In Pursuit of a Life Less Ordinary; the Books Interview ; It's Roses, Roses All the Way for Richard Holmes, the Romantic Biographer Still in Love with His Art and Ready to Do Battle with Its Detractors

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Richard Holmes exudes Romance. Not quite in his appearance, which is that of any neat, donnish man in his middle fifties. But listen to him talk and you find yourself transported to a world where the colour has been turned up. At the moment he is staying at Trinity College, Cambridge, thanks to a summer Fellowship, and even going to the University Library has become an adventure in Wonderland. "Early each morning I walk through the glorious college grounds, stopping to talk to the gardeners about the roses, which are simply exquisite. Then I use the key which the college has given me to slip through a door in the garden wall, and that takes me straight to one of the finest libraries in the world."

"A Romantic Biographer" is how Holmes describes himself in the subtitle of his latest book, Sidetracks (HarperCollins, pounds 19.99). He means it in several ways. First because the people he mostly likes to write about - Shelley, Coleridge - come from that blustery, bloody span between the 18th and 19th century which subsequently got prettied up into the "Romantic period". And then there's the way Holmes falls in love with his subjects, pursuing them through space and time in a quest to "recognise the self in the other" (an old Romantic preoccupation).

It's exactly what biographers have always done, but it wasn't until the publication of Footsteps in 1985 that anyone exactly said so. Holmes's ground-breaking account of his youthful trailing after Robert Louis Stevenson and Shelley through Europe spawned a sub- genre known as "Footstepping", in which biographers increasingly stepped out from behind a wall of footnotes to reveal themselves as somewhere between suitors and stalkers, whipped on by their own literary demons.

Sidetracks, says Holmes, develops the earler book's inquiry into "why biographers are drawn into particular subjects and how they tell their stories". Instead of a continuous narrative, the book consists of a collection of pieces, reprised from Holmes's 30-year writing career, together with a series of contemporary interventions. "It's not in any sense a random retrospective," he insists. "As I re-read my work certain patterns emerged and I selected the pieces accordingly." And the process of review and revision goes on: only now, he says, are some themes becoming clear to him.

One strand which was clear from the start was his particular pleasure in digressions. Ambling, he believes, is vital for the biographer. By way of reassurance, he starts Sidetracks with a run- down of all his apparent failures, those large chunks of research that never made it into big books. But nothing, he insists, is ever wasted. "I like Coleridge's image of the underground river to explain how the biographical thread can disappear for years at a time before suddenly bubbling up in another place".

The most obvious example in Holmes's own case is a turgid 400- page joint biography of the poet Gerard de Nerval and the journalist Theophile Gaultier which he ground out during the late 1970s. It never made it into print - luckily, by all accounts - but ended up as a Radio 3 play instead.

This looping journey allows Holmes the luxury of making repeat visits to a favourite subject, something which straight-line biographers would love. (There's an unwritten rule that you're not allowed a second crack at a subject, no matter how much cleverer you've become in the meantime.)."When I wrote the Shelley biography in the early Seventies, I didn't take Mary Shelley seriously enough. I hadn't understand the impact she'd had on Shelley's career, nor his on hers," explains Holmes. "So it was important in Footsteps to be able to return and do her proper justice". ("Doing justice" to your subject remains his sine qua non.)

The retrospective reach of Sidetracks is a reminder that Holmes was experimenting with a whole range of biographical forms long before the current fuss about Andrew Motion using fiction to amplify his account of Wainewright the Poisoner. …