Monthly Archives: January 2010

‘The Stone Angel’ by Margaret Laurence

1964, 308p.

[There are plot spoilers here]

I’m not a great epigraph reader, but the epigraph of this book seemed particularly apposite- Do not go gentle into that good night/ Rage, rage against the dying of the light (Dylan Thomas). Hagar, the focal character of this book is raging all the way, just as she has throughout her long life.  The only daughter of a rich merhant, she despised her widowed father’s pride in her achievements and emotional dependence on her, and deliberately  married the sort of man she knew he disapproved of.  The marriage foundered: she was ashamed of her husband’s uncouthness and refused to ever reveal the pleasure that sex with him brought her.   Her eldest son Marvin was invisible to her throughout his life; her favourite son John died in a stupid driving prank.  And yet it is the long-ignored Marvin that she shares her home with, along with his dowdy wife Doris, on whom the care burden falls as Hagar becomes more frail, dependent and confused.   Doris herself is nearly seventy, and Marvin and Doris plan to place her in a nursing home.  Enraged and frightened, Hagar runs away to an old family property in the country where she spends a few cold, thirsty dank nights until found and hospitalized with a diagnosis of cancer and a short time to live.

Laurence has wonderful control of this story.  She handles the time shifts deftly as Hagar slips between reminiscence and present awareness- sometimes even within the same paragraph.  Although Hagar is the point of consciousness in the book, your sympathies for Marvin and Doris are aroused because Hagar surely is a vicious, acidic, scheming, vindictive, selfish and unfair old woman.

There are biblical allusions throughout the text that I chose not to explore, enjoying it sufficiently without feeling the need to contort it into a Christian frame.  In a nice little postmodern touch, as I neared the end of the book I realized that the text turned upside down.  “How prescient! How modern for a book written in the 1960s!” I thought, assuming that it was a commentary on Hagar’s own mental confusion.  But no- the book was just misbound.  Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar…

‘How to Write History that People Want to Read’ by Ann Curthoys and Ann McGrath

2009, 238 p.

This book is exactly what the title says it is: a how to book on writing history.  This no-nonsense approach pervades the book- it’s a real [clap] “Come on! Get stuck into it!” sort of book.  It could have, but wisely has not, been called “History Writing for Dummies” because it shares features of those little yellow books- the cheery, confident tone, the jokes that make you groan, the dot points,  the anecdotes and the bubbling optimism that of COURSE you can write history that people want to read!  I must admit that there’s something about all this bustling, practical advice that brings out the long-lost teenager in me.  I want to roll my eyes, toss my head, and mutter “der–” (the ultimate expression of nonchalance and superciliousness in my adolescence- I warned you that it was some time ago).

Except that it is so damned practical and, yes, good advice.  The book is aimed at a wider readership than just  PhD student- it also has family historians and local historians in its sights.  It is very simply written, with short sentences which at times seemed  just a little patronizing.  But of course, this is a book of advice and it does not pretend to be other than this. Clarity and  a certain amount of  firm direction is fundamental to the act of giving advice: I must remember that a bit of humility and preparedness to listen is fundamental to gaining from it.

This book starts from the beginning, right from conceptualizing your history project and your projected audience.  It has good, practical advice about archives  and the how-to of working with sources , then moves on to the writing.  It was at this point that I stopped my eye-rolling and read more carefully because writing, and thinking about narrative and action, character and the emotions  is right where I am at the moment.  And this is probably the real strength of this book; at some stage it is going to connect with you as history-writer at some point in the cycle.  In this regard, you could buy it at the start of your thesis or project, and dip into it usefully for a bit of a kick up the backside or a dust-off after a setback when you need it. The examples they used from a range of histories were well-chosen; you didn’t need to know anything about the content, and the text guided you to look through the content to the technique.  The discussion of footnotes, grammar and punctuation again had me tossing my head with impatience -until I’d come across something that I thought “oh really? Is THAT the difference between a colon and semicolon?” and “You mean that my examiners won’t even READ my quotations?”.  At times I bridled at the decisiveness of their approach but when I came to areas that for me are foggy and ill-defined, the clarity was reassuring.  I suspect that  I am very bad at taking advice.

