The Long Pursuit
I’ve now listened to all five installments of Patrick Malahide’s beautiful narration of “The Long Pursuit” by Richard Holmes. They are all on iPlayer at BBC Radio 4 for a limited time. I’ll provide brief summaries for each one, but there is far more scope in Patrick Malahide’s narrations.
Episode 1 is about following the biographical subject’s footsteps and keeping objective facts separate from personal feelings. Holmes uses his study of Samuel Taylor Coleridge as an example. A couple of anecdotes stood out for me in particular. When Coleridge was young, he carved his initials into the soft sandstone at Pixie’s Parlor, Devon. Richard Holmes, a couple of centuries later, realized they must have been re-carved many times over keeping the romanticism of Coleridge’s youth alive long after the initials would have been erased.
Later Holmes went to what is now a girl’s boarding school to see the view Coleridge used for inspiration. On the ledge, Holmes discovered a concealed bottle of vodka. The school matron asked if he saw anything interesting, but before he could answer an angelic looking sixth former secretly motioned for him to keep silent. He kept quiet about the contraband, only speaking of the beauty and inspiration of the view. Though he suspected the matron probably knew more than she was letting on. 😉
Episode 2 talked about the role of women in science. Excluded from scientific learning, a few headstrong women still managed to make considerable contributions. Among them was the outrageous and charismatic Lady Margaret Cavendish. A royalist, she was temporarily exiled in France where she took on the manners of male cavalier. She dressed the part and mimicked their theatrical bows. Later she became fascinated with the blending of science, art and ethics. She wrote one of the first science-fiction type works with “The Blazing World.”
What I found very interesting was her belief in upholding ethics in scientific study. She condemned animal vivisection particularly when animals were cut while still alive. Lady Cavendish’s ethical arguments still resonate today.
Episode 3 deals with a biographical research course Holmes taught. His students each had their own personal motivations for wanting to study biography. The student who stood out the most for him was a woman whose husband was dying of cancer. She wrote a wonderful essay on the marriage of Venetia Stanley and Sir Kenelm Digby. Holmes obviously empathized with her. Empathy is a key component of a good biographer, and Holmes has that quality in abundance. He also shares his more lighthearted Ten Commandments for Practicing Biographers.
Episode 4 is about how a person’s manner of death may impact how we perceive his or her life. The death of Percy Bysshe Shelley and how it shaped our romantic views of him centuries later is an example. He drowned at sea after his ship “The Don Juan” sank. The facts show that he simply took what was a non-seaworthy vessel out into the ocean and got caught in a squall. Recounts of his funeral pyre became increasingly romanticized to the point of legend.
Episode 5 covers how artist and poet William Blake was resurrected through biography. Well known today, he actually died in ignominy believed mad and was largely forgotten. But when writer Alexander Gilchrist uncovered some of Blake’s art he saw genius. He was compelled to write a biography worthy of the misunderstood man. Gilchrist’s wife Anne worked alongside him, taking notes, writing copies and organizing evidence. Tragically, Alexander died before the work was complete, so his wife took it upon herself to complete it for publication.
This is an excellent series. I expected it to be really good, but I was still surprised by its detail. Patrick Malahide’s lively and warm narration is very appealing. I highly recommend it.