"All good biographies struggle with a particular tension between the scholarly drive to assemble facts as dispassionately as possible and the novelistic urge to find shape and meaning within the apparently random circumstances of a life. Both instincts are vital, and a biography is dead without either of them. We make sense of life by establishing ‘significant’ facts, and by telling ‘revealing’ stories with them. But the two processes are rarely in perfect balance or harmony. Indeed, with some post-modern biography the two primal identities of the biographer –the scholar and the storyteller –may seem to split completely apart, and fragment into two or more voices." From The Lonely Pursuit, Reflections of a Romantic Biographer by Richard Holmes
Before I began my blog in July 2009 I read two biographies by Richard Holmes, one a two volume work on Coleridge and as well as his Doctor Johnson and Mr. Savage, his attempt to explain a slightly baffling friendship between two seemingly quite unlike 18th century Englishmen. I was very honored to be given a review copy of his forthcoming book, The Lonely Pursuit, Reflections of a Romantic Biographer. Last year I read and posted on 21 biographies, 18 on authors. I hope to read a number of literary biographies this year. I have already completed one on Beatrice Potter and am well into a work about Edna Saint Vincent Millay.
Richard Holmes taught for five year a class in post graduate studies in the writing of biographies. This book sort of arose from that experience.
He begins by talking about the development of the biography as a form combined with the story of his creation of his first work, his 1974 biography of Shelley. He talks about how each generation has their own expectations about the nature of biography. He talks about how new historical discoveries can make once definitive works just historical documents. He talks about the tension between purely academic works and those written as a story with a plot with novelistic techniques of deploying the thoughts of the subject.
One of the most interesting aspects of this book,for me, was his listing of what he would require his students to read as a canon of biographies from 1670 to 1970. Here are his 20th century classics of biography
Lytton Strachey, Eminent Victorians (1918) Geoffrey Scott, Portrait of Zélide (1925) A. J. A. Symons, The Quest for Corvo (1934) Cecil Woodham-Smith, Florence Nightingale (1950) Leon Edel, Henry James (1953–72) Richard Ellmann, James Joyce (1959, revised 1982) George D. Painter, Marcel Proust: A Biography (1959, 1965) Michael Holroyd, Lytton Strachey (1967–68, revised 1994).
Among contemporary biographers of merit he speaks of the impact post 1970 feminist thinking has had on the development of the biography
"It was only with the late recognition of the mid-Victorian heroine –Caroline Herschel, Charlotte Brontë, Florence Nightingale, Harriet Martineau, Mary Somerville –that the biography of women began to emerge, and only with modern feminism that it began to have serious impact on the form after 1970, with work by Claire Tomalin, Hilary Spurling, Nancy Milford, Judith Thurman, Stacy Schiff and others."
This listed has already motivated me to acquire works by Nancy Milford and Stacy Schiff.
Holmes cover the lives and life story telling of eight figures from diverse areas, science, the arts and literature.
This is a very interesting deeply developed work. Anyone interested in biographies needs to read this wonderful book.