Sidetracks, p.1Richard Holmes
A ROMANTIC BIOGRAPHER
To my old friend and adviser
through thick and beastly thin
I A Romantic Premonition
II Lost in France
Gautier In London
Inside The Tower
III Five Gothic Shadows
The Singular Affair Of The Reverend Mr Barham
The Reverend Maturin And Mr Melmoth
M. R. James And Others
John Stuart Mill
Lord Lisle And The Tudor Nixon Tapes
IV A Philosophical Love Story
The Feminist And The Philosopher: A Love Story
V Shelley’s Ghost
Scrope’s Last Throw
To The Tempest Given
VI Escapes to Paris
Scott And Zelda: One Last Trip
A Summer With The Novelist
Letters From Paris
VII Homage to the Godfather
Boswell Among The Tulips
Dr Johnson’s First Cat
About the Author
Also By Richard Holmes
About the Publisher
WE WERE AT a café table, under the plane trees, far in the south, with the evening light flowing away down the river. I was asking the beloved novelist those old, fascinating questions: How do you find your stories? Where do your ideas come from? When she said, with that sudden challenging smile of hers: ‘But how do you find your subjects; where do they come from?’ And I answered almost without thinking, between two mouthfuls of the cold white wine: ‘Down many sidetracks.’ She laughed and looked out into the gathering dark. ‘I think you’d better explain that,’ she said. So I have tried.
This book is my attempt to explore – as well as to explain – something of these mysterious biographical pathways. (I love the French word sentier for a track, because it also hints at the notion of a line of smell or perfume, as in ‘on the scent’.) It is a biographer’s collection of short pieces, rather like a novelist’s collection of short stories, but it has a theme and purpose. It is the fragmented tale of a single biographical quest, a thirty-year journey in search of the perfect Romantic subject, and the form to fit it. It is my personal casebook.
For me biography has always been a personal adventure of exploration and pursuit, a tracking. It is uncertain in its beginning, when even the first outline of a glimpsed subject may change into someone else, or become a minor role in another life, or simply fade away into the historical undergrowth. It is tantalizing in its final destination, when a completed biography invariably leaves so much else to be discovered, sometimes by other means. It is often surprising in retrospect, when previously hidden perspectives and retrospectives emerge. I conclude that no biography is ever definitive, because that is not the nature of such journeys, nor of the human heart which is their territory. Sometimes all one achieves is another point of departure. Such are the shifting themes of this collection.
Looking back I see, rather to my surprise, that I have written (or failed to write) one biography about every three or four years. This seems to be a languid, circadian rhythm that comes quite naturally to me. But during that slow, ruminative period of researching, travelling, dreaming and writing (which go on simultaneously), the journey also spreads out in many unexpected directions. It produces a great deal of material that, for one reason or another, never gets into the final book; or else erupts later as a kind of after-shock or aftermath. I suspect many biographers experience this.
Yet these wanderings from the main path, these seductive sidetracks over another part of the hill, are often the places where I have learned most about my subjects and have felt most free in their company. They also tell something about how a particular biography was brought to life. As Shakespeare’s Polonius put it (a very fond and foolish old fellow), ‘by indirections find directions out’.
So this book is organized, like a series of traveller’s tales or informal route-maps, around the main biographical voyages I have taken over the last thirty years. All of them concern more or less Romantic themes; some of them actually produced books; others signally failed to do so – and these I am particularly attached to. I think it is sometimes supposed that biographers advance steadily and relentlessly from publication to publication, along a kind of well-signed literary motorway. Perhaps some of them do; but I am more of a rambler and botanizer myself. As a matter of record, here is a list of my major biographical subjects, with their results in brackets.
1969–70: Chatterton (an essay, no biography)
1971–74: Shelley (a biography, Shelley: The Pursuit)
1973–79: A Gothic Victorian (many sketches, no biography)
1975–79: Gautier and Nerval (sketches, translations, unpublished biography)
1979–80: Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (a single sketch)
1980–85: A Romantic Traveller (sketches, finally Footsteps)
1986–87: William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft (an essay, no biography)
1982–89: Coleridge (half a biography, Coleridge: Early Visions)
Johnson (a fragment of biography, Dr Johnson & Mr Savage)
1994–98: Coleridge (second half of a biography, Coleridge: Darker Reflections)
1999 … A Runaway Life (but that could go anywhere)
The sidetracks that arose from these main expeditions take several, perhaps surprising forms. For I am fascinated by the many different ways in which a ‘true story’ can be told. Why should the biographer be limited to one kind of narrative voice, one kind of discursive prose? So they include two radio-plays, several travel pieces, a large number of character-sketches, some autobiographical fragments, some formal essays, and a very informal short story for BBC Radio Four’s ‘Book at Bedtime’. All of them were written as different ways of investigating biographical material: to see how far certain hints and possibilities could be taken down the path, explored and relished.
