I'm not a great fan of biographies usually, but I love Shelley and Byron and had heard great things about this one and so gave it a go - and I'm so pleased I did! It's vivid, articulate, intelligent and really gets under the skin of the subjects.
Shelley leaps off the page in all his daemonic intelligence and ambivalence, as does Mary Shelley, Byron and Claire Clairmont. I found myself slowing down towards the end both because I didn't want to reach the conclusion that I knew had to happen, and also because I just didn't want the book to end.
With so many biographies I find it difficult to actually picture the subjects as real people with an inner life of their own, but that's just one of the things that Richard Holmes conveys so well. He's also excellent on the poetry, and linking the philosophy and thinking with Shelley's actual life. With Shelley in particular, this is important as he's probably one of the most intellectual of English poets and everything he ever read or thought imbues his own writing with levels and levels of meaning.
I studied the Romantics including Shelley at university and thought I knew about them, but this book proved me wrong. I have now read and re-read this so many times that I had to buy a new copy!
on 6 October 2008
Alongside, Juliet Barker's 'The Brontes', this is without doubt my favourite literary biography. Shelley simply steps off the page in this wonderful book. As Holmes says himself, this is not a book for Shelley lovers, but as an ardent admirer of Shelley and his work myself, I wouldn't want to read a book that hero worships and is not willing to criticise. Here we meet the real Shelley, a flawed, often selfish man, but at the same time a great thinker ahead of his time, passionate and intelligent.
I particularly enjoyed reading about his relationship with the women in his life, notably for me Claire Claremont and Harriet Westbrook. Harriet is often dismissed in the shadow of Mary Shelley as purely Shelley's first wife who killed herself, but here we see a bright, funny and intelligent woman in her own right. Another reviewer felt that Harriet's tragic suicide was dealt with sparsely, but I personally found these passages desperately sad.
Surprisingly, I found Mary Shelley occasionally a little grating (it was Mary and her son and daughter in law who perpetuated a saintly image of Shelley and who barely acknowledged Harriet Shelley's siginificance), whereas her half-sister Clare was a vibrant, intelligent woman who I think was perhaps the person who knew Shelley better than any other.
Shelley's poetry is studied closely, and often missed by other biographers Shelley's skills in translating is finally given the credit it deserves. I would like to have read a little more regarding what happened to Eliza Westbrook, and his children Ianthe and Charles, but tihs is only a minor grumble in an otherwise flawlessly researched and written book.
I cannot recommend this book enough. I intend to book a holiday to Italy soon to visit the various Shelley related places, and this book will definitly be coming with me as my guide.
on 24 October 1999
This is a wonderful book. You read, enthralled, as the biographer is gathered into the life of his subject; neither the subject nor the biographer will ever entirely leave you again. Here are insights not, in the normal run of things, vouchsafed to scholars. Yet the book is thorough and detailed - it is from this scholoarship, rather than any sloppy mysticism, that the insights come.
on 29 September 2007
For sheer application and scholarship, Richard Holmes's 'Shelley - The Pursuit' (Harper Perennial, 2005) certainly merits its accolades and acclaim (it was awarded the Somerset Maugham Prize in 1974 when originally published).
Holmes does what every good biographer should do. He has not only read impressively widely on his subject but has also gone back to, at least some, original sources. It always worries me when writers of this genre limit their source-material solely to previous biographies. Inevitably, the arguments presented within wear all the hues of the author's own particular prejudices, perceptions and experiences, themselves limited by the author's own development. Researching original sources in addition to the established canon is much more arduous, but there can be no alternative if one wishes to write confidently from one's own understanding, especially if one is aiming at such a thorough investigation as Holmes delivers here.
Holmes has dived deep, and the details of Shelley's life and work are subjected to a close, considered and original examination and evaluation. The sheer size of the book alone is indicative of the, often minute, attention Holmes gives to aspects of the poet's life which are often too swiftly passed over or omitted altogether. I usually think that the place for extensive criticism of a poet's work is in a book devoted exclusively to it and not in a biography (which, to me, is setting out to do something quite different) and that, therefore, comments on the poetry should be limited exclusively to those which cast light on developments in the poet's life. However, the extended criticism of the poetry which Holmes interleaves with the story is not only extremely useful (and likely to be so to any student of the poems) but also, in places, quite brilliant.
I have only one important criticism. Although Holmes's Introduction redeems him somewhat (despite warning us that his book is not for `Shelley-lovers'), one increasingly gets the impression, as one journeys through this epic, that Holmes is passionately devoting his energies to writing about a poet he does not like. Even Shelley's poetry receives little admiration. Throughout the book, Holmes writes with an intellectual detachment which may be the preferred style for some - but the Shelleys' lives (and it is impossible to write the individual story of either Shelley, Mary or Claire without extensively bringing in the other two) were filled with such sadness and tragedy that, to probe them so closely with so little emotional response seems almost pathologically restrained, and the reason given (that there is enough sentiment elsewhere), unjustified. The untimely deaths of the two young suicides, Fanny and Harriet, for example, seem to me to deserve at least some passing compassion - not to mention the tragic death of Shelley himself, the extraordinary weeks leading up to it, and the devastating effect upon Mary and Claire. These are all delivered too sparsely for me. Holmes does remind us in his second edition that he himself was only 29 when he wrote the book, and therefore the same age as Shelley when he died - indeed, another reason for commendation to Holmes. However, as such (and unlike Holmes), Shelley was denied the chance for further reflection and mature development. What is more, throughout his short life, he was burdened with the heaviness of his spiritual mission (Holmes, and others, call it `political'; I would argue that it was something much deeper).