The trouble with aiming at a broad audience is that sometimes, in order to avoid alienating one audience, the needs of another audience are put onto the backburner.  As a postgraduate student, I yearned for a chapter about analysis.  They do mention analysis, but its difficulty is downplayed by giving it equal billing with themes and chronology as a narrative problem.  I think that analysis is more than this: it goes to the heart of the endeavour; it is what makes history more than just a good story.  It might be stripped out of histories for publication so as to attract a wider audience; it might be over-kill for a local or family history, but for an academic thesis there  is a fundamental assumption that your thesis says something, means something beyond just the narrative at hand.  This is the real work of history,- it’s the part that makes your head hurt- and it’s hard.

I almost didn’t read this book when I first heard about it because I thought that I had read it before. But no- that was an earlier book (2000)  by the same authors that has been recently re-released: Writing Histories: Imagination and Narration.  It  is an edited collection of papers by contributors to a Visiting Scholars Program workshop for fifteen very lucky post-graduates, and is a who’s who of Australian historians who I admire deeply:  Tom Griffiths, Bill Gammage, Donna Merwick, Greg Dening, John Docker, Deborah Bird Rose, Peter Read and of course Ann Curthoys and Ann McGrath themselves.  This book, in many ways, supplied my “missing” chapter, even though I found it rather daunting.  In my reading journal after reading this book I wrote:

I can’t say that I feel empowered- intimidated more like it; overwhelmed by other people’s erudition and breadth, and feeling stodgy and constipated!

It’s a pity that the two books aren’t released by the same publisher, because they would be a wonderful combination within the same volume.  The prose and vision doesn’t exactly soar in “How to Write History” but it is warm, encouraging and empowering.  The virtuosity and incisiveness of the historians talking about their craft in “Writing Histories”  while inspirational, can be almost paralysing.  As an aspiring history writer, I need both.  I need to be beckoned onwards by those up ahead of me;  I need the grip of a confident, more experienced friend at my arm, and  a damned good shove from behind as well!

The morning after the night before: Anniversary Day 1841

So how was your Australia Day?  From the coverage of Melbourne (Port Phillip)’s Australia Day celebrations, it seems to have been a street parade with different multicultural groups represented, citizenship ceremonies, flags at the Australian Open tennis tournament and Lily Allen in a flag dress at the Big Day Out.

From The Australian, 28TH JANUARY 1841

And as for Sydney in 1841?  There was a long report about the yacht regattas on the Harbour, mention of a cricket match and the dinner that followed it where

Turtle, venison and the other good things of this life were in abundance, conjointly with sparkling champagne &c.; and a more loyal set never yet met at the festive board.  The Queen’s health was drunk with enthusiasm, and Australia, the land of their adoption, was honored with reiterated cheers.  These jovial souls kept up the joyous scene to a late hour, and returned to their homes delighted with their evening’s meeting.  May they meet on many such occasions, is our hearty wish.

then the Harmonic Club who presented a prize to the winner of the sixth race.

There’s then a report about the town itself:

…It was expected that the festivities in celebration of the natal day of the colony would have been concluded with a general illumination throughout the town; but, the the great disappointment of the good folk of Sydney, the streets were all in darkness with the exception of the houses of Mr Diod [?] of Pitt Street who displayed in beautifully variegated lamps, a star, with the age of the colony (53) underneath, supported by the letters A. A. on either side; and of Mr Ward of Bridge-street, who exhibited the Scottish Thistle and the letters V. R. which had a beautiful and dazzling effect, and drew a large concourse of admiring spectators.  Both these decorations were executed by Messrs Wood, of King-street, who have long been known to the Australian public as the most celebrated “illuminati” of the age.  Mr Aldis, the tobacconist had a few lamps in his window; and Mr Carrick, the publican of Bridge-street sported a few tallow candles in the same manner, both of these, however, only sufficed to make the “darkness visible”.

I must confess myself mystified by these “illuminations”- perhaps one of my readers might illuminate me!  From the Sydney Gazette of May 27 1841 it seems that gas was not supplied to Sydney until 1841, although as editorials at the time pointed out, this was a mere 25 years after gas lights were introduced for general use in London.

