REVIEW: Richard Holmes, Footsteps – Adventures of a Romantic Biographer

footsteps.jpgThe best biographers are those which weave together information gained from letters, journals, personal recollections and photographs to create a life story. Like Holmes, these biographers have a way conveying facts without overwhelming readers with a barrage of coldly presented ‘evidence’ of a life lived. Holmes takes readers on a journey as he explores links between the lives of several key literary figures. Through the author’s eyes we view intriguing moments in the lives of these people, and feel directly involved in the story as if we had been transported back in time.

With ‘Footsteps – Adventures of a Romantic Biographer’, Richard Holmes entwines his own travels and experiences into the journeys of the subjects he is examining as a way to gain insight into their lives. Holmes is not merely a desk bound biographer he hits the road to track down his subjects, connect with them and ultimately try to understand them. He travels with Robert Louis Stevenson through the Cevennes, joins Mary Wollstonecraft in revolutionary Paris, retraces Percy Shelley’s Italian exile, and pieces together Gerard de Nerval’s sad descent into madness.

Holmes subtly becomes a character in this story as he indirectly interacts with the experiences of those lives he is tracing, partaking in a shared experience. With an enthusiasm that borders on obsession at times, Holmes captivates the reader with his conversational tone and unerring hope that he will always find an answer. As he learns more about each person you feel as if you are being pulled along and caught up in the excitement of the chase.

By all accounts this book offers a fascinating read. Holmes aims to, and succeeds, in stripping back the layers of fame and myth which surround the lives of those he turns his attention to, exposing the true essence of the people which lurk beneath.