It is this love of imaginative displacement, of seeking and snuffling on the trail of another life, so essential to literary biography, which I hope also unites this collection. It is the history of a self-education, a sentimental education perhaps. It aims to record whatever I have learned about the peculiar magic, and haunting life-music, of this most contemporary, most lovable and perhaps most ephemeral of forms.
To be sidetracked is, after all, to be led astray by a path or an idea, a scent or a tune, and maybe lost for ever. But no true biographer would mind that, if he can take a few readers with him. To find your subject, you must in some sense lose yourself along the way. This is my record of such departures from the straight and narrow. I hope it will encourage others to turn aside, to reconnaître, to stray purposefully into the vast geography of the human heart by which we come to know ourselves.
A Romantic Premonition
LOOK BACK, and the past becomes a story. The fixed shadowy shapes begin to move again, and make new patterns in the memory, some familiar, some strange. I now see that this early essay strongly reflects my own first three years in Lond
I started, by luck, with a little freelance journalism. As this was the late Sixties, I was soon commissioned to write a book called ‘Prodigy'. I think it was meant to be about poets, film stars and pop stars who died young. (It was the John Keats – James Dean – Janis Joplin thing.) Instead I became fascinated by the eighteenth-century poet Thomas Chatterton, and he led me back into the world of English Romanticism, and in a sense saved my life by giving it a new dimension. I took my first deliberate ‘footstepping’ trip down to Bristol, where he was born, and for the first time examined original manuscripts in London, where he died. I discovered the peculiar magic of historical research, and experienced that sense of imaginative displacement which intoxicates all writers. I began to live what is, I suppose, the conscious double-life of the biographer, with one foot in the present and the other continually in the past. Suddenly I had found that space in which it became possible to write: my own version of Virginia Woolf’s ‘room of one’s own'. The essay that emerged was taken by my friend Peter Janson-Smith to the publisher Jock Murray, who astonished me by giving up half an entire issue of the Cornhill Magazine to it. (The magazine closed shortly thereafter.)
One of the strangest things about the essay is that it contains – in walk-on parts – almost everybody that I have subsequently written about over the next thirty years. So I now see it, in a way, as a kind of audition for my vocation as a biographer. Not me auditioning them, but vice versa: my waiting subjects checking me out. The illogical feeling that your subjects somehow choose you is common to many biographers.
It contains many other premonitions too, some of which I am still discovering. The path to my book on Shelley, though then invisible, has now become obvious to me. The emphasis on solitude, the extreme sense of dislocation and isolation from a normal social world, which is one enduring version of the Romantic sensibility (though capable of both comic and tragic expression), was strongly in the ascendant, and would remain with me for a long time to come. I can clearly catch a young man’s voice, impatient and unreasonable with the adult world (Walpole, Johnson) that holds back a fuller understanding. But whose is the voice? Empathy is the most powerful, the most necessary, and the most deceptive, of all biographical emotions. It is instructive to look back on it, subtly at work, throwing both light and shadow into city streets which were already for me partly real, and partly imagined. The insistent rhythm of the opening paragraph was repeated, unconsciously, fifteen years later in the opening paragraph of Footsteps. Both end with the keyword ‘eighteen', a retrospective declaration of Romantic youth. But above all in ‘Chatterton', so much concerned with the dead, I first glimpsed the people and the period in history which were to become most dazzlingly alive for me.
The Case Reopened
‘For had I never known the antique lore
I ne’er had ventur’d from my peaceful shore,
To be the wreck of promises and hopes,
A Boy of Learning, and a Bard of Tropes …’
‘Oh thou, or what remaines of thee,
Ælla, the darlynge of futurity,
Lett this mie songe bolde as thy courage be,
As everlastynge to posteritie.’
1 ‘The brazen slippers alone remain’
IN THE HIGH SUMMER of 1770, while most of genteel and literary London was refreshing itself at continental spas, picnicking on country house lawns or promenading at the seaside resorts, in an angular third-floor attic above a Holborn side-street, in a locked room littered with minutely shredded pieces of manuscript, Thomas Chatterton died in acute pain from arsenic poisoning. He did not appear to have eaten for several days, but there were traces of opium in his mouth and between his teeth. He was not yet eighteen.