Many reports of celebrations mention “illuminations” but I’m not sure how they worked.  I see advertisements for “illumination lamps” and “transparencies” and on 21 April 1829 T. Wood the Lamp Contractor advertised that “Persons desirous of illuminating on His Majesty’s Birth Night are requested to make an early application to T. Wood, Lamp Contractor, George-Street who will provide Lamps and Devices at moderate charge” .  Inclement weather tended to extinguish the illuminations. The Colonial Times (Hobart)  of 26 Aug 1834 reports on an illumination at Government House that cost three hundred pounds but could not go ahead for two nights because the wind was too strong, and when the lamps were finally lit, the view was obscured by large ugly pine trees.   There is a long description of the Queens Birthday illuminations on 25 May 1839 (i.e. two years before the Anniversary Day illuminations mentioned above and two years before the introduction of gas):

In the evening the customary birth night ball was given at Government House, and, notwithstanding the unpromising state of the atmosphere, it was very numerously attended. The entrance to Government House was brilliantly illuminated, the gate being surmounted with the word ” Victoria,” in very large letters, and the verandah with a large crown and wreath. In various parts of the town the inhabitants displayed their loyalty in the shape of illumination. The following principally attracted our reporter’s attention : -Australian Club House. – The words ” Vivat Regina.” in large letters, surmounted by a large crown, and star with festoons &c. Mr. James Wood, opposite the cattle market, wine merchant, Crown and V. ; Anchor and Hope (Doran) public house, corner of King and Pitt streets, neat variegated star ; Shakespeare Tavern (Rogers) Pitt-street, letters Q. V. with Shakspeare’s head illuminated. Cornwallis Frigate, (Meredith) Pitt street, the letters V. R. surmounted with large crown and star, a truelover’s knot &c. King’s Arms (Stone) Pitt-street,.Star and Garter with letters V.R.,rows of variegated lamps &c. Garriek’s Head (Murray) Pitt-street, letters V. R. surmounted by Crown. Australian Chop House Pitt street, letters V.R.  and Crown, festoons &c &c ; Mr. Dole, Tobacconist, George-street, opposite Police Office, letters V.R.; Mr. Martin, Castlereagh-street, (publican) near Cattle Market, star; Forbes Hotel (Mrs Barnes) King and York-stree, letters V. R. with handsome crown, festoons of variegated lamps, suspended round the windows. William the Fourth (Morris) Pitt street-, illuminated transparency of Queen Victoria. Mr. Denne, Pitt-street, Brunswick Star. M. Gill confectioner V.R.. and Crown Pitt-street. Crooked Billet (Puzey) George and Hunter-streets, V. R. and Crown. Mr. Samuels V. R. and Crown, George-street.

The devices most attractive to the spectators were a very neatly executed transparency of the noted “Jim Crow” exhibited above the door of the Flower Pot, public house, York-street, and a handsome transparency in Pitt-street, in front of the residence of Mr. Gould, painter and glazier, representing Queen Victoria, with a rampant lion, having  the motto Invicta on the one hand, and  the Royal Arms on the other, each occupying a window.-Two fire balloons were sent up in the course of the evening.

Here we see expressions of loyalty amongst the working people of Sydney, in their pubs and businesses- and quite a collection it is- with many V.R.s and crowns, Shakespeare’s head, lovers knots and a “Jim Crow”.

Anyway, enough of the mysterious illuminations- back to Anniversary Day in 1841 from The Australian.

A number of Australians dined together on Tuesday at the St. John’s Tavern, to celebrate the Anniversary of their Native Land.  There were about fifty present; the dinner was sumptuous in the extreme, and after the cloth was removed, several loyal and patriotic toasts were proposed, which were responded to by the warmest enthusiasm.  During the evening some very eloquent speeches were made, which reflected much to the credit upon the heard and head of the speakers, breathing as they did, a true loyal feeling for their Sovereign, and a love for their Father Land.  The harmony of the evening was enlivened by some very pleasing music.  They kept up the festivities of the day until a late hour, and departed with a feeling of mutual reverence to the Parent Country, and love for Australia and her institutions.

