In 1985, Richard Holmes published a small book of essays called Footsteps and the writing of biography was changed forever. A daring mix of travel, biographical sleuthing and personal memoir, it broke all the conventions of the genre and remains one of the most intoxicating, magical works of modern literary exploration ever published.
Now Holmes has put together a further experiment in biographical enchantment. Sidetracks is not a sequel but a sister book to Footsteps, conjured up from decades of ‘wanderings from the straight and narrow’ of his major biographies like Shelley and Coleridge. It is a renewed examination of the strange and sometimes shadowy pathways of biography that have always fascinated him.
Sidetracks pursues this quest through an extraordinary and eclectic assortment of Romantic and Gothic writers and personalities: some French, some English, some Dutch, some American, some major, some minor, but all made hypnotically alive and memorable through Holmes’s transforming touch.
We meet Chatterton and Gautier, Pierrot and Voltaire, Mary Wollstonecraft and Godwin, Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda, James Boswell and Zelide, MR James and some very unpleasant gothic apparitions.
With each of these twenty pieces Holmes shows how fluid, playful and unconstrained the many voices of biography can be. The book includes two documentary radio-plays, many different kinds of character sketch and travelogue, true love stories and true ghost stories, and one piece, ‘Dr Johnson’s First Cat’ which may or may not be a piece of true biographical fiction.
The collection is held together by a subtle autobiographical thread, in which Holmes the Romantic biographer writes: ‘to be sidetracked is, after all, to be led astray by a path or an idea, a scent or a tune, and maybe lost forever.’
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To be sidetracked is to be led astray by a path or an idea, a scent or a tune, and maybe lost forever. But no true biographer would mind that, if he can take a few readers with him. To find your subject, you must in some sense lose yourself along the way.Richard Holmes, the award-winning biographer of Shelley and Coleridge, has been ensnared by his "love of imaginative displacement", an obsession that he has documented not only in his lives of the great Romantic figures, but also with regard to his investigations into peripheral characters such as 18th-century poet Richard Savage ( Dr Johnson and Mr Savage) and, among other literary discourses, the retracing of Robert Louis Stevenson's famous Cevennes journey by donkey in Footsteps. Sidetracks, enticingly subtitled Explorations of a Romantic Biographer, is a collection of essays and radio plays that continues and embellishes the theme of Footsteps, placing Holmes himself, at certain trajectories in his life, firmly in the context of each of his subjects. Thus we experience his first glimpse--his "Romantic Premonition" of the era that is to become his life's work--in the early essay on Thomas Chatterton, written out of his own disaffected experiences in late 60s London. "The marvellous boy who perished in his prime" supposedly committed suicide during the sweltering summer of 1770; Holmes reopens the case (later novelised to great effect by Peter Ackroyd) and argues that Chatterton died, not by his own hand, but of an accidental overdose of arsenic poisoning.
Meandering to Paris, Holmes' "Lost in France" chapter portrays the shadowy 19th-century figure of the early photographer Felix Nadar and the chilling and lonely suicide one frozen night of Gerard de Nerval. Later, he gives psychological insight into the macabre imagination of MR James, exemplary Cambridge scholar and ghost-story writer extraordinaire; a fly-on-the-wall account of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald's last European trip; and a delicious encounter with Voltaire's green-eyed mistress. His best and most lengthy piece is, however, the essay devoted to the extraordinary (though brief) partnership of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin. "The Feminist and the Philosopher" is an exceptionally well-written defence of early Romantic ideals and a passionate advocacy of the influence of Wollstonecraft, in particular, on the later writings of Coleridge, through her Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. It is Holmes' greatest achievement that the power of his essay is enough to send the reader back to this neglected classic. Above all, Holmes' commitment to the "inky demon" of writing, the medium through which he is able to unravel literary mysteries renders Sidetracks vibrant, unexpected, and endlessly fascinating. --Catherine TaylorReview:
‘A modern masterpiece’
‘Holmes’s Coleridge is one of the greatest literary biographies ever written.’
Nicholas Roe, Daily Telegraph
‘An unforgettable account of a troubled genius falling to earth. It is exquisitely written, lyrical, funny and poignant by turns… a wonderful book.’
Jackie Wullschlager, Financial Times
‘He has reached into the soul of his subject as every biographer hopes to but few actually do.’
Claire Tomalin, Observer
‘Dazzling. A biography like few I have ever read.’
James Wood, Guardian
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Book Description HarperCollins Publishers Ltd, U.S.A., 2000. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. Dust Jacket Condition: New. 1st Edition. 8vo - over 7¾ - 9¾" tall. Correct number line sequence, no writing, marks, underlining, or bookplates. No remainder marks. Spine is tight and crisp. Boards are flat and true and the corners are square. Dust jacket is not price-clipped. This collectible, " NEW" condition first edition/first printing copy is protected with a polyester archival dust jacket cover. Beautiful collectible copy. Bookseller Inventory # 000914