Tales of wonder
Celebrated biographer Richard Holmes tells Darleen Bungey about the joys of science, romance and red socks
THE words of Lucretius hung above the head of young arts undergraduate Richard Holmes when he walked under the gateway of Churchill College, Cambridge: Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas : ‘‘ Happy the man who knows the causes ( the origins) of things.’’ In the 1960s, Churchill was a new and radical college with a strong scientific bent, and it was here Holmes began forging the qualities that would make him one of Britain’s leading biographers.
But while he studied the heat of the romantic poets, he also gazed through an enormous reflector telescope at the cool, blue mountains of the moon. He could not have suspected that these two disciplines would merge in his seventh decade in The Age of Wonder ( Harper Press, $ 59.99), an account of the ‘‘ romantic science’’ that captured the British imagination at the end of the 18th century.
Holmes is conducting a series of lectures in Australia and will also appear at the Brisbane Writers Festival this week. His first journey here, in February 1992, had a momentous effect on his life, providing the opening scene in the enduring romance between Holmes and British novelist Rose Tremain. On the day of our interview, two days after Tremain was awarded the respected Orange literary prize for her latest novel, The Road Home, they were still waiting to open the magnum of champagne that came with the win. She is his ‘‘ beloved novelist’’, the ‘‘ fictionesta’’ with whom he shares his life in London, Norfolk and France.
They keep their genres separate, usually working all day and meeting for candlelit dinner. Although he says he is perfecting a bolognese sauce, she does the cooking and he clears up. ‘‘ I deal with everything so that when she comes down in the morning everything is shipshape.’’
He may stay up working into the early hours when he is ‘‘ on a jag’’, such as in the final editing stages of a book. However, the ritual of rising early together is never broken and eventually cures his insomnia.
They met on the telephone. During that first conversation he made her laugh by reciting a humorous rhyme he had composed about the Adelaide Festival, outlining the organisational pratfalls that had necessitated the phone call. Polite Englishman that Holmes is, I cannot persuade him to reveal even one of those mocking lines, although his laughing eyes say he remembers them. After the tangled travel arrangements had been sorted, they agreed to meet at Heathrow and fly on to Adelaide together. When Tremain asked, ‘‘ How will I recognise you?’’, the reply came: ‘‘ I’ll be bald, bespectacled and foolishly smiling.’’ She says she fell in love on the telephone but he allows that it took him a little longer: ‘‘ I have to admit I did need to clamp eyes on her interesting difference in male and female psychology.’’ He recalls falling in love from a great height, some hours later, somewhere over the Black Sea. ‘‘ We were lucky we met when we did. We both had quite a bit of living and writing under our belts.’’
Before that phone call, neither had read the other’s books, but both made wonderful starts: he with her Restoration , and she with his first volume of Coleridge: Early Visions . When Tremain flew back to London, Holmes stayed on for a time in Australia. Endless letters ( a tantalising package for future biographers) were exchanged. In his, Holmes wrote poetry. He can still recall a line: ‘‘ And festival your heart with thoughts / Of sailing into foreign ports’’.
Holmes sets The Age of Wonder ‘‘ roughly and certainly symbolically’’ between two sea voyages: James Cook’s first round- the- world expedition on the Endeavour and Charles Darwin’s journey to the Galapagos aboard the Beagle . Holmes explores a scientific blossoming that occurred between 1768 and 1831, a period of such imaginings and discoveries it moved Samuel Taylor Coleridge to vow, with characteristic intensity, that he would ‘‘ attack chemistry like a shark’’.
It was a time when the mathematical world of Newtonian physics, the ‘‘ hard material world of objects and impacts’’, gave way to a science of ‘‘ invisible powers and mysterious energies, of fluidity and transformations, of growth and organic change’’.
These notions widened the Newtonian compass that had included only the scholar or savant. The public was made privy to the latest discoveries in astronomy, exploration and chemistry. It became the age of public scientific lectures and debate, laboratory demonstration and introductory textbooks ( often written by women), as science began to be taught to children.