I find it interesting that there is a distinction drawn between the “good folk” of Sydney and the “Australians” who no doubt are the native-born.   Australia is their “Father Land”, but Britain is the “Parent Country”.   The term “the anniversary of their Native Land” (meaning of course only fifty-three years!)  grates harshly on our 21st century ears.

References:

The wonderful National Library of Australia Newspapers page of course!

Australia Day editorials

One of the set pieces in the editor’s armoury must be the Australia Day editorial which needs to be dusted off each January and polished around the edges a bit to distinguish it from the editorial the year before, and the year before that.

I was interested to compare the editorials of The Australian newspaper in 1841 and today.  The Australian as we know it today was founded in 1964 and is part of the Murdoch empire.  It’s not a paper that I read regularly, except for the Australian Literary Review which is issued on the first Wednesday of every month, and even there the paper’s centre-right stance seeps through. It shares the name but not the lineage of the Australian newspaper founded by William Charles Wentworth as New South Wales’ first privately-owned newspaper in 1824.  Wentworth’s Australian newspaper in 1841 acted as a mouth-piece for Wentworth’s own politics at the time where he was agitating for representative government and independence from the twin and paradoxical evils of Colonial Office oversight and neglect.  It published its last edition in 1848.

The Australian 2010

So, The Australian’s editorial of 25th January 2010 on the eve of Australia Day-  what did it have to say? Well, there’s plenty to celebrate apparently:

Australia Day marks the real start of the year in this country: once tomorrow’s holiday is out of the way, the nation gets down to the serious business of work and school after the summer break. This year, the celebratory mood is likely to linger longer thanks to the upswing in the economy and a growing confidence in the future after a year of living anxiously in the shadow of a global downturn.  The year begins with real hope that economic stability and strength will nurture the social coherence and health that must be the core goal of any modern society.

The paper notes the financial emphasis of Rudd’s speeches over the last week leading up to Australia Day (productivity, deficits, infrastructure blah, blah, blah) but then warns us:

There’s more to life of course, and the Australia Day celebrations draw attention to the less tangible questions of community, social tolerance, and national identity…But our national holiday becomes an empty affair if we ignore the real challenges facing many of us.

The editorial then goes on to speak about “Twenty-two years ago, at the Bicentennial celebrations on Australia Day” when “the nation was trapped in a painful historical debate that denied the real issues facing indigenous people, particularly those in remote areas.  The often fruitless arguments over whether the country had been invaded or settled 200 years earlier served to polarise rather than educate white and black Australians over their shared history.”

I find it interesting that the touchstone date in this editorial (and in commentary generally)  is now 1988 rather than 1788.  In the last twenty-two years, the editorial says, we have ” come a long way in recognising the rights of indigenous Australians to decent housing, education and jobs” and “there is room for optimism…”.  Twenty-two years ago the population was 16.6 million; now it is 22 million and projected to be 35 million mid-century and The Australian is “excited by the potential for vibrant social and economic growth” although cautioning of the need for clear plans.  “The integration of more ethically diverse Australians must be carefully guarded” and “racism has no role in Australia which, since the abolition of the White Australia Policy in the mid-1970s, has built an enviable reputation as a tolerant and welcoming nation”.

Australia Day- marked by citizenship ceremonies around the nation- is a perfect time to affirm belief in a mature and single society that also accomodates difference.

The paper notes the affection for Prince William at his recent (fleeting) visit and the respect for his grandmother, but asserts that “those feelings would seem to have little or nothing to do with Australians’ support for a republic”.

The Australian 1841

Why 1841? Because Judge Willis was still in Sydney in January 1841, although it was well-known that he had been appointed to Melbourne and his house, horses and phaeton were being advertised in the newspaper.  In a few days, he would make his farewell speech from the bench- in itself a matter for controversy as might be expected.  But given that Anniversary Day celebrations were most conspicuously celebrated in Sydney compared to the other colonies, it seems fitting to look at Judge Willis’ last Anniversary Day in Sydney.

The editorial of 26th January 1841 (published on the actual day) starts off with a blaze of optimism:

On this 26th of January 1841, the Colony of New South Wales commences the fifty-third year of its existence.  What striking and gratifying recollections does the reoccurrence of this, our natal day, recall to our mind? Where, in the whole range of ancient and modern history, can an instance be found of a similarly rapid advance towards wealth, importance, and respectability, under circumstances so singularly discouraging, under the pressure of obstacles of such peculiar magnitude?

