This Long Pursuit: Reflections of a Romantic Biographer, by Richard Holmes

Duncan Wu on the art of biography

November 17, 2016
Portrait of Percy Bysshe Shelley

An engaging book about the art of biography by an expert practitioner, This Long Pursuit is the third in a series that began with Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer (1985) and continued with Sidetracks: Explorations of a Romantic Biographer (2000). It is in two parts: the first, entitled Confessions, provides insights into the practice of life-writing under such headings as “Travelling”, “Experimenting” and “Ballooning” ; the second, Restorations, recounts the experiences of individual biographers in chapters focused on Mary Wollstonecraft, Margaret Cavendish and Mary Somerville, among others.

These essays, reviews and lectures have been worked up into separate chapters, which present a sustained attack on multiple fronts – “Teaching”, for instance, is an account of how Holmes conceived the writing course he ran at the University of East Anglia; “Forgetting” analyses the frailties of memory; the separate chapters in Restorations attest to Holmes’ admiration for those who have preceded him as biographers.

It’s a tribute to Holmes’ thoroughness as reviser that the book is as coherent as it is. But discussions one wishes would continue at greater length are too often curtailed, and questions prompted by the analysis are not answered. I loved Holmes’ 10 commandments of biography, for instance, but they are presented at the conclusion of his chapter on teaching when they demand further explication. I was bowled over by an account of Poe’s forged writings of Coleridge, but wanted Holmes to answer questions they raise about the nature of literary imposture. His comments on Keats’ afterlife made me wish for Holmes’ opinion of the large corpus of commentary that now exists on the subject. And although Holmes is an able defender of Sir Thomas Lawrence, he never accounts for the aesthetic reserve of such critics as William Hazlitt.

It seems graceless to complain of Holmes’ profligacy with ideas, and in any case I’m more distracted by those chapters addressing writers or subjects he has discussed elsewhere: the two opening chapters on Romantic science feel like extended footnotes to The Age of Wonder (2008); those on Coleridge read as offcuts from his biography, while the one on Shelley (pictured above) – which returns, 40 years after Shelley: The Pursuit, to the subject of the poet’s death – disdains to trace the history of Shelley’s heart (a significant part of the biographical record).

For me, This Long Pursuit didn’t take off until chapter 7, when it got to Zélide, because only then did I sense Holmes’ exhilaration at discovering something new – an aspect of his best writing. It makes one yearn for more; I hate to think this is all we will have of him on such an elusive, colourful subject. I commend him also for the chapter on Ann and Alexander Gilchrist – a bravura piece of research celebrating a biographical project that was nothing less than heroic.

In fact, it’s impossible to imagine anyone producing anything so wide-ranging, as profound in its observations, or as well-informed, on so many literary and scientific figures. That’s why I can’t help wishing Holmes had provided This Long Pursuit with an introduction and conclusion, clarifying the insights that float dimly through this collection – inchoate, implied, half-formed as they presently are. And yet such carping seems churlish when you contemplate his abundant virtues as a writer, not least the generosity of spirit with which he salutes his peers, a welcome reproach to the envious, bad-tempered sniping more usual among academics and their ilk.

Duncan Wu is Raymond Wagner professor of literary studies, Georgetown University. He is author, most recently, of 30 Great Myths about the Romantics (2015).

This Long Pursuit: Reflections of a Romantic Biographer
By Richard Holmes
William Collins, 368pp, £25.00
ISBN 9780007386949
Published 10 October 2016

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