Courtney Johnston's Reviews > Sidetracks: Explorations of a Romantic Biographer

Sidetracks by Richard Holmes
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's review
Apr 21, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: biography, books-about-books, borrowed
Read from April 14 to 22, 2011

Richard Holmes puts together a very enjoyable sampler that is both an introduction to his own thinking about biography, and to a cast list of vaguely and strongly interlinked characters from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (with F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald bringing us into the 20th).

The collection begins with Holmes' very first biographical piece, a study of the vastly precocious poet Thomas Chatterton who committed suicide (or overdosed accidentally) at the age of 17, shortly after moving to London to cement his already florishing (but cloudy) literary career. Holmes himself was in his early 20s, and had recently moved to London after finishing up at Cambridge:

Prospects were fair, work was easy to find in those days, and I had a good circle of friends. Yet the truth was that I felt suicidally lonely and depressed for much of the time. This was not particularly unusual for a young man coming to the big city. But I was mad to write, I felt I was nothing unless I could write. The inky demon drove me night and day and I simply could not see how he (or she) might be appeased. I am not sure that this feeling has ever left me.

In a sense, Holmes continues, by being commissioned to write a book on 'Prodigies', and being led down the fascinating sidetrack of Chatterton's short life, biography 'saved my life by giving it a new dimension'.

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'.

His piece on Chatterton featured, in large and small roles, many of the writers who Holmes would eventually work with: Coleridge and Shelley the most significant of them. But 'Sidetracks' collects together nearly twenty pieces - ranging from radio plays to newspaper articles to an extended book introduction - that range around figures who Holmes has at one time or another spent significant time with even though a book may not have eventuated.

'Sidetracks' introduced me to the lives of many figures who I know barely anything about - Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, Voltaire, John Stuart Mill - and a range of colourful, if not well known, characters: Oscar Wilde's gothic-novel-writing grand-uncle, the famed Parisian Pierrot Jean-Gaspard Deburau, tried for murder after striking down a labourer who mocked him in the street, the early Parisian photographer Nadar.

These are often stories of refashioning of identities, of passionate, almost crazed love and actions, of extremity to the point of absurdity. The pieces are packed with nuggety details: the Parisian journalist Théophile Gautier on an anthropological jaunt to London, is enchanted by a flock of white pigeons released 'like a shout of purest joy' every time a winner came in at Ascot; he later learns they are working birds, released to carry the results to bookies all over England. Mary Wollstonecraft goes to Norway on behalf of the father of her illegitimate daughter (who no longer returns her affections) to track down a ship loaded with Spanish silver plate that has been absconded with by a turncoat sailor. Twenty-two year old James Boswell ('the godfather of biography') in The Hague,his head turned by his 'Dutch tulips' - the lovely ladies who run rings around him whilst he attempts to dazzle them. Lord Lisle up on the roof of the Tower, crying out to Henry VIII for forgiveness (successfully).

Collections of short biographies can often feel facile - you can sense everything that's being elided in order to tell a coherent story in ten pages. Holmes strings his sections together with short introductions that give context around where he was professionally and personally at that time, and how his subjects 'found him'. Highly recommended.

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