Knockin’ on Shelley’s Door: A Biographer’s Art-and Heart

Sidetracks: Explorations of a Romantic Biographer , by Richard Holmes. Pantheon, 420 pages, $30.

British biographer Richard Holmes is intimate with literature’s greats. He’s a natural gossip with an eye for detail: Shelley had a library on his doomed sailboat; Boswell thought of patenting a device that slid the sleeper out of bed automatically. He tells his stories with an erudite, lighter-than-air writing style. Here’s how he opens an essay on the long-lost papers of a friend of Byron’s: “Scrope Berdmore Davies, whose remarkable trunk caused considerable excitement in London literary circles this winter, was a university don and a society gambler–a combination of métiers that would have interested Dostoyevsky, and which certainly fascinated Byron.” And he’s got more than a little of the prosecutor in him. Just when his ideas get to seem a little speculative, he persuades us with a forgotten diary, a manuscript tucked into the back of a book, a letter lost in an archive.

“There is something frequently comic,” he wrote in his 1985 book Footsteps , “about the trailing figure of the biographer: a sort of tramp permanently knocking at the kitchen window and secretly hoping he might be invited in for supper. How many of Shelley’s houses I stood outside, knocking and knocking!” But Mr. Holmes doesn’t just knock. He jimmies the catch while the owner is out, climbs in, finds precisely what’s valuable and lets himself carefully out. He combines the delicacy of the literary essayist with the get-the-story-no-matter-what imperative of the journalist, a potent combination.

His new collection of essays, Sidetracks , is a successor to Footsteps . The earlier book was wondrous, a combination travelogue, lives of the Romantic poets and their retinues, and rumination on the art of biography. It’s a series of brief takes on historical figures. Mr. Holmes went to Paris in the wake of the unrest of the 60′s to trace the steps of an earlier generation of English radicals like Wordsworth and Byron. His rallying cry is a graffito he sees on a Paris wall: “Imagination au pouvoir .” All power to the imagination. So truly does he follow this precept that at one point a check bounces because he has dated it 1772. The anecdote is instructive: Past and present are fluid; all history is meta-history.

Sidetracks is another work of starts and stops, of “seeking and snuffling” on biographical trails that don’t quite pan out. It’s a record of dead ends. Mr. Holmes explains it this way: “To be sidetracked is after all, to be led astray by a path or an idea, a scent or a tune, and maybe lost forever. But no true biographer would mind that, if he can take a few readers with him.”

Sidetracks isn’t Footsteps . It doesn’t have that miraculous balance. It has instead the slight staleness of an omnium-gatherum–”required writing,” as Philip Larkin put it. Still, there are many special moments in the new collection. How could there not be? Nosing around the lives of Romantic, pre-Romantic and simply lowercase-R “romantic” literary figures is Mr. Holmes’ gift. There’s a perceptive short essay on the poet Thomas Chatterton. Chatterton was born in 18th-century Bristol, but he wrote his poems in the voice of a 15th-century monk he called Thomas Rowley, a name he’d seen on a gravestone. So convincing were the poems that many critics of the time believed they were really Rowley’s. Chatterton’s poetry was thus an early and particularly imaginative act of biography. There’s also an excellent essay on young James Boswell in Holland, haplessly trying to improve himself, get laid, patent his magic bed–and record it all in his journals.

The meatiest piece is “The Feminist and the Philosopher,” a version of which was originally published as an introduction to a Penguin Classic. It’s the story of the relationship between Mary Wollstonecraft, the author of Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and the radical political philosopher William Godwin. Mary Wollstonecraft is Mr. Holmes’ ur -subject. She was beautiful, intensely alive and a good letter writer. And everyone she knew felt compelled to write about her. Indeed, the narrative of Footsteps sputtered and coughed as Mr. Holmes looked for a protagonist among the engagé English intellectuals in Revolutionary France. Then he found Wollstonecraft, “brisk, cheerful, daring, strangely modern … my exemplar and my guide.”

