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Date published/released: 

1985

Publication Information: 

Hodder and Stoughton

"In 1974 in Paris, Richard Holmes tells us, he was busy working on a ''novel about a group of friends caught up in May '68.' Yet 'Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer,' Mr. Holmes's first full-length book in more than a decade, is not that novel. Nor is it the 400-page biography of the French poet, Gerard de Nerval, that was the immediate product of his sojourn in Paris in the mid-1970's and that he claims no publisher would touch. It is rather, as he puts it succinctly in an Author's Note, 'part pure-bred biography, part travel, part autobiography, together with a bad dash of Baskerville Hound.' It is also, in its own quirky way, one of the more interesting documents both on and, more important, in the spirit of that tumultuous unnovelized year in Western Europe, and on the years immediately preceding and following it. The book consists of something like four pocket-biographies: Robert Louis Stevenson, Mary Wollstonecraft (plus some Wordsworth), Shelley (plus Mary Shelley, Claire Clairmont, Byron and others) and Nerval (plus Baudelaire, the cartoonist and photographer Nadar and Theophile Gautier). In each case, Mr. Holmes focuses on one moment or aspect of his subject's life: the solitary 12-day pilgrimage Stevenson took in southern France in 1878 and that he recorded in 'Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes' (1879); Wordsworth and Wollstonecraft face to face with the French Revolution, he in 1792, she over two years from 1792 to 1794; Shelley in Italy from 1818 to his death in 1822; and Nerval in his tortured relations with his fellow writers, particularly Gautier, throughout his creative life. The same scrupulous attention to detail and biographical empathy that colored Mr. Holmes's critically acclaimed 'Shelley: The Pursuit' (1974) are evident here as well. Mr. Holmes followed his protagonists on their journeys abroad, whence his reference to 'Footsteps' as travel literature. And his journeys are as close as we get to an autobiography - the portrait, typically wry and self-mocking, of a gypsy scholar in pursuit of others' identities." -L. Hafrey, New York Times

"Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer is a highly acclaimed volume of memoirs and personal reflections on the biographer's art." -Wikipedia

"Richard Holmes' 'Footsteps' is, among other things, an extended meditation on the impossibility of objective biography, in which the skepticism of much contemporary literary theory is transformed into personal drama. An English journalist and critic, and the author of a controversial biography of the poet Shelley, Holmes here recounts his biographical pursuits of four people. He begins, as a student of 19, by retracing Robert Louis Stevenson's 'Travels With a Donkey' through the mountains of the Devennes in southern France. Four years later in Paris, during the student riots of 1968, he investigates the group of English expatriates who weathered the French Revolution, especially Mary Wollstonecraft, feminist and reformer, and her lover, the American adventurer Gilbert Imlay. Holmes next follows Shelley and his wife Mary, Wollstonecraft's daughter, through Italy, ending at their last home, the Casa Magni on the Gulf of La Spezia. His final subject is Gerard de Nerval, the gifted poet and travel writer who hanged himself in a Parisian alley in 1855. What ties these disparate lives together is their common relationship to Holmes, whose heroic attempts to 'reach' them form the true subject of the book. He hunts them down in places dear to them, photographs the view from their windows, quotes their impressions and probes their psyches. Gradually he slips into an imaginary intimacy with them, a 'continuous living dialogue' with the dead that Holmes considers the stuff of authentic biography." -P.D. Sheats