This long pursuit, p.30
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       This Long Pursuit, p.30

           Richard Holmes

  Anne made one further effort to enter the mysterious inner world of Blake’s imagination, by adding newly extended citations from the ‘Prophetic Books’. Though she still regarded any attempt to interpret Blake’s mythology as ‘a reckless adventure’, she hopefully read and reread Jerusalem, finding ‘several more coherent and indeed beautiful passages’, and relating the poetry to the ‘sublime influence of the sea’ on Blake at Felpham. She added half a dozen new extracts from both Jerusalem and Milton, with a brief commentary on Blake’s extraordinary system of symbolic names, like ‘Orc’, ‘Urizen’ and ‘Oothona’. She also referred the reader to Swinburne’s critical essay, as a possible guide.

  With the bulky addition of the new letters, together with Anne’s expanded quotations from the ‘Prophetic Books’ (and also certain prudential cuts she made in final deference to ‘flustered Propriety’), the biography became more like a standard late-Victorian volume of Life and Letters. It lost something of the passionate excitement and directness of its original youthful conception. Nonetheless, this second edition of 1880 continued the task of re-establishing Blake’s reputation on both sides of the Atlantic. Praise for Gilchrist’s heroic work was now universal, and Walt Whitman for one saluted the rise of a new informal English style of biography, comparing it to the work of J.A. Froude:

  The Blake book is charming for the same reason that we find Froude’s Carlyle fascinating – it is minute, it presents the man as he was, it gathers together little things ordinarily forgotten; portrays the man as he walked, talked, worked, in his simple capacity as a human being. It is just in such touches – such significant details – that the profounder, conclusive, art of biographical narrative lies.

  Anne would still make no claims other than that of being ‘editor’ of Alexander’s work. Instead she added a long and passionate ‘Memoir’, praising his supreme dedication as a biographer. In it she made this thoughtful observation: ‘If I could briefly sketch a faithful portrait of Blake’s biographer, the attempt would need no apology; for if the work be of interest, so is the worker. A biographer necessarily offers himself as the mirror in which his hero is reflected; and we judge all the better of the truth and adequacy of the image by a closer acquaintance with the medium through which it comes to us.’

  In the careful use of that suggestive term ‘medium’, with all its Victorian overtones, Anne Gilchrist may have been making special claims for the biographer, and the nature of his – or her – mysterious collaboration with the subject. Alexander would surely never have admitted to these, but William Blake himself might have assented in his own fashion. Anne Gilchrist later wrote the Blake entry for Leslie Stephen’s Dictionary of National Biography in 1882, and also a well-judged Life of Mary Lamb in 1883. She had other literary plans, including Lives of Wordsworth and Thomas Carlyle. But then her heart was broken by the tragic fate of her favourite daughter Beatrice.

  This was the child she and Alexander had nursed through scarlet fever at Cheyne Row, while Alexander was struggling to complete the biography. She was always closely associated in Anne’s mind with the early shared work on Blake. True to her mother’s early leanings towards science, Beatrice had been training in Edinburgh to qualify as one of Britain’s first women doctors. In July 1881, possibly as the result of an unhappy love affair, she committed suicide at the age of twenty-five by taking cyanide. Anne never really recovered from the death of Beatrice so shortly after the publication of the second edition of Blake. She developed breast cancer and died at Hampstead four years later, in November 1885, aged only fifty-seven, all her other literary plans unfulfilled.

  Gilchrist’s original Life of William Blake, with its combative subtitle Pictor Ignotus (‘The Unknown Painter’), remains one of the most influential of all the great nineteenth-century biographies. It rescued its subject from almost total obscurity, challenged the notion of Blake’s madness, and first defined his genius as both an artist and a visionary poet. It set the agenda for modern Blake studies, and remains the prime source for all modern Blake biographies. It is still wonderfully readable today, and salvaged from death, it still vibrates with extraordinary life.

  Yet like so many works of art, it was produced at great cost, and under mysterious conditions. In the absence of an original manuscript of the 1863 biography, the question will always remain just how much of this first, groundbreaking text we really owe to Alexander or to Anne Gilchrist; or to some indefinable, Blakean collaboration between all three of them.

  Anne finally wrote this reflection about her husband’s work and the art of biography: ‘He desired always to treat his subject exhaustively: as a critic to enter into close companionship with his author or painter; as a biographer to stand hand in hand with him, seeing the same horizon, listening, pondering, absorbing.’