The Australian was very much Wentworth’s creation, and the next very lengthy sentence goes on to criticize the Colonial Office, and the influence of the South Australian lobbyists, with their Wakefieldian agricultural-based ideas, who were pushing an alternative to the squatter-based, pastoral future that Wentworth was agitating for:

Labouring under all the odium which has naturally attached itself to a penal colony, systematically disdained and neglected by the Colonial Office, the only quarter to which we have been enabled, and indeed are still able to look for assistance and sympathy, with out financial resources misapplied, our most earnest prayers for free institutions disregarded, autocratically governed at the caprice now of this, now of that minister, with enemies avowed, and enemies concealed, handed over with indifference within the last twelve months to the tender mercies of Colonel Torrens and the Land Board…

This gargantuan sentence continues with a look to the past, going back fifty, even twenty years to the penal origins of New South Wales.  As with the editorial of 2010, there’s an element of bringing observations within the scope of living memory.  The bleak environmental picture painted here sits at odds with the more benign environment portrayed in Grace Karsken’s recent book The Colony, and the reference to Aborigines is very much of its time:

we yet can exhibit, where half a century, nay twenty years since, gangs of lawless convicts laboured upon a limited and uncleared desert, where the hallowed names of religion and justice were unknown, where the wandering savage, lowest in the scale of humanity, and the wretched English criminal, scarce gained a scanty subsistence from an ungrateful soil, where unblest sons poured their angry luster upon the thirsty sand

Now the observant eye of Englishmen beholds:

far-stretching districts, hundreds of miles in extent, covered with flocks and herds, teeming with convertible wealth, the fertile banks of numerous rivers producing abundant supplies of agricultural produce…

and a maritime industry that is “sending home annually in the place of hundreds, no less than eight millions of pounds of wool…verging upon the annual value of a million of money…” and “importing British manufactured produce to the amount of twice this sum.”  It seems a little incongruous to us now to think with pride on the amount we import (as distinct from export), but in 1841 it was a matter of pride that New South Wales was now a sophisticated and modern consumer society, proud of its place within the broader imperial marketplace.

But the life of an upstanding member of society has its responsibilities as well and so,

We trust that our readers will permit us to remind them without offence that the joy and the festivity with which they so pleasingly celebrate this birthday of their country, should be tempered with reflections of a higher and a somewhat more thoughtful nature.  These they are bound to entertain for their own sake, for the sake of those who come after them, for the sake of vindicating for themselves that high and leading position in this hemisphere, which it is in the order of things that they must, and that at no distant day attain. We would urge upon all, whatever may be their condition in life, to give their individual efforts for upholding and still further exalting the standard of integrity and of morals in our social community.

In particular, the Australian deplored “with reluctance and with grief” that “an avowed selfishness, the bane of all young communities, is to a very large and engrossing extent, prevalent throughout this country”. The editorial called upon

everyone who occupies a position which gives him influence over his fellow-colonists, to promote these views fearlessly and cordially, if he has any true or forward-looking desire for the welfare of his native or adopted country.

Note that this was leading by example, and a call to the leaders of society rather than to “the people” as a whole.  The political winds were stirring, but nobody was agitating for democracy as we know it today- and would even less so in coming years with the rise of Chartism and the 1848 revolutions to follow.

…if you do your duty at this now early hour of the political day, when the seed can be sown and the tree of virtue planted, you will indeed be “remembered for good”, for upon a nation such as by your wise efforts may be constituted, one in honour, one in high and unswerving principle, one in their passionate love of liberty, one in their disdain of everything that is mean, and sordid, and cowardly, it is not too much to say, that the feet of tyranny, foreign or domestic, shall NEVER trample.

The Australian was confident that representative democracy- limited though it was- would be just around the corner but we know that the drip-feed of a form of self-government would take over a decade.

The eyes of Britain are more and more intently fixed upon you.  The importance of this Colony is being rapidly appreciated at home.  Representative institutions of on the eve of concession to us.  May we so wisely and temperately use them, as to convince our worst enemies that we are worthy of the boon granted.

