A little peep at some of my Romantics books… #romantics


I promised in my post on “Footsteps” that I would explore my collection of Romantic books in a later post, and so here goes! Wikipedia describes the Romantic Movement as “an artistic, literary, musical, and intellectual movement that originated in Europe towards the end of the 18th century, and in most areas was at its peak in the approximate period from 1800 to 1850”, and in my mind it covers quite a range of authors, demonstrated by the picture of my loose ‘collection’ below:

A selection of my Romantics collection

As you can see, Mary Wollstoncraft and Mary Shelley are well represented – and yes, I know there are some duplicate copies of certain works but this is usually because different editions have varying contents and there were items I wanted in both. A case in point is the Wollstonecrafts – “A Short Residence in Sweden” and “Letters written in Sweden, Norway and Denmark” are I think the same; but the Penguin has the full text of Godwin’s “Memoirs of the Author of ‘The Rights of Women'”, whereas the OWC has only extracts. Conversely the OWC has Wollstonecraft’s letters to Gilbert Imlay plus other supporting material – so of course I need both copies. Other duplicates, like “Mary”, are the result of inheriting books from various Offspring’s study times – and I do find it hard to part with them!

There’s also plenty of poetry in the form of Coleridge, Keats, Blake, Byron and Shelley; and in the case of the latter, the panic I experienced when rummaging in the stacks (which I mentioned in my previous post) was the result of finding out that a. I had no collection of Shelley’s poetry, and b. I seemed to have donated my copy of “Zastrozzi and St. Irvyne”.  Cue a panicky online order for books, and as you can see I now have a lovely little Everyman Poetry Library edition of Shelley’s poetry. However, as the replacement “Zastrozzi…” arrived I happened to be gathering the books for the above photo – and of course, there was my original, on the shelf where it should have been with all my other Romantics… How does that happen???

Double Shelley!

So I now have two copies and the dilemma of whether to keep both, or donate one, and if so which one to keep – the replacement *is* a nicer condition copy, but of course the original has sentimental value as I’ve had it since my 20s…

However, in the pile are two volumes I’ve had for even longer! I think I’ve recounted on the blog before that when I was growing up there was a very rambling second-hand bookshop in the small town where I lived. My battered old copies of Sherlock Holmes stories came from there, and also these two little volumes of Keats and Byron:

Byron and Keats

What I was thinking of in buying them when I was in my early teens I don’t know, as I was mainly reading “The Lord of the Rings”, Agatha Christie, Ed McBain and my mother’s historical romances. But I imagine I thought they were literary and classic and also old and cute. So I’ve carried them round with me ever since and they sit very happily in my Romantics collection. I think there was a modern Byron collection in the house once, but I can’t lay hands on it right now…

And whilst I was shuffling the piles, I came across this, which I picked up within the last couple of years and promptly forgot about:

I’ve read another Christiansen book which I thought was excellent, and since this has a recommendation from Peter Ackroyd on the back I may have to pick it up soon. The Ackroyd connection is relevant as, spurred on by my reading of “Footsteps”, I spend some happy time recently revisiting Ackroyd’s 2006 documentary series “The Romantics” and it was just as great as I remembered it.

Ackroyd and some of his ‘ghosts’ c. BBC

Unhappily, the series is not available on the iPlayer, but can be found fairly easily online to watch. I found it mesmerising (apart from the over-use of music, a common complaint with documentaries to this day); and the effect of Ackroyd conjuring up the ghosts of the Romantics, portrayed by actors, is very powerful. Track it down if you can!

The image at the top of this post doesn’t, of course, represent every Romantic related book I own – there are plenty in translation which would qualify, e.g. all the Rousseau scattered about the house, and quite a number of my Penguin Great Ideas books. But these were what was to hand and I need to find a nice shelf for them to nestle on, and perhaps go off on a bit of a Romantic tangent…

The other author covered in “Footsteps” was, of course, Gerard de Nerval; he’s regarded as a poet of French Romanticism, but I don’t know if he was particularly grouped with any movement. I have two Nerval books, which are these:

“Selected Writings” is a relatively recent arrival, prompted I think by Anthony at Time’s Flow Stemmed. However, “The Chimeras” is a book I’ve again had since my 20s and have carried with me over the years; and reading the blurb at the front of “Footsteps” revealed a surprising fact! I said in my review of Holmes’s book that I had thought his name was new to me; however, it actually isn’t…

Two Holmes books!!

I’ve owned both of these books for some time, and fascinatingly, both are connected with Richard Holmes! “The Chimeras” was published in 1984 by Anvil Press Poetry; the poems are translated by Peter Jay and the book has an essay by Holmes. And the Wollstonecraft/Godwin volume came out in 1987 and was edited by Holmes with his introduction and notes. So both of these books were in my possession for decades, yet I had no idea what a respected biographer Holmes had become! Just goes to show, really, you should always hang on to your books…. ;D

Anyway, that’s probably enough of the Romantics for now on the blog. There is a late arrival to be added here which I’d sent away for after the images above were taken; Hazlitt is someone new to me I’m keen to explore. The Hume was found lurking in the TBR – he *can* be considered a Romantic, surely?