  Despite my previous attempts, Footsteps (1984) and Sidetracks (2000), autobiography has always seemed to me a perilous enterprise. So this book (the third in the trilogy) has grown slowly and tentatively out of many drafts and revisions. Most chapters began as separate lectures, short articles or introductions, but finally I took courage and transformed them into something more extended and much more personal. They are offered as an inside account of one particular biographer at work, but also include the experience (and the history) of many others that I have admired. In the end the book has become a sort of eulogy: a celebration of a form, an art, and a vocation that I have intensely loved over more than forty years, and which I still do not entirely understand.

  I have deliberately let it unfold without preface or comment, as a series of linked – and frequently overlapping – biographer’s tales, which tell their own story but build towards a larger picture. Some are confessional, some scientific, some mischievous, some riskily pedagogic, some passionately concerned to restore or revalue controversial reputations. But all present reflections on the vital, elusive idea of biographical truth, and the many imaginative ways in which it can be pursued. The result I hope is a biographer’s declaration of faith: the pursuer pursued.

  A first version of ‘Travelling’ was tried out as the 2014 Leon Levy Biography Lecture at the City University of New York, and later in the New York Review of Books. ‘Experimenting’ had a typically long gestation, beginning as a lecture for the Smithsonian Institution, Washington (2010); then expanded as a paper on ‘Romantic Knowledge’ for the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München (2014); then partly published in The Era of Experiments and the Age of Wonder, edited by Lilla Vekerdy, Dibner Library and the Smithsonian Institution, Scholarly Press (2015); then rewritten again for this book.

  ‘Teaching’ began as a brief essay for Mapping Lives: The Uses of Biography, edited by Peter France and William St Clair, British Academy Press, Oxford University Press (2002). ‘Forgetting’ first appeared in Memory: An Anthology, edited by Harriet Harvey Wood and A.S. Byatt, Chatto & Windus (2008). ‘Ballooning’ was first launched as a brief essay for Intelligent Life, edited by Maggie Fergusson, The Economist (2013), but inflated and finally landed here.

  ‘Margaret Cavendish’ began as a short article on women and the Royal Society for the Guardian in 2010. ‘Zélide’, ‘Mary Wollstonecraft’ and ‘William Blake Rediscovered’ drew on the Introductions to my series ‘Classic Biographies’, HarperPerennial (2004 and 2005). Early drafts of three chapters appeared in the New York Review of Books as ‘Madame de Staël’, ‘John Keats’ and ‘William Blake’. ‘Mary Somerville’ began as a historical article on women and science in Nature, The International Weekly Journal of Science, Macmillan Publishers Ltd (2015).

  ‘Shelley Undrowned’ first appeared in Interrupted Lives, edited by Andrew Motion, National Portrait Gallery, London (2004). ‘Thomas Lawrence Revarnished’ began as an Introduction to Thomas Lawrence Portraits, National Portrait Gallery, London (2010). ‘Coleridge Misremembered’ is adapted from an early lecture, ‘The Coleridge Experiment’, in The Proceedings of the Royal Institution of Great Britain (1998), and is about
lecturing itself.

  For all kinds of encouragement and advice I am hugely grateful to Robert Silvers of the New York Review of Books; and also to Richard Cohen, author of Chasing the Sun (2010); and William St Clair, author of The Reading Nation (2004).

  My warmest personal thanks go to Dan Frank, my editor at Pantheon, New York, especially for his discussion of confessions; to my dear friend and colleague Professor Jon Cook of the University of East Anglia and the Guardian Masterclasses; Professor Kathryn Hughes, my one-time fellow tutor on the UEA Life Writing MA; Dr Lara Feigel, director of the Centre for Life Writing Research, King’s College, London; Professor Hermione Lee, now President of Wolfson College, Oxford; Professor Christoph Bode of the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München; Barbara Kiser, my editor at Nature; and David and Heather Godwin, my spirited supporters at DGA. Thanks also to Douglas Matthews, my heroic indexer.

  Above all I am grateful for my marvellous, patient, faithful team at William Collins: Arabella Pike, to whom this book is most affectionately dedicated; and to Helen Ellis, Robert Lacey, Joe Zigmond and Becky Morrison. Finally to my beloved novelist Rose Tremain, who has made the whole pursuit worthwhile, I send my truly heartfelt thanks (as also for the loan of Sir Robert Merivel).