As stated at the beginning of this review, however, for the sheer scale of its undertaking (and despite focusing on a darkness which may turn out to be mostly shadows cast from the mind of the young author), Holmes's book certainly deserves both recognition and its established place as a classic text in the canon of Shelleyan biography and criticism.
on 7 March 2011
First a warning. The 2005 Harper Perennial re-issue has 735 pages of small and slightly blurred print to read, and those wishing to purchase Richard Holmes' evergreen biography may wish to look for an earlier second hand edition of it.
The book itself, as others have written here, is likely to haunt the memory and lead one to pursue other connected avenues and explore subsidary characters further.
The great thing is that Holmes tells the story as it was, leaving one to reach one's own conclusions about the man and his work. To me, the tragedy of Shelley's life was not just in the way it ended but in the way it was lived. A fervent believer in free love he certainly put his beliefs into practice with devastating effect. Broken lives, suicides, childhood deaths and general unhappiness followed in his wake. Yet here was a man who was years and years ahead of his time in actively seeking the dignity of all people. From his own point of view, Shelley's tragedy was that his poetry and his writings remained virtually unpublished and therefore unappreciated throughout his life. Forced into exile, pursued by debt, he he was left at the mercy of unreliable friends in England who by and large ignored the work sent to them for publication.
Holmes, however, leaves the reader to draw such conclusions as he or she wills. That is to me its strongest point and explains why, now 37 years old, this book is not going to age. Quite an achievement.
on 27 November 2007
Many in the literary world have given this book a positive review since it first appeared in the early 1970's. It is a wonderfully deep and engrossing book, both a damn good read and on the face of it an admirable work of research.
So I noted with curiosity that the editors of the excellent "Shelley's Poetry & Prose" (Norton Critical Edition) referred to The Pursuit in unflattering terms; "Imaginative and lively life, marred by factual errors, by a journalist-scholar with limited sympathy for PBS's poetry". These scholars should be in a good position to judge but "journalist-scholar" has a whiff of academic snobbishness about it and the charge of "limited sympathy" seems to communicate more the pique of someone for whom Shelley has become the untouchable one than the opinion of an objective reviewer.
It is true that Holmes does not praise everything that Shelley wrote or did; he points out 'weaknesses' when he sees them and heaps praise where it is due. If the author did end up having limited sympathy for Shelley perhaps we should be thankful he didn't tackle Byron. Holmes should be congratulated for his objectivity and perspicacity, and I thank him for a book that has greatly strengthened my interest in its subject.
on 1 June 2013
Perhaps four stars is less than this blockbusting biography of Shelley deserves but compared to Holme's later work four is about right. At seven hundred and thirty pages this is a long read and yet there are elements that could have been expanded such as the treatment of Harriet westbrook the badly treated first wife and the nature of Shelley's difficulties with Byron. However the last chapter leading to the drowning in the gulf of spezia is full of pathos and reads like the climax to a novel leaving the reader wanting more. Shelley is an enigmatic creature: a strange mix of generosity and courage, blended with a selfish petulant egotism. His early political output reminds one of the French revolutionary St Just in it's self righteous bombast. it is difficult to fully like the Shelley that Holmes gives us but when the book ends we miss him and I think this is due to the way in which the life story and the poetry are blended. This is not easy to do but here the context of the poetic analysis is excellent and the verse serves to drive on and illuminate the life. Holmes is always readable and although I prefer the essay length that he uses in "Footsteps" this is a very enjoyable and enlightening read.
One of the great skills of a biographer, particularly the biographer of poets is to capture the atmospherics of the verse and to quote a letter Shelly sent to Peacock Holmes makes " The leaves of Autumn shiver and rustle in the stream of the inconstant wind as it were like the step of ghosts."
on 13 June 2009
What a book! After reading the Coleridge books and reading a quote from Shelley in them... I decided to check out this book...whoa! after initially being concerned as the author wrote it so young, I was soooo pleasantly surprised! Brilliant, this author has made writing biographies a complete art form in themselves, using brilliant analysis by psychology, intuition, note books and poems, the character of Shelley is drawn out superbly... you can literally pin point the moment when he changed from being an affected immature writer to when he became possessed by flaming brilliance....
on 12 September 2015
I've still got about 200 pages to read but what an amazing experience, I don't want it to end. Shelley, The Pursuit has had me gripped for the last 3 weeks, every day looking forward to the next hour I can indulge myself with this fabulous book. It's not a short read at over 700 pages but so, so worth it. A book to totally immerse oneself in, even though you know the ending. Thoroughly researched, Holmes totally
gets under the skin of Shelley, at times passionate, loving, politically challenging and admirably vociferous in his views, yet oddly misjudging of others feelings. I also have to keep reminding myself how young all the main characters are and what they achieved both in their private and professional lives so early on. The Pursuit is also very apt title, one has the constant impression of movement throughout Shelley's life, it's literally as though he cannot remain in one place, and the boom it often reeds as a travel journey of Italy, this only adds to its attraction. Highly, highly recommended. I feel a trip to Italy coming on...
on 21 November 2014
A huge book, epic - as the author intended. It ends quickly after his sudden death, and his loss is traumatic to the reader who has spent weeks in his (sometimes irritating) company. I would have liked a longer coda, describing in more detail how his work became recognised and publically appreciated. Andrew Motion's Keats bio does this, forming a fascinating segue into the present. But I suppose that would be a different book. There are helpful precis of the major works, confident criticism, and fascinating insights into the parallel lives of the Mary Shelley and Byron.