Of course all of this ties in with all of my French Revolution reading and books, which could quite happily occupy another post. I *am* sorely tempted to go off down a Romantic rabbit hole, but am trying to resist as there are so many other books vying for my attention. But I *could* sneak a couple in, I’m sure! 😀

On the biographical trail of great authors… #footsteps #richardholmes #romantics


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! 😀

“…whatever it is that makes a man follow a beckoning star.” @VersoBooks #FrédéricGros


Walking is such a basic human function that it’s something we never think about as a rule, completely taking it for granted. Yet a strong case can be made for walking being much more than just a case of putting one foot in front of another until we get to our destination; and a recent purchase from Verso Books, which I’ve been lauding online, does just that. The book is “A Philosophy of Walking” by Frédéric Gros, translated by John Howe; as I’ve previously mentioned, I picked up a copy when Verso were having one of their regular sales (this time a 50% off one) – and it was definitely money well spent!

The little biog on the Verso site states: “Frédéric Gros is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Paris XII and the Institute of Political Studies, Paris. He was the editor of the last lectures of Michel Foucault at the Collège de France. He has written books on psychiatry, law, and war as well as the best-selling Philosophy of Walking.” I can see why this book *would* be a best-seller, as it combines some beautiful writing with some accessible exploration of philosophy as well as some very moving tales of famous walkers. It’s also enhanced with some lovely illustrations at the start of each chapter by Clifford Harper. For me, it was compelling reading and a real winner!

An author who composes while walking, on the other hand, is free from such bonds; his thought is not the slave of other volumes, not swollen with verifications, nor weighted with the thought of others. It contains no explanation owed to anyone: just thought, judgement, decision. It is thought born of a movement, an impulse. In it we can feel the body’s elasticity, the rhythm of a dance. It retains and expresses the energy, the springiness of the body. Here is thought about the thing itself, without the scrambling, the fogginess, the barriers, the customs clearances of culture and tradition.

Starting with a chapter entitled “Walking Is Not A Sport”, Gros goes on to explore why we walk, what we get out of it, its effects on our physical and mental wellbeing, as well as touching upon a number of intriguing and tragic lives. Of course, in the past walking was the only option for most people; until we took possession of horses or other animals, learned to build wheeled structures to be pulled and then eventually invented methods of travel independent of organic creatures. But as Gros reflects, that speedy mode of transport not only removes much of the pleasure of travel, it also disconnects us from the world around us – we can’t truly appreciate a place unless we move through it at a natural pace.

When you really walk, farewell follows farewell all day long. You can never be quite sure of ever setting foot in a place again. This condition of departure adds intensity to the gaze. That backward look when you cross a ridge, just before the landscape tilts. Or the final glance at last night’s lodging as you leave in the morning (its grey mass, the trees behind). You turn round again, one more time … but that restless gaze doesn’t aim to grasp, possess or keep: rather it aims to give, to leave a little of its light in the stubborn presence of the rocks and flowers.

Lest you get the impression this is simply a book wanting us to reconnect with nature, let me assure you it’s much more! Gros considers famous walkers and thinkers from Nietzsche to Gandhi: their place in the world, their individual beliefs and philosophies, and the way they used the process of walking. Many authors and thinkers have claimed to get their greatest ideas in motion; and although I’m not one of them, I do find that all sorts of ideas pop into my head when I’m walking!

Nerval’s is a landscape of castles and battlemented towers, red swaying masses of thicket on the green of valleys, orange gilding of sunsets. Trees, and more trees. Landscapes flat as slumber. Bluish morning mists making ghosts rise everywhere. October evenings made of old gold. You walk there as if in a dream, slowly, without effort (little steep or broken terrain). The rustle of dead leaves.

Then there are those whose constant walking is more of a flight; often from what they don’t actually know, but his pen portrait of Rimbaud, always on the go as if trying to escape from the world, is evocative and moving. And the chapter on the dark and troubled Gerard de Nerval, stalking Paris in a state of melancholy until he could finally take no more, is still haunting me (and sending me off in search of the lost streets and alleys of the city). Rousseau and Thoreau also stride through these pages, both contemplating the world in their own ways. There are chapters on pilgrimage, strolling, the flaneur; psychogeographers and the situationists pass through, and Wordsworth popularises walking for pleasure – really, it’s a wonderfully varied and involving book. The part on Ghandi was something of an eye-opener too: I had little knowledge of him beforehand and was stunned to read of the cruelty of the Imperialist British (though I guess I shouldn’t have been). The story of the salt tax was just awful, and Gandhi’s marches inspirational. And we still do march in search of change or peace or to save the world; but I doubt in this modern world we will ever be as successful as he was.

Well, this was a marvellous read; it reminded me that walking is a pure kind of travel, when you can really appreciate the world around you rather than whizzing through in a vehicle of some kind; and it also drew me back towards authors I’ve not read for a while or who I’ve intended to explore more fully. In fact, this is one of those very dangerous books which creates its own list of further reading – there *is* a section with that title in the back, and any number of enticing mentions in the text. I’ve already sent away for one book, dragged another load off the shelves and created a list – gulp…

A Gros-inspired pile…

Anyway, this was another case of a particular book shouting loudly from the shelves to get my attention and turning out to be the perfect read for now; and as the only walking I’m doing at the moment is the ten minutes to work and back, escaping in the company of Frédéric Gros was a joyous, often moving, and thought-provoking experience. And rather dangerously, Verso also publish another couple of his books…. ;D

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