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Richard Holmes has an illustrious career as a biographer of mainly eighteenth and nineteenth century figures, and as an inspired researcher, throughout all those years (he is 71 now), he has kept meticulous notes and findings collected in 200 notebooks. It has indeed been a Long Pursuit which he reflects upon in this packed-full collection of essays, musings, lectures, or however you want to classify the 15 chapters everyone of which brims with interest.
The first 5 chapters focus on the art of biography since its beginnings and are reflective, wide-ranging, analytical and also very generous to biographers before him and especially to his contemporaries and those biographers who have come to the fore in the last few decades.
The next 5 chapters could be stand-alone essays on individual 18th and 19th century women who, apart from Mary Wollstonecraft, have not received as much attention as male figures of the time. Holmes's focus on science throughout is fascinating and Mary Somerville and Margaret Cavendish in particular, their lives as crammed with as much interest as their experiments, made astonishing contributions to scientific discovery - and to breaking out from social boundaries.
The final 5 chapters called 'Afterlives' cover the lives and posthumous legacies of Keats, Coleridge and Shelley, about whom Holmes has written massive biographies, and the artist Thomas Lawrence. The background to Alexander Gilchrist's 19th century biography of William Blake is a complete human biography on its own, completed by Anne Gilchrist after her husband died of scarlet fever caught from their little daughter who survived.
There is bound to be some repetition from Holmes's already published books, but this is after all subtitled 'Reflections of a Romantic Biographer', so that is inevitable and appropriate. What I loved was not just the sweeping over-views, but the details (a 17th century anti-hunting poem; the links between Humphrey Davy's experiments and Coleridge's metaphors; the discovery of comets by F.W.Herschel's sister Caroline...).
You can miss some listening to a book like this, even when well read (despite some odd cadences to the sentences) as this. I'm reading the book next!
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