Fifteen years later, Mr. Holmes is still in love. Wollstonecraft is back from the Revolution. She has been dumped by the American adventurer Gilbert Imlay. She has had a child with him. Godwin is a stiff, unpopular man, a radical theorist about to be knocked down by the reactionary politics of post-Revolution England. They meet and insult one another–Wollstonecraft finds Godwin uncool. Mutual affection ensues, “friendship melting into love.” (The phrase is Godwin’s.) Theirs is the sort of relationship Manhattanites can appreciate. Godwin and Wollstonecraft live together but keep separate offices. They make common cause against enemies and edit each other’s work. The sex is wonderful. Mary in a later note to Godwin: “I have seldom seen so much live fire running about my features as this morning when recollections–very dear–called forth the blush of pleasure, as I adjusted my hair.” Mary becomes pregnant, but, tragically, she dies in childbirth (the baby grows up to become Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the poet’s wife and the author of Frankenstein ).

Godwin is left prostrate by his lover’s death. In a burst of energy he writes Memoirs of the Author of the Rights of Woman . It is a detailed, unflinching tribute to Mary, an early form of the warts-and-all biography. It makes their friends furious. Mr. Holmes praises Godwin’s late-blooming humanity, his emergence from theory into life, noting that “his biographic explorations are far more convincing than his philosophic ones.”

But are they? Here’s where I part company with Mr. Holmes. It’s not at all clear from the passages he quotes that recording life was Godwin’s real gift. His prose never quite comes up to his remarkable subject. It’s awkward, blown-up. Here’s Godwin on the end of Mary’s marriage to Gilbert Imlay: “It is sufficient to say that the wretchedness of the night which succeeded this fatal discovery of Imlay’s unfaithfulness, impressed her with the feeling, that she would sooner suffer a thousand deaths, than pass another of equal misery.” A thousand deaths? Equal misery? It’s second-rate Samuel Johnson. It makes me wonder why Mr. Holmes, his own ear so well-tuned, praises it so lavishly. Is it because Godwin gave up philosophy for biography, idea for life?

Mr. Holmes believes that a preference for people who feel is innate to biography. “Biography itself,” he writes in Dr. Johnson & Mr. Savage , “with its central tenet of empathy, is essentially a Romantic form.” This seems limiting–what about the role of analysis and criticism?–but it’s also self-fulfilling. Mr. Holmes is most famous for his biography of Shelley, and more recently a two-volume Coleridge. Both of these figures were destined to be Romantics in their prose as much as in their lives. They lived in what Godwin called “the empire of feeling.” They tried to preserve the intensity of personal experience in their writing. Not surprisingly, Richard Holmes grooves on them. He is on the book-laden boat that Shelley sails into oblivion in the Gulf of Spezia. He, with Coleridge, awakes from a dream about the Khan Kubla and is unfortunately called out by that great literary head-scratcher, the unnamed person on business from Porlock.

One suspects that Mr. Holmes’ own relationship with his wife, the novelist Rose Tremain, helped determine his take on Wollstonecraft and Godwin. There are plenty of asides in Footsteps and Sidetracks that suggest that, like Godwin, Mr. Holmes saw himself in his early years as “unlovable”–all that knocking on the windows of homes where long-dead poets lived–and that he, too, made a redemptive marriage later in life. If we were dealing with an ordinary biographer, this kind of remark would be out of bounds. (Who cares about Leon Edel’s private life?) But self-identification is the very point of the Holmes project. In Footsteps , its function is quite complicated. The interplay between what Mr. Holmes experiences tracking down Robert Louis Stevenson or Shelley or Wollstonecraft and what they experience in their own lives, his trick of writing a book in which he is influenced by his subjects and, rather wonderfully, his subjects are influenced by him, comes off as an elaborate metaphysical play. It’s part of the fun. In Sidetracks , it feels as though the decks are stacked for romance and Romantics against thought and thinkers.

Is the Romantic sensibility such a wonderful one? One admittedly deformed branch gave us Hitler via Friedrich von Schiller and Richard Wagner. But this sort of intellectual analysis is not where Holmes’ heart is–and with Holmes it’s always about the heart. He is like one of those elderly opera-goers who nods through the early scenes and only perks up when the lovers pledge amor’ eterno . Then it’s back to his daydream until the climactic moment that sends one or the other lover to an early grave–and then the opera-goer sighs, “How romantic!”

D. T. Max, a contributing editor at The Paris Review, writes frequently about literature.