Richard Holmes, one of our most distinguished and enjoyable biographers, has gathered some of his ‘biographer’s tales’ and produced a very engaging and atmospheric book of essays. Most of the pieces began life as lectures or introductions or articles. Now, substantially revised, they stand together as a kind of primer on the intricacies of biographical method, and also (though he is much too unostentatious a writer to claim such a thing) as an introduction to Holmes’s mind. He has moved towards autobiography in the past, notably in his remarkable Footsteps (1985), which recounted memorable episodes from literary lives – among them Robert Louis Stevenson walking through the Cévennes, Shelley and his circle experimenting with life in northern Italy, Wordsworth going astray in revolutionary Paris – while at the same time telling the story of how he came to be telling those stories. Such an approach may sound wearisomely self-absorbed, but the effect is actually quite the opposite: the book moves beautifully between accounts of Holmes’s own experiences as he treads in the footsteps of others and the lives of those whose original, elusive footsteps he is seeking to track.
It hardly comes as a surprise that biographers, unless they are quite remorselessly professional, choose subjects that allow them to articulate something about themselves, but Footsteps beautifully evokes the tantalising elusiveness of the relationship between author and subject, at once uncannily close and yet as far apart as can