The Paris Review

RICHARD HOLMES

Born in London in 1945, Richard Holmes has written ten biographies and books of biographical essays. Even in his earliest works, Shelley (1974) and the two-volume Coleridge (1989, 1998), Holmes demonstrates a keen eye for place and a striking empathy for his subjects. In his pages, one has the chance, however fleeting, to imagine what it may have been like to ride on the Lido with Shelley and Byron, or roam the midnight streets of London with Samuel Johnson and Richard Savage, or take to the air over the Arctic with Salomon August Andrée. His books have warmth and intimacy combined with a knowing sense of their own incompleteness, an idea that Holmes sees as the very heart of biography.

We met three times in the winter of 2017. Our first meeting began at a London bistro and ended in overstuffed armchairs at the office of his literary agent in Covent Garden. The next day, we continued at his apartment in north London—not too far from where an aging Coleridge stood to salute Byron’s funeral cortege. In his apartment, the books on past subjects were clustered on the shelves like memorials to old friends, some of whom (like the poet Gérard de Nerval) have escaped the full Holmes treatment but linger on in his affection. Our final meeting took place over tea and cookies at my apartment in New York.

An adventurous spirit, Holmes has followed his own Romantic enthusiasms far and wide—from a sailing adventure that ended in a helicopter rescue, to an attempted hot-air balloon landing on the front lawn of the Australian parliament in Canberra, to many experiments with fiction and radio plays. Perhaps most adventurous of all was his shift from literary to scientific biography in The Age of Wonder (2008). For a number of years, he was a professor of biography at the University of East Anglia and the editor of a series of reissued classic biographies; he now lives between London and Norfolk with his partner, the novelist Rose Tremain, from whom he will slyly admit having borrowed a character for a brief part in his latest book, This Long Pursuit (2017). The couple returns every year to their stone house on the edge of the Cévennes, where, much earlier, as Holmes explains below, he first felt the biographical urge.

—Lucas Wittmann

INTERVIEWER

How did you start writing biographies?

HOLMES

At eighteen, just out of Roman Catholic school and desperate for freedom, I set off alone wandering around France for several months. My mother sent me her old copy of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes, as a kind of good-luck charm. A little red hardback with a tiny map in the front. I still have it. Suddenly I thought, Here is the map and this is the journey I must make. So I went down through the Lozère, following Stevenson’s track, on foot with a rucksack, sleeping rough—but no donkey. It only lasted a couple of weeks, but for me, it was tough, very lonely, a kind of initiation. The Cévennes is like a French version of the Scottish Highlands, wild and remote. I saw no one for days, but I somehow believed I saw Stevenson and met him. I slept à la belle étoile and bathed in the mountain streams. I had a traveler’s check for fifty pounds in my shoe. I started keeping a notebook about Stevenson’s trip, and that’s how it all began.

INTERVIEWER

But it was years before you actually published anything about Stevenson— not until your 1985 book, Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer. First you went to university and moved to London and became a poet.

HOLMES

Well, in my twenties I wrote a lot of poetry, songs, and story-ballads, some collected as a pamphlet, (1970), with the help of a real poet, Christopher Logue. I supported myself by reviewing, but a publisher suggested I write a book called “Prodigies,” about the lives of young creative people—poets, painters, writers, musicians. I remember he mentioned Janis Joplin. After all, this was in the late sixties. I.

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