Retracing the Footsteps

What does it mean that I’ve started re-reading books? Nearly twenty years ago, in 1990 I read Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer by Richard Holmes and loved it and now I’m re-reading it.  Amazon describes it like this:

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. Sleeping rough, he retraces Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous journey through the Cevennes. Caught up in the Parisian riots of the 1960s, he dives back in time to the terrors of Wordsworth and of Mary Wollstonecraft marooned in Revolutionary Paris and then into the strange tortured worlds of Gerard de Nerval. Wandering through Italy, he stalks Shelley and his band of Romantic idealists to Casa Magni on the Gulf of Spezia.

I liked a lot about it: the walking, the immersion in the world of the writer, and the importance of the physical place especially as that place was mostly out of the city. When I finally got to Europe three years later I planned the family trip around following the footsteps of some of my favourite writers: Hardy country, Wuthering Heights, the modest white wooden cross that marks Dylan Thomas’s grave in Walves, Wordsworth’s Lake District, Yeats’ Irish tower, even Eliot’s church from Four Quartets at Little Gidding. It was a great journey, and it’s only now that I really appreciate what part Holmes’ book might have made in its planning.

And it affected me in another way too I realise as I look back at my detailed lists of my reading over the years. From 1990 on, after I read this book, I began to read more non-fiction and see the potential in a kind of writing I’d never really taken seriously. From 1990 on every year I read more non-fiction and less and less fiction.

Below, my daughters and I at Top Withins in Yorkshire, perhaps the inspiration for the house Wuthering Heights for Emily Bronte, from that journey following those footsteps in 1993


4 thoughts on “Retracing the Footsteps

  1. I too loved Footsteps, and it’s a book I’ve gone back to several times. Nabokov said (admittedly about fiction) that we need time to acquaint ourselves with a book, and it’s only on the 2nd or 3rd or 4th reading that we can relate to it the way we do to a painting, perceiving the inter-relations between its parts and so forth. I’m an advocate for re-reading.

  2. Warwick,
    Hi, I am reading Footsteps now. I saw Richard Holmes last year in Melbourne and so resolved to read this ‘masterpeice’. I’ve read his biography of Coleridge and enjoyed it. I raced through the first part of Footsteps, and really enjoyed his pilgrimage through France a la Stevensen. I am finding the next part on the Paris uprising slower, but have had to put it off for school text books. He is a really interesting writer.


  3. Thanks Brenda; I agree with you about that second section, which isn’t nearly as interesting or as romantic as the idea of following Stevenson’s footsteps. I’m sorry I missed him in Melbourne last year

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