After watching the extraordinarily good television adaptation of William Boyd’s gorgeous Any Human Heart, I merrily hopped on the passing bandwagon and read the book just after Christmas. There are so many reasons to love this novel, but most important for me was the fact that it reminded me of how much I love biographical writing, whether fiction, nonfiction or somewhere in-between.
In my opinion, the mark of a really great book is one that fills you with a need to read more, to go back to the bookshelf and see what other forgotten treats are hiding among its dark corners. While at university I did a course called Life Writing and, ferreting around a dusty old pile of neglected books, I came across one from this course that I had never quite got round to reading.
The book is called Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer by Richard Holmes, and the copy I own has a spectacularly dull cover featuring some sepia trees, which is probably why I didn’t quite manage to read it all those years ago. But the folly of my youthful shallowness has paid dividends as this is a book that must be savoured, with every word allowed the time and space that sadly (and somewhat ironically) just isn’t available to a literature student.
The book is divided into four quite distinct sections that recount Holmes’ literary pilgrimages across Europe from the late 1960s to the mid 1970s, in search of some kind of emotional, spiritual and poetic connection with eminent literary figures of the Romantic era, namely Robert Louis Stevenson, Mary Wollstonecraft, the Shelleys and Gérard de Nerval. Holmes is a passionate, sometimes obsessive, guide through moments of great personal crisis in the lives of these people, walking through the forests, travelling down the roads and haunting the houses that they once passed through. The result is one of the most powerful, moving and beautiful works of biographical literature ever written, and conveys more about the brutal human reality of living out Romantic ideals in chapters of sixty-odd pages than any factually dense biographical brick ever could.
Something about the way Holmes bears the weight of the literary canon with such ecstatic pleasure, leaping among references with such delight and abandon reminded me of Boyd’s merry romp through the literary figures of the twentieth century, acknowledging their contribution as people and writers with celebration rather than reverence or fear. As I read Footsteps I became more convinced of how much Any Human Heart owes to this great and often forgotten little masterpiece. You can imagine my smile when I came across a passage that directly references the same Henry James quotation after which Boyd’s novel is named, ‘never say you know the last word about any human heart’, this time in reference to the enigmatic, and finally tragic life of Percy Bysshe Shelley. It is no coincidence that Logan Mounstuart of Boyd’s novel makes his first step into the literary world with a biography of none other than Shelley.
To anyone who has ever fantasised about selling up and living the romantic life of a bohemian nomad in France or Italy; or anyone who dreams of the intense, really human passions behind the great literary and historical stories; or even those who just love to escape into another, more heightened, more beautiful world through literature, I can’t recommend Footsteps enough.