  Text Illustrations

  Chapter 1 – ‘A medieval missionary recounts that he has found the spot where the sky and the earth touch’. lllustrated plate from L’Atmosphère: Météorologie Populaire (Paris, 1888) by Camille Flammarion (1842–1925). © SSPL/Getty Images

  Chapter 2 – Statue of Newton by Eduardo Paolozzi within the British Library. © LH Images/Alamy Stock Photo

  Chapter 3 – John Aubrey, from a drawing by William Faithorne, c.1666. © Hulton Archive/Getty Images

  Chapter 4 – The Pont du Gard, part of the first-century-BC ancient Roman aqueduct in Nîmes, France. © DeAgostini/Getty Images

  Chapter 5 – ‘The Schemer (ballooning, Airy Station)’ by Carl Spitzweg, c.1870–75. Private collection

  Chapter 6 – Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, attributed to Sir Peter Lely or Abraham van Diepenbeeck, c.1665. Private collection

  Chapter 7 – Portrait of Isabelle de Charrière, Belle de Zuylen, by Maurice Quentin de la Tour, 1766. © Musée Antoine Lecuyer, Saint-Quentin, France/Bridgeman Images

  Chapter 8 – Germaine de Staël, from Diary and Letters of Madame D’Arblay, 1778–1840, by Fanny Burney, Madame D’Arblay (London, 1843). © Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

  Chapter 9 – Mary Wollstonecraft, engraving by Opie, c.1797. © Hulton Archive/Getty Images

  Chapter 10 – Mary Somerville as a young woman, by John Jackson. © Principals and Fellows of Somerville College, Oxford

  Chapter 11 – John Keats, pencil drawing by Charles Armitage Brown, 1819. © NYC/Alamy Stock Photo

  Chapter 12 – Monument to Percy Shelley in Christchurch Priory, Dorset. © Hulton Archive/Getty Images

  Chapter 13 – Lady Hamilton. © Trustees of the British Museum

  Chapter 14 – Samuel Taylor Coleridge by C. Dawe, c.1815, engraving Leopold Lowenstam. © Hulton Archive/Getty Images

  Chapter 15 – Frontispiece from ‘The Grave’ by Robert Blair, engraved by Louis Schiavonetti (hand-coloured etching) after William Blake. Private collection/Photo © Christie’s Images/Bridgeman Images

  Colour plates

  1 – Zélide, ‘Belle van Zuylen’, by Maurice Quentin de la Tour, 1766. © Cabinet d’arts graphiques des Musées d’art et d’histoire, Genève, legs William Henry Théodore de Carteret, inv. n° 1915-0091. Photo: Nathalie Sabato

  2 – Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, attributed to Sir Peter Lely or Abraham van Diepenbeeck, c.1665. Private collection

  3 – Samuel Pepys by John Hayls, 1666. © DeAgostini/Getty Images

  4 – Germaine Necker, Madame de Staël, by François Gérard, 1753. Photo by Imagno/Getty Images

  5 – Byron of Rochdale in Albanian Dress, by Thomas Phillips, 1813. © Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images

  6 – William Godwin, by James Northcote, 1802. © Granger, NYC/Alamy Stock Photo

  7 – Mary Wollstonecraft, by John Opie, c.1797. © The Print Collector/Getty Images

  8 – Self-portrait by Mary Somerville. © Principals and Fellows of Somerville College

  9 – Augusta Ada, Countess Lovelace, by Margaret Carpenter. © Photo12/UIG via Getty Images

  10 – John Keats, by Joseph Severn, 1821. © Granger, NYC/Alamy Stock Photo

  11 – Fanny Brawne, ambrotype taken c.1850. © City of London: London Metropolitan Archives

  12 – Sir Thomas Lawrence, later copy by Richard Evans of an unfinished self-portrait by Lawrence, c.1825, the palette and brushes added by Evans, c.1868. © National Portrait Gallery, London

  13 – Elizabeth Farren, later Countess of Derby, by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1790. © Francis G. Mayer/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

  14 – Percy Bysshe Shelley, by Alfred Clint, 1819, after Amelia Curran and Edward Ellerker Williams. © National Portrait Gallery, London

  15 – Samuel Taylor Coleridge by James Northcote. © Dove Cottage and The Wordsworth Museum/The Wordsworth Trust

  16 – William Blake, by Thomas Phillips, 1807. © Universal History Archive/Getty Images

  Picture Section


  The page numbers in this index relate to the printed version of this book; they do not match the pages of your ebook. You can use your ebook reader’s search tool to find a specific word or passage.