William Herschel, the discoverer of planets, and Humphry Davy, a pioneer of electrochemistry, provide the axis around which others, such as explorer Mungo Park and the emerging great chemist Michael Faraday, revolve. Joseph Banks, the brave young botanist who returned to England with specimens from the South Seas and Australia like an astronaut returning with moon rocks, is the common link.
Painter Joseph Wright of Derby fixed the romance and mystery on to canvas, showing the drama to be found in experiments with fluids and gases, flight in air balloons or John Keats’s ‘‘ watcher of the skies’’, the astronomers piecing together the heavens with revolutionary telescopes. The idea that science could be communicated and dedicated to all mankind caught the imagination of poet and pragmatist alike.
Yet shadowing the wonder came the fear of man’s interfering hand, the prospect of scientific hubris, the overthrow of religious beliefs and the loss of moral conscience. Mary Shelley, alluding to vitalism and dissection, introduces these notions in Frankenstein , while Percy Shelley uses Herschel’s idea of an open- ended solar system as supporting evidence for his atheism. Holmes offers fascinating readings on the responses of Lord Byron, Coleridge, Keats, William Wordsworth and Robert Southey to these subjects and, no doubt, will invite enthusiastic debate by his declaration that the romantic poets did not harbour ‘‘ permanent, instinctive, deep- seated antagonism’’ to science.
Holmes began writing poetry at university and still does: ‘‘ If you love language, it’s the most demanding way of writing a sentence, that’s where you keep an eye on your skills.’’ Like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, Holmes has a romantic readiness and an extraordinary gift of hope. It envelops his writing, as does his passion to set the world to rights. The green light that lures him holds the promise that there is still a truth to be told, a defence to be made for the misjudged, misunderstood figures of the past.
Holmes is forgiving of his subject whatever the transgression, yet he has a habit of speaking severely to himself. At various difficult times in his life his inner voice has remonstrated, ‘‘ get over it’’. As eldest son he was sent to a Benedictine boarding school at the age of eight, and in his loneliness was terrified by visiting Jesuits. ‘‘ Why should small children be made miserable?’’ he still wonders. But even then, in the grip of his bewilderment, he got on with it by developing an imaginary world, drawing in the other unhappy boys and turning their prison into a launching pad to freedom.
‘‘ We treated school like a World War II prison camp,’’ he recalls. Inspired by Paul Brickhill’s The Great Escape , at night they would clamber out the school windows and over the rooftops, at one point almost succeeding in building a tunnel under the assembly hall.
One of Holmes’s earliest memories is the sound of the keys from his mother’s Triumph typewriter pounding out her children’s stories. While she read lots of Stevenson’s poems to her son, Holmes recalls his lawyer father with his
very good clear logical mind’’ being ‘‘ quite strict’’. In difficult times, the only help his father would offer was the advice to put it down in writing: ‘‘ Richard, very good copy.’’
If it weren’t for the rascal grin, in his conservative black attire Holmes would appear perfectly suited to the job of civil servant that he held with Westminster City Council after graduating from Cambridge. After many disappointing knockbacks and while still leading a double life with the city council, he was commissioned by London newspaper The Times to write a review of a J. D. Ballard novel. He has not forgotten the thrill of his byline. One of the many measures of his success came at the end of the 1990s when he was invited to speak at the Royal Institution in Mayfair, the stage for much of the cast in The Age of Wonder .
As Holmes sits patiently for the photographer in the institute’s lecture room, surrounded by the ghosts of Faraday, Davy and Coleridge, his raised trousers reveal a surprising pair of flaming red socks. Later, I mention the socks. In earlier days, he explains, when he had no money to spend on clothes, he discovered that the sartorially elegant Charles Baudelaire, who dressed in severe English style, always wore red socks. Holmes could afford the socks. He adds that if he is going to lecture ( or be interviewed, I assume), he will always wear red socks. ‘‘ You should appear sober to the point of dullness, but there is this little bit of outrage and only you know.’’ At this small revelation it occurs to me that Holmes doesn’t truly believe in keeping things hidden. Like the great biographer he is, he wants us all to understand each other, to connect, all the way from our heads to our hearts to our toes.
Momentous: Richard Holmes, above, and an illustration from his new book, The Age of Wonder