Their Faithful Servant

Richard Holmes
Richard Holmes; drawing by James Ferguson

By a broken bridge across the River Allier in the French city of Langogne, the eighteen-year-old biographer-in-training Richard Holmes almost sat down and wept. It was 1964, and he was following faithfully in the footsteps of Robert Louis Stevenson, who had traveled with a donkey through the Cévennes in 1878. Like Stevenson, Holmes carried a copy of Napoléon Peyrat’s Histoire des pasteurs du Désert (1842) and wore a large gypsy ring on his wedding finger, though neither man was married at the time of his journey. Holmes did not acquire a donkey in homage to Stevenson’s poor Modestine, who had to be beaten and cajoled into the twelve-day pilgrimage; instead his companion was Le Brun, a battered brown felt hat with the power of making people laugh.

In Langogne, Holmes was overtaken by the feeling that Stevenson was waiting for him. He went back to the bridge by which he had crossed the Allier and took off his hat “rather formally as if to meet a friend.” But then he noticed another old and crumbled bridge, fifty yards downstream, and realized that his bridge and the one Stevenson had traversed were different. “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.”

When he published Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer (1985), Holmes—who has written major studies of Shelley, Coleridge, and the friendship between Samuel Johnson and Richard Savage, among others—framed the episode of the broken bridge as his first inkling into the biographer’s vocation:

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.

In his new book, This Long Pursuit: Reflections of a Romantic Biographer, Holmes describes himself at age sixty-nine sitting by the streamlet La Troubadore that runs into the River Droude, a minor tributary of the Gardon, which eventually passes under the Pont du Gard near Avignon. At his tin table, surrounded by the cicadas beating “their jazzy Django Reinhardt sound,” he is “flooded with memories of the Cévennes of fifty summers ago.” He falls asleep briefly while making notes, wakes to wonder if the river always dried up in summer, and discovers the answer in his battered copy of Napoléon Peyrat’s book: the Gardon has always fluctuated violently “and sometimes even become the River Lethe too.”

The river flowing down to the great Roman aqueduct and bridge, with its…

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