  NOTE: Works by Richard Holmes (RH) appear directly under title; works by others under author’s name

  Abbey, Richard, 229, 231

  Abelard, Peter, 297

  Ackroyd, Peter, 47, 58, 309; Dickens, 60

  Age of Wonder, The (RH): genesis, 16; presented to Royal Society, 35; subjects and aims, 43–4

  Ainsworth, Harrison, 100

  Airy, Sir George, 211

  Albinson, Cassandra, 265, 273

  Alexander the Great, 49–50

  Allingham, William, 312

  Allston, Washington, 102–3

  Alzheimer’s disease, 91

  Ampère, André Marie, 206

  Analytical Review, 181, 190

  Ancients, The (group), 310, 312, 327, 331

  Anning, Mary, 115

  Anti-Jacobin Review, 181–2, 184

  Apreece, Jane, 163

  Arago, François, 205, 207

  Aristotle, 79

  Arnold, Matthew, 246

  Associationism, 83, 86–8

  astronomy see cosmology

  Athenaeum (magazine), 202

  Atherley, Arthur, 270

  Aubrey, John, 47–8, 125; Brief Lives, 48, 57

  Auden, W.H., 35

  Audubon, John James, 228–9

  Austen, Jane, 116; Emma, 185; Sense and Sensibility, 192

  Axel, Richard, 89

  Babbage, Charles: and Mary Somerville, 205; and Ada Byron, 208–9; ‘Lectures on Astronomy’, 39

  Backscheider, Paula: Reflections on Biography, 54

  Bailey, Benjamin, 234

  Baillie, Joanna, 209

  Ball, Admiral Sir Alexander John, 10

  balloons: development, 28, 32, 97–8; romance and appeal of, 97–100; Coleridge’s flight, 99–105

  Banks, Sir Joseph, 23, 29–30, 35, 37, 114

  Barbauld, Anna, 23–4, 183, 210

  Barnes, Julian: Flaubert’s Parrot, 59

  Barrington, Daines, 267

  Bate, Walter Jackson, 227, 236

  Baudelaire, Charles, 278

  Bayley, John: Iris, 191

  Beaumont, Sir George, 298

  Becquerel, Antoine César, 206

  Beddoes, Thomas, 288

  Bell, Andrew, 300

  Bentham, Mathilda: Dictionary of Celebrated Women, 184

  Bentley, G.E.: Blake Records, 310; A Stranger in Paradise, 310

  Berenson, Bernard, 145

  Berenson, Mary, 145–7, 150

  Bergson, Henri, 93

  Big Bang Theory, 302

  Biographie Universelle, 167

  biography: importance of author’s physical involvement, 5–6; and ‘two-sided notebook’, 6; ‘vertical footnote’ technique, 33–4; as literary form, 47–9, 51, 53–4; as academic subject, 48–51, 54, 58–62, 64, 67–9; Samuel Johnson on, 51–2; proposed canon, 54–7; comparative, 58–9; narrative techniques, 63–6; and authorship, 68; rules for, 69–70; challenges conventions, 191–2; Mary Shelley and, 256–7; human time in, 258–9; Romantic, 281; Victorian revival, 314–16

  Biot, Jean-Baptiste, 202, 205–6

  Birrell, Francis, 151

  Black, Joseph, 28

  Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, 166

  Blagden, Charles, 114

  Blair, Robert: The Grave, 311, 334

  Blake, Catherine (Kate), 311, 318, 329, 334–5

  Blake, William: hostility to science, 22; Thomas Lawrence supports, 273; Preface to Milton, 307–8, 332; radical influence, 307–8; death, 310; neglected and misjudged by contemporaries, 310–12; as artist and illustrator, 311; Gilchrist researches and writes on, 312–13, 315–20, 326–35, 337–8; Samuel Palmer on, 316–17; in Felpham, 317, 329, 337; eccentric behaviour, 333–5; ‘Auguries of Innocence’, 24; ‘Jerusalem’ (poem), 307–8, 332; Jerusalem (‘Prophetic Book’), 326, 337; ‘London’, 308–9; ‘A Memorable Fancy’, 332; ‘Notes on Lavater’, 320, 332; Poetic Sketches, 320; Poetical Works (ed. William Rossetti, 1874), 335; ‘Prophetic Books’, 326, 336–7; Proverbs of Hell, 332; ‘Rossetti Notebook’, 309; Songs of Innocence and Experience, 273, 308, 310–11; ‘The Tyger’, 308–11; Visions of the Daughters of Albion, 327; The Wise and Foolish Virgins, 273–4

  Blanchard, Jean-Pierre, 23, 32, 43, 97

  Blessington, Margaret, Countess of, 276–7

  Blood, Fanny, 63, 176, 187

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