As a reader, random bookish serendipity is one of my favourite things in the world; that accidental stumbling across a book or author which turns out to be an utterly brilliant read and sends you off down several rabbit-holes exploring other books and authors. A recent and stunning example of this was my discovery of “Footsteps” by Richard Holmes; the author and his writings made repeated appearances in Sarah LeFanu’s “Dreaming of Rose”. Her recounting of Holmes’s experiences on the trail of Robert Louis Stevenson sounded irresistible, and when I looked a little more deeply, the other writers making appearances in the book ranged from Mary Wollstonecraft through Shelley and co to Gerard de Nerval. Needless to say, obtaining a copy became essential and so I did, and picked it up as soon as it arrived – it didn’t even get the chance to say hello to Mount TBR…

Richard Holmes is a name I thought was new to me (more of which in a future post); an esteemed biographer, winner of numerous awards, and Fellow of the Royal Academy, he certainly seems to have had a very illustrious career. “Footsteps” is subtitled “Adventures of a Romantic Biographer”, and many of Holmes’s biographies have indeed been members of that group; Coleridge and Shelley have had individual works about them, and he’s also written books about the Romantics as an entity. This book, however, was published in 1985, and in it Holmes looks back on four pivotal years in his own life; periods where he began his journey towards becoming a biographer and followed the trail of some of the characters who fascinated him the most.

So the first section, “1964: Travels” covers the time when the young Holmes followed the journey of Robert Louis Stevenson through the Cevennes with his poor donkey (I wrote about that here). Holmes is obviously still feeling his way towards what he wants to do with his life, and as he travels he attempts to write poetry, reflects on Stevenson’s travels and writing, and meditates. Part two, “1968: Revolutions” finds Holmes witnessing the rioting in Paris and casting his mind back to the French Revolution; searching for an eye-witness, he discovers the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft who saw much of what happened, and he sets out to explore her life.

Section three, “1972: Exiles” finds Holmes in the post-sixties decades trailing Shelley and his cohort through Europe to Shelley’s final resting place in Italy. Here, Holmes is particularly drawn to Claire Clairmont and her relationship with the poet; and he’s becoming more adept at digging into the past and exploring it deeply, using his biographer’s skills to uncover things others might have missed. Finally, part four “1976: Dreams” deals with the tragic French author Gerard de Nerval; Holmes is particularly drawn to consider Nerval’s friendship with Gautier, his apparent madness and the times through which he was living. This section did make particularly powerful reading…

Needless to say, I was absolutely enthralled from the start of “Footsteps” to the final words; what a wonderful and truly engrossing read it is. It’s actually also quite a hard book to classify, as it encompasses so much. There’s the autobiographical element, where Holmes looks back at these important times in his own life, which are fascinating in their own right. Then there’s the biographical angle, with the stories of the various authors he’s tracking relayed through the prism of Holmes’s interpretations. And finally, of course, there’s the whole subject of the art of biography; how to write it, how to get inside your subject’s head, how to interpret past events when crucial documentation is missing, and whether to stand back and be objective or use your imagination to ‘see’ the life story of your subject, almost stepping into fiction. All of these elements are brought together quite brilliantly into a dizzying piece of writing which is quite unforgettable.

As I mentioned, “Footsteps” is from 1985; and although I’m no expert on the art of biography, I imagine Holmes’s approach was very groundbreaking at the time. With our current fad for following in the footsteps of the Brontes, or tracing Jane Austen’s trail, Holmes really can be said to be ahead of the game with his search for those authors he loved, immersing himself in their landscapes to give him a better understanding of their lives. His methods are perhaps unorthadox (or certainly may have been at the time), but he captures quite brilliantly the frustration at not being able to pin down the past; having glimpses when it almost seems as if the boundaries between then and now are dissolved; but they aren’t of course and this can leave the biographer bereft.

… all these inward emotions were concentrated and focused upon one totally unforeseen things: the growth of a friendship with Stevenson, which is to say, the growth of an imaginary relationship with a non-existent person, or at least a dead one. In this sense, what I experienced and recorded in the Cevennes in the summer of 1964 was a haunting.… an invasion or encroachment of the present upon the past, and in some sense the past upon the present. And in this experience of haunting I first encountered – without them realising it – what I now think of as the essential process of biography.

The book also demonstrates how partisan and personally involved a biographer can be, particularly in his determination to find out the truth about the Shelley/Clairmont relationship! “Footsteps” is also a book which is as much about the times Holmes is living through and their resonances with the past; the line back from 1968 to 1789 is often drawn nowadays, but I don’t know how much it was at the time. Holmes is an engaging narrator, not afraid to reveal his fears and doubts, and the book is a self-portrait of him as a proto-biographer, feeling his way into his craft.

I found “Footsteps” to be an absolutely fabulous read; a heady blend of autobiography, biography, travel and meditation, it’s haunted me for days after finishing it. It’s also had a very bad effect on the TBR, unfortunately; the first casualty is Robert Louis Stevenson, whose “Travels With a Donkey…” I already own in multiple copies…

Multiple Stevensons…

But as “Footsteps” reveals, there is also a published copy of the actual journal Stevenson kept, from which Holmes quotes liberally. A quick online investigation revealed a reasonably-priced copy and I sent off for it – with some trepidation, as it was incredibly cheap, and the seller was one who’s provided tatty books in the past. Lo and behold, it arrived and was in marvellous condition – so that was a result!

A bargain at £3.79 including postage…

As for the other dangers; well, the Romantic authors are ones already well represented on my shelves, although frantic searching after finishing “Footsteps” revealed some unpleasant gaps. But this warrants a separate post, which will follow in a day or so when I get a little more organised! In the meantime, I will just say that “Footsteps” is an absolutely magnificent book which will definitely be amongst my reads of the year. If you have any interest in biography, autobiography or any of the authors covered I highly recommend it – and thank you to Sarah LeFanu for pointing me in its direction! 😀