And now for the important thing- what’s on? Sydney always put on a bigger bash for Anniversary Day than the other colonies did, so here’s what’s happening:

And now, with reference to the sports of this day- His Excellency will be present at Macquarie Point with a numerous party.  We perceive that many excellent boats, several of them newly built for the occasion, will contend for the prizes.  All the available steamers will ply about the harbour during the day with bands of music, to enliven the scene.  The shipping will hoist their colours and be decorated with all their flags.  In the evening Mr Wyatt will present, at the Theatre, the owner of the successful vessel with a silver cup of the value of thirty pounds; and a numerous party of Australians will dine together at the St John’s Tavern, to celebrate the auspicious occasion.  In fact, nothing will be wanting but the sun to shine brightly to complete the happiness of our towns men.  We hope that no accidents may occur to damp the festivities of the day.

I’ll let you know how the day went off, tomorrow.

Enjoying an Australia Day holiday

The Age tells us that a record half a million Australians “chucked a sickie” today in order to have a four-day long weekend.  I know several people who took today as a leave day but that’s not necessarily a “sickie” in my book.   Of course there’s lots of  tut-tutting by employers, designating such enterprising workers as “un-Australian bums”  with “no concept of mateship or the Australian way”.

They should spare a thought for the Tradesmen of Sydney, who were asking the editor of the Sydney Herald to grant a holiday on Anniversary Day (now Australia Day) when it fell on a Tuesday in 1841- let alone angling for a long weekend!

HOLIDAY ON THE 26th.

To the Editor of the Sydney Herald.

Sir,- As next Tuesday is the Fifty-third Anniversary of the Colony, and will be kept a holiday by some, you would confer a great favour on many, if you would give the Tradesmen of   Sydney, particularly the Chemists and Druggists a gentle hint in your widely circulated Paper to close their shops on that day, and to allow their so much confined assistants and apprentices a   little recreation. I am Sir, for many,

Your’s very respectfully

A CONSTANT READER.

Saturday morning, Jan. 23 1841

From NLA Australian Newspapers

‘Little White Slips’ by Karen Hitchcock

2009, 249 p.

I’m not a great short-story reader, especially when they are in a collection like this.  If they are truly short short-stories, then do you read them one at a time over an extended period, or do you pop them in, one after the other, like a bag of lollies?  I don’t like being jerked around from one situation to another in a single reading.  I tend to remember short stories better when I hear them read aloud, rather than when I read them myself.  With the exception of Nam Le’s The Boat, I  tend to find a volume of short stories to be a bit of a curate’s egg.  But is it realistic to expect every story in a collection to blow you out of your reading-chair, or is a hit-rate of a couple of memorable stories within one volume sufficient?  Is a short story MEANT to be memorable? If so, then I am a miserably failed short-story reader.

Karen Hitchcock is being hailed as a “bold new voice in contemporary fiction”.  Certainly, the first couple of stories in this book were very good, especially the first rather lengthy story about a doctor swotting to pass her specialist examinations.  There are a couple of stories about body image; a couple about the study involved in becoming a psychiatrist- the first of which seemed to form a good counterpart to the opening story about studying to become a specialist from the other partner’s perspective.  But the middle of the book seemed to sag with stories that seemed more like baggy and rather nebulous reminiscences, and too many stories  seemed to pick up on the same themes from a different perspective.  The last story, which gives the collection its title, was good, as I rather hoped it would be.

Perhaps there is an overarching structure to this book that I couldn’t detect.  Certainly it deals with “women’s iss-ews” like body image, medicine,  the limits of male and female friendship, professional life and identity etc.   But I felt as if the same narrative voice was telling all these stories- an educated, Australian, mid-30s, often childless, professional voice, or in the case of the reminiscences,  the voice of someone who would grow up to be this person.  Did the author have a vision for this collection of stories as a whole that contributed to this sameness? or is the author not ready or unwilling to move beyond this?

I will read other stories written by Karen Hitchcock.  Perhaps I would have enjoyed her more in a collection with other writers where she shares the stage with others, rather than a solo performance- I see that several of these stories have previously appeared in Meanjin and The Sleepers Almanac, and were picked up in Best Australian Short Stories in 2006, 2007 and 2008.   Or perhaps I just need to find a way to read short stories differently.

