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This Long Pursuit:

Reflections of a Romantic Biographer

Richard Holmes


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RICHARD HOLMES is one of Britain’s best-known biographers. Ever since 1974, when his first work of non-fiction, about Percy Bysshe Shelley, won the Somerset Maugham prize, he has delighted readers with his lives of the great figures of the Romantic era.

The serious biographer, he says, has to “step back, step down, step inside the story” to discover “the biographer’s most valuable but perilous weapon: empathy.” Mr Holmes is driven by a “strange, unappeased sense of some continuous, intense and inescapable pursuit.” Biography, he says, is “a simple act of complex friendship”, “a handshake across time, but also across cultures, across beliefs, across disciplines, across genders and across ways of life.” The idea of a quest, which seeks both knowledge and understanding, is central to his work.

In “This Long Pursuit”, which came out in Britain last autumn and is about to be published in America, the 71-year-old Mr Holmes is revisiting his old heroes, bringing them and their milieux vividly to life. In the process he does a lot to illuminate the very nature of biography itself.

He weaves his reflections around a collection of portraits that are, in essence, distilled miniatures. Among them are the familiar figures of Shelley, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats and William Blake, as well as many of the scientists who people an earlier book, “The Age of Wonder” (2008), itself a quest to uncover “scientific passion in all its manifestations”.

The destructive divide between the sciences and the arts, which bedevils contemporary life, was, as Mr Holmes shows, neither a natural nor a necessary divide. (Indeed, the word “scientist” was not coined until 1833.) To prove that, Mr Holmes draws out the unity that existed between the sciences and the arts in the Romantic era. Among the many examples is the complex friendship between Coleridge and Sir Humphry Davy, the chemist who experimented with nitrous oxide (laughing gas) and whose descriptions of its effects parallel Coleridge’s account of opium hallucinations in his famous poem, “Kubla Khan”.

“This Long Pursuit” also explores the lives of some of the inevitably less familiar women writers and scientists who shaped this era in surprising ways, despite being excluded by statute from becoming fellows of the Royal Society until 1945. There is Caroline Herschel, an astronomer who discovered eight comets and was the first woman in British science to be awarded an official salary by the Crown. Margaret Cavendish, often caricatured as Mad Madge, wrote poetry that celebrated the wonders of astronomy and protested against the cruelty done to animals in the name of science. Mary Somerville virtually invented popular science writing. Mr Holmes argues that the history of British science needs a “subtle revision” because “precisely by being excluded from the fellowship of the Society, [women] saw the life of science in the wider world.”

The biographer writes with insight about how women navigated the societies in which they lived and wrote. Mary Wollstonecraft’s life—with all the “revolutionary hopes and freedoms” that it represented—provides rich material for Mr Holmes. Writer, philosopher, traveller and advocate of women’s rights, Wollstonecraft was an international literary celebrity during her lifetime: “a woman of uncommon talents and considerable knowledge”, read one obituary when she died after giving birth to the future Mary Shelley, the author of “Frankenstein” and the poet’s wife.

Mr Holmes analyses the downs and ups of Wollstonecraft’s reputation, especially in the wake of the intimate and revealing biography by her heart-broken husband, William Godwin. The personal in relation to Wollstonecraft—whose life Virginia Woolf described as “an attempt to make human conventions conform more closely to human needs”—was deeply political. For a century after her death, she was reviled; only when the feminist movement began gaining traction was her life and writing reassessed. Part of the move to bring her to wider attention was made by Mr Holmes, the biographer with the handshake across time.

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