish not only what actually happened on that unlovely evening in 1727, but just how and why Johnson. Savage’s colleague for the defense (in the original trial, Savage had insisted upon pleading for himself), should so subtly slant and obscure the evidence.

In “Charon,” his final chapter, Holmes turns back explicitly to the subject that this book, for all its meticulous evocation of the strange friendship of Johnson and Savage, has never really left: his own role as biographer. He recalls a namesake, Pope’s ferryman who once ran boats up the Thames between Hungerford Stairs, near Charing Cross, and Richmond. The biographer too, he concludes, is “a kind of ferryman, perhaps even a kind of Charon, crossing back and forth between the Past and Present, over the dark river of Oblivion.” The broken bridge at Langogne remains visible behind that image. The ferry over the Styx is yet another, if more complicated and successful way of accomplishing a journey whose aims are still much the same. Holmes has always insisted upon taking with him into every new biography as much as possible of his own writing past. That means loading the ferry not only with the lives of other people, those about whom he has written already, but with a personal past oddly entangled with their own. Characteristically, in the last sentence of Dr. Johnson & Mr. Savage he nudges his reader into consciousness of an echo: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Stevenson is still in Holmes’s boat, and so (among other passengers) is Gérard de Nerval. Many other biographies, one hopes, will follow the completed study of Coleridge. Then, will some brave spirit feel impelled to dive into this nest of Chinese boxes and write the life of Richard Holmes?

This Issue

February 16, 1995