‘Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer’ by Richard Holmes

275 p, 1985

If Richard Holmes wrote blockbuster movies instead of biographies, this book would be one of those “Making of…”  extras on the DVD.   “Footsteps” is the biographer as autobiographer, shining his spotlight onto the biographer doing biography. It combines an explanation of Holmes’ own search for understanding of his subjects, his decision-making in shaping the story of their lives in a narrative sense,  and his reflections on his own development as a biographer.

The book itself is divided into four fairly lengthy parts (about 60 pages), and each deals with a different biographical “hunt”.  Not all of these searches seem to have eventuated in a publication, although it’s a little hard to tell as there are two Richard Holmes, both historians, both British, – one a military historian (born in 1946) and then my Richard Holmes the biographer (born in 1945).  The biographies described in this book revolve around Romantic intellectuals during, and in the decades following, the French Revolution.

In Part I he starts off retracing (literally) Robert Louis Stevenson’s tour through the Cevennes  in France.  This is the biographer with his hiking shoes and backpack, embarking on a kind of pilgrimage to the places Stevenson visited.  Holmes is only 19 here, and he comes to realize as he tries to cross a now-derelict and impassible bridge that Stevenson crossed that it is not possible to for the biographer “cross literally into the past”.

Even in imagination the gap was there.  It had to be recognized; it was no good pretending.  You could not play-act into the past, you could not turn it into a game of make-believe.  There had to be another way.  Somehow you had to produce the living effect, while remaining true to the dead fact.  (p. 27)

The next section takes us to Paris in 1968, and Holmes, not yet settled in his vocation as biographer,  is swept up in the drama and historical self-consciousness of the 1968 student riots.   Yet he felt a certain distance from the events: was this, he wondered, how English intellectuals in Revolutionary France had felt too?   In particular, he considered Mary Wollstonecraft who arrived in France in 1792 and remained there during the excesses of the Revolution and when many other English intellectuals had returned home.  He focussed on her time alone at Le Havre  with her young child.  In this section Holmes uses his own experience of the 1968 riots at a touchstone by which to explore the reactions of English intellectuals in Paris over 150 years earlier.

1968 was not the break with the past that he (and many others) thought it would be.  For the Romantic intellectuals, too, the conservatism of the 1820s extinguished much of the optimism generated by the early Revolutionary days.   In the third section of the book- the one I enjoyed the most- he focusses on Shelley and his wife Mary, and the relationship with Claire Clairmont, Mary’s step-sister.  From his 1972 perspective of broken and experimental marriages, Holmes explores the emotional lives of these exiles and argues that there was a relationship between Shelley and Claire that they concealed from Mary Shelley.

The final part of the book jumps forward to 1976 when Holmes, almost against his will, is drawn into exploring the life of Gerard de Nerval, a journalist and poet who committed suicide in 1855.  This biography was never published and Holmes himself seemed to be drawn into a labyrinth of insanity, tampered documentation and shifting identities during the process of following Nerval’s footsteps.

What I loved about this book was when he talks about biography as a literary genre and the role of the biographer.  The index is brilliant for this book- without fail, each time I found a part that I thought “Oooh, I must put a post-it note here”, the indexer had noted it before me.  There’s much food for thought for me here:   the salience of place and location in writing a biography; the technique of writing from the subject’s view outwards rather than the other way round;  the biographer’s intimacy with her subject; the biographer’s trust in character and the problem of self-identification.  This is not heavy-handed- it is sprinkled throughout the book, and generally raised in the context of a particular biographical problem.  And as you might imagine, the book is beautifully written.  One slight quibble would be that the French quotations throughout the book are not translated, although usually he provides enough contextual cues to work out what has been said, and he’s challenging his reader to work a little.  Nonetheless a very little footnote wouldn’t go astray.

I loved this book.  In fact, I may even come back for more, because he also released Sidetracks: Explorations of a Romantic Biographer in 2000.  There’s an interesting article about Richard Holmes in the Guardian. His partner (in 2008) is Rose Tremain-  I wonder if they’d invite me for dinner one evening?