Book review: Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer by Richard Holmes

I approached this book with high expectations. A writer traveling through fascinating locales in Europe in the footsteps of literary legends: what could go wrong? Well, a number of things, in fact. Ultimately, I found this book difficult to finish. Often I abstain from writing reviews about books that don’t appeal to me; after all, I’m a writer too, and I don’t appreciate the negative comments of reviewers. This book has impressive blurbs, though, on its cover, so those comments can balance out whatever I have to say.

Holmes is a scholarly writer. He doesn’t write prose that is easily accessible. That’s one problem I had with the book. He doesn’t aim at average readers who would be interested in the subject matter; he aims at the academic elite who have a background in esoteric subjects. For instance, in several sections he writes extensive passages in French without bothering to translate, not even in a footnote, assuming, I suppose, that all of his readers are fluent in French. I could probably understand a bit of it if it had been written in Bengali, or Greek, or Italian. But French? Sorry, never studied it, and although I hitchhiked through France, I didn’t stay long enough to pick up the language; and though I had a French girlfriend for a time, we communicated in English. It’s not just the French language, though; in the course of his narrative, Holmes also assumes that his readers have studied obscure literary figures of the Romantic era and know all the streets in Paris as well as locales in other parts of France and Italy. There are a few maps in my edition, yes, but they are sparse line sketches with no details whatsoever.

The book is a memoir of the on-location research that Holmes carried out while investigating the lives of four famous people. The first section is the most interesting, partially because it is the simplest and most accessible, but also because the author Holmes writes about appeals to me. It tells of a hike that Holmes took in 1964, when he was just starting out in his career, to follow the path that Robert Louis Stevenson took through mountains in south-central France as recounted in the book Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes. This section most resembles a traditional travel memoir, and even though Holmes sidetracks into the love story of Stevenson with Fanny Osborne, who was married when he met her but later became Stevenson’s wife, it accomplishes this in a straightforward and easily understandable way.

The next section tells of Holmes’s visit to France in 1968 to research the life of Mary Wollstonecraft, the mother of Mary Shelley, who wrote the novel Frankenstein. Wollstonecraft went to Paris and stayed there, despite significant personal danger, during the dark bloody days of the French Revolution. At the beginning of this section, Holmes indicates that it is his intention to compare the French Revolution with the youth revolutions of the late 1960s, but then he never really goes into it. Instead, he writes an account of traveling here and there within and outside Paris in an attempt to track down the movements of Wollstonecraft and the evolution of her political perceptions. This section gets bogged down in details, which cause the excitement of readers (at least this reader) to wane.

In the third section, Holmes tracks the movements of the poet Percy Shelley, his wife Mary, and their intimate friend Claire Clairmont through Tuscany in Italy. This could have been beautiful if presented straightforwardly, but again Holmes indulges in confusing interludes in which he recounts his research into unnecessary minutia.

The fourth section is the least accessible, however. Holmes attempts to research the descent into madness of a writer of the Romantic era named Gerard de Nerval. I have to admit that sometimes I simply didn’t understand what Holmes was getting at in his explanations of his obsessive search into what drove Nerval to suicide.

In this book, Footsteps, I see the potential for greatness that ultimately falls short in the delivery. It’s like the old saying, “It’s not deep; it’s just not clear.” This could have been a terrific memoir if it had been written in a simpler, more accessible style. As it is, it is readable – but barely.

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