This Long Pursuit: Reflections of a Romantic Biographer
Pantheon/An imprint of Penguin Random House (March 2017)
“When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes.” Erasmus
The observation by Erasmus probably indicates Richard Holmes’s own priorities when in school and at university. His love of great literature and those who create it is almost palpable.
While explaining “how the Romantic generation discovered the beauty and terror of science,” in The Age of Wonder, Holmes focuses on what “became the first great age of the public scientific lecture, the laboratory demonstration and the introductory textbook, often written by women. It was the age when science began to be taught to children, and the `experimental method’ became the basis of a new, secular philosophy of life, in which the infinite wonders of Creation (whether divine or not) were increasingly valued for their own sake…Finally, it was the age which challenged the elite monopoly of the Royal Society, and saw the foundation of scores of new scientific institutions, mechanics institutes and ‘philosophical’ societies.'”
What we have in This Long Pursuit is also a work of rigorous and eloquent reflections shared by the same Romantic biographer, with his focus on “the meeting of two great modes of human discovery — imaginative literature and science — [that] has become one of the most urgent subjects for modern biography to study and understand. I believe this is particularly so in both Britain and America. You could say that if our world is to be saved, we must understand it both scientifically and imaginatively. Biography “is ‘a handshake.’ A handshake across time, but also across cultures, across beliefs, across disciplines, across genders, and across ways of life. It is a simple act of complex friendship.” I certainly view Holmes as a friend, one whose brilliant work is a welcome “handshake” of mutual respect.
It has always seemed to Holmes that “the essential spirit of biography – of English biography at least – has been a maverick and unacademic one.” It comes as no surprise, therefore, that many (if not most) 0f of his subjects in recent books have been outliers. Much of the most interesting and innovative as well as exciting work biography “has been done outside the establish institutes of learning, and beyond the groves of academe.”
These are among the major figures on whom he focuses, listed in alpha order: William Blake, Fanny Brawne, Lord Byron, Mary Cavendish, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Germaine de Staël, Elizabeth Farren, William Godwin, John Keats, Thomas Lawrence, Ada Lovelace, Samuel Pepys, Percy Shelley, Mary Somerville, Isabelle van Tuyll (Zelide), and Mary Wollstonecraft.
There are several reasons why Holmes is one of my favorite historians. Here’s one. Great historians write books that are, for me, “magic carpets” that enable me to travel far beyond my world to ancient Greece or Bunker Hill or Victorian London or…almost anywhere and at any time, really. I feel like I am tagging along with him as we explore together the given portion of the past. Later, once I have finished reading one of his books, I am again reminded of this passage in T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
Thank you, Richard Holmes, for expanding my world and enriching my understanding of it.