I love books that deal with an intellectual problem or issue in a personal way — books that are as much about the author grappling with the issue as they are about the issue itself. Richard Holmes’s Footsteps is just such a book; it’s about biography as a genre and about the lives of various writers Holmes has researched, but mostly it’s about Holmes’s process of learning how to write biography and his discoveries about what we can and can’t know about the past and about other people’s lives.
I’ve written about Holmes’s chapter on Robert Louis Stevenson, where he writes about following in Stevenson’s tracks through France; I’ve now read his chapter on William Wordsworth and Mary Wollstonecraft and I’m halfway through his chapter on Percy Shelley. The Wordsworth/Wollstonecraft (mostly Wollstonecraft) chapter is about their experiences of the French Revolution, but Holmes gets at the topic by writing about his own experience of the student uprising in Paris in May 1968. He tells about getting caught up in the action on the streets and how an officer held a rifle to his chest, and when Holmes said he was English to try to get out of the situation, the officer told him to mind his own business and go back home to England. Holmes moves from there to considering what it was like for Wordsworth and Wollstonecraft to be in an analogous situation — foreigners experiencing another country’s revolution. Holmes wants to know what it was these two were seeking in France and what they might have felt.
This leads him to think about the differences between a rational reaction to revolution — a philosophical take on events — and an imaginative and emotional one — its personal impact. Wollstonecraft was capable of being very philosophical about the revolution, in the sense of distant and nonemotional. She could even be a little glib. But when she actually lived through some of the revolution’s most dramatic events, it changed her. Both Wordsworth and Wollstonecraft went through some personally harrowing times while in France, and somehow these personal events (love affairs, babies) and the political ones connect. Holmes speculates that the real effects of revolution aren’t so much political as they are personal — the internal turbulance revolution causes matters just as much as the political turmoil, and the internal revolutions might cause longer-lasting changes. He isn’t quite so despairing about the failure of the May 1968 uprising when he thinks about revolution in this sense — the immediate political goals might have been left unfulfilled, but it did cause changes in the way many people thought and acted.
Perhaps these are the conclusions one might expect from a biographer, one who is focused more on individual lives than on the sweep of history.
At any rate, I like Holmes’s method of placing himself in the middle of his discussions of 18th and 19th century people, and he’s careful not to make too much of the parallels too — the comparison between the French Revolution and May 1968 can only go so far, after all. But it gives him a way of getting inside the experiences of people long dead — a way of imagining what they might have seen and thought and felt.
Holmes has some amazing things to say about what it’s like to write biographies and he makes me want … not to write a biography exactly, but to research a writer deeply. I may write about this more later (I’m by no means through with posting about this book!), but for now I’ll leave you with this quotation:
In daily human affairs notoriously, we all do sometimes act apparently out of character — especially in situations of great stress or temptation or depression. In such situations one could say that a person’s sense of their own identity is diminished, and that they act almost in spite of themselves. Yet the biographer views and witnesses these daily human affairs in a special and privileged perspective. He gains a special kind of intimacy, but quite different from the subjective intimacy that I had first so passionately sought. He sees no act in isolation; nor does he see it from a single viewpoint. Even the familiarity of a close friend or spouse of many years suffers from this limitation. The biographer sees every act as part of a constantly unfolding pattern: he sees the before and the afterwards, both cause and consequence. Above all he sees repetition and the emergence of significant behaviour over an entire lifetime. As a result I have become convinced of the integrity of human character. Even a man’s failings, sudden lapses, contradictory reactions, sudden caprices, seem in the long run to fall within a pattern of character. One could say, paradoxically, that people even act out of character in a certain way; there is always, so to speak, meaning in their madness, provided one has full knowledge of the circumstances.