In his short lifetime Chatterton had written some six hundred pages of verse, one finished and one unfinished tragedy, a burletta, and so much freelance satirical journalism that it was still being published by London editors a year after his death. His name became the centre of the most fashionable literary controversy of the decade, in which many eminent scholars, writers and littérateurs fought tempestuously to establish that Chatterton was either a prodigy of poetical genius or a cheap, adolescent forger with the habits of a delinquent. When the immediate heat of this discussion had died down, it emerged that Chatterton’s achievement had been compared by many critics as second only to Shakespeare’s. Coleridge drafted a long Monody to him at the age of sixteen, and spent another thirty years of his life adding to it and making corrections. The Victorians went on to dedicate wildly partisan poetry and criticism on both sides of his reputation. David Masson published a warm melodramatic novel based on his life in 1874, and Rossetti became deeply obsessed with the figure of Chatterton in the closing years of his old age. The young Meredith posed as the model of Chatterton in puce silk pantaloons for the famous painting by Henry Wallis and while the work was being executed in Chatterton’s original attic room (later destroyed by fire) Meredith took the opportunity to open an affair with the painter’s wife. In France Alfred de Vigny produced a High Romantic play; and this in turn became a bad Italian opera by Leoncavallo. Chatterton’s works were translated into French and German, while new English editions followed each other steadily: in 1803, 1810, 1842, 1871, 1885, 1906 and 1911.
Then suddenly after the First World War the flow stopped. There have been no new editions; and with the exception of one faithful scholar, E. H. Meyerstein, there has been, until very recently indeed, almost no further critical interest. Even the Penguin Book of English Verse does not now acknowledge the existence of Chatterton, Thomas, in its index. Perhaps only a few lines of his remain current, with their curious haunting bitterness and their unstable dying rhythms:
Come, with acorne-cuppe and thorne
Drain my hertes blood away;
Lyfe and all its good I scorn
Daunce by night, or feast by day.
My love is dead
Gone to his death-bed
All under the wyllow-tree
In all this, in the mixture of strange, contradictory, challenging and sometimes oddly depressing circumstances, Chatterton is the great example of the prodigy-figure in English poetry. Prodigy has as its root meaning something out of the run of natural affairs and occurrences, something directly counter to natural processes themselves – a wonder, an exhilaration of the spirit. There is something particularly valuable about such a figure. He is like a precedent. He is like a guarantee for the wildest human hopes, and at the same time a talisman against failure or limitation or the pressures of mediocrity. He is an outpost of the imagination. With Chatterton, it has always tended to be the completed gesture of life which produced the writing, and not the writing alone, that has exercised the deepest fascination and influence on others. Only one generation after Chatterton’s death, this was already clear to William Hazlitt who gave his opinion in a long aside during his public lectures at the Surrey Institute on ‘The English Poets’ (1818).
‘As to those who are really capable of admiring Chatterton’s genius,’ said Hazlitt, who knew very well that Keats was in his audience, ‘I would only say that I never heard anyone speak of any of his works as if it were an old well-known favourite, and had become a faith and a religion in his mind. It is his name, his youth, and what he might have lived to have done, that e
Keats, incidentally, was disappointed with Hazlitt’s views, although it was almost certainly a previous lecture which kindled some real resentment against Hazlitt’s treatment of the poet to whom Keats had dedicated Endymion. The passage was probably this one, the closing peroration from Lecture VI; it is an important attitude and seems to express an element of jealousy, that essential but honest jealousy of the critic for the poet:
I cannot find in Chatterton’s works anything so extraordinary as the age at which they were written. They have a facility, vigour, and knowledge, which were prodigious in a boy of sixteen, but which would not have been so in a man of twenty. He did not show extraordinary powers of genius, but extraordinary precocity. Nor do I believe he would have written better, had he lived. Great geniuses, like great kings, have too much to think of to kill themselves; for their mind to them also ‘a kingdom is’. With an unaccountable power coming over him at an unusual age, and with the youthful confidence it inspired, he performed wonders, and was willing to set a seal on his reputation by a tragic catastrophe. He had done his best; and, like another Empedocles, threw himself into Aetna, to ensure immortality. The brazen slippers alone remain!
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