On a windy, rainy New York morning in April 2007 I found myself sitting on my suitcase at LaGuardia airport, watching information screens roll through page after page of cancelled flights. I had flown in from London the day before; I was jet-lagged and incredibly homesick, and I had no way of knowing when I would reach my destination. Moreover, I had no idea, really, about my destination. I knew it was Iowa City, that it was in the Midwest, and that its university had an important literary archive. I was armed with a copy of Richard Holmes’s Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer, which I thought was appropriate since I wanted to be a biographer, and here I was, undeniably having an adventure. I had never felt less romantic.
Romance can be found in a quiet spot in Rome, and in searching for ghosts in the Hampstead streets. It’s there in card catalogues in a New York reading room, and in letters stored in an archive in the American Midwest.
Footsteps describes biography as a “pursuit, a tracking of the physical trail of someone’s path through the past.” In it Richard Holmes vividly evokes how the past retains “a physical presence for the biographer—in landscapes, buildings, photographs, and, above all, the actual trace of handwriting on original letters or journals.” This is a wonderfully Romantic idea; one that Percy Shelley would have immediately understood. In November 1818 he told a friend about the extraordinary sensation of standing in the prison cell of one of his heroes, the Renaissance poet Torquato Tasso, and of seeing Tasso’s handwriting for himself. Byron too made a pilgrimage to Tasso’s cell, and composed his “Lament of Tasso” as a result.
Biography-inspired pilgrimages, then, are nothing new. What has changed is the nature of the pilgrimage. As biography becomes increasingly professionalized, and as manuscripts are snapped up by the highest bidder and scattered to libraries all over the world, the Romantic biographer is as likely to be found in an archive in Iowa as among the vistas of the Lake District. This isn’t necessarily as unromantic as it might at first seem: there are biographical adventures to be had in all sorts of curious places, and going in search of these adventures can be part of a different kind of literary pursuit.
To illustrate this, I offer three stories from my experience of researching and writing a Romantic biography. The first takes place at the Protestant Cemetery in Rome. I went to the Protestant Cemetery on the penultimate day of my honeymoon, accompanied by my new husband. We were going to see the graves of Shelley and Keats, and I thought I knew what to expect. I had read that Shelley was buried next to his friend Edward Trelawny, an adventurer and biographer who arrived in Italy during the last year of the poet’s life. I knew that Keats too had a graveside companion, the painter Joseph Severn, who accompanied him to Rome and nursed him through his final illness.But I did not anticipate the emotional impact of seeing Shelley and Keats—both, in their different ways, icons of solitary genius—buried next to their friends, alongside men who were content to stand in their shadows. When we returned to England two days later, memories of our visit spurred me onwards to focus on the project that had been illicitly germinating alongside my academic work for years. I knew then that I wanted to write about Shelley, Keats, and Byron not as solitary individuals, but as men surrounded by a group of friends, and my recently published first book, Young Romantics, was the result.
My second story is set in London, near my home. I was spending a long, muggy summer attempting to edit an early draft of Young Romantics into some kind of coherence, and I was finding the work frustrating and slow. One day I abandoned my paper-filled study to wander the streets of Hampstead, where several of my subjects had lived. On a whim I decided to pay a visit to Keats’s house, recently re-opened after a long period of refurbishment. There, in the front parlour, was a bust of the radical journalist and essayist Leigh Hunt that I’d never noticed before. At first I paid it only cursory attention, but then I saw the sign at its side. The bust was mounted at Hunt’s exact height, 5-foot-10, meaning that most unexpectedly, I was seeing him in proportion to me. I’d been trying to work out how to tell his story for months, and now here he was, not separated by the frame of a portrait, but a physical presence. He was a real person, who had occupied the space around him just as I did, but from whom I had allowed myself to become distanced by history and reputation. It was a moment of clarity that sent me speeding home, ready to start writing again.
My third story takes place in the heart of New York. In the week between my Iowan odyssey and my flight back to England I spent four precious days at the Pforzheimer Collection at the New York Public Library, revelling in a treasure trove of Romantic manuscripts. While I was there I stumbled across a fragment of a memoir by Claire Clairmont, Mary Shelley’s stepsister and Byron’s lover. In four short manuscript pages, Claire castigated both Shelley and Byron, accusing them of being “monsters of lying, meanness, cruelty and treachery.” Reading this resulted in a rare biographer’s eureka moment, and not just because I knew the fragment hadn’t been published before. It made me realise that the experience of being a Romantic among friends differed a great deal according to one’s position: according to whether one was a husband, a wife, a mistress, a sister, or a parent. The fragment also made me realise that Claire’s story articulated both the dark underside of Romantic living and the extraordinary resilience of the people I'd chosen to study. Like Hunt’s bust it gave me clarity, and taught me something new about the histories I was trying to recover.
Each of these stories resolves in a moment of epiphany, even though none of them takes place against a glorious Romantic landscape. There were times while I was researching my book when I felt that maybe the romance of being a biographer—described so eloquently by Richard Holmes in Footsteps—had gone, swept away by deadlines and the sterility of climate-controlled archives. Now though, I’m convinced I was wrong. Romance can be found in a quiet spot in Rome, and in searching for ghosts in the Hampstead streets. It’s there in card catalogues in a New York reading room, and in letters stored in an archive in the American Midwest. Leigh Hunt (whose manuscripts took me to Iowa) held that beauty was everywhere, and that if one looked hard enough one could always find the stuff of art and poetry. “The luxuries that poets recommend,” he wrote, “are much more within the reach of everyone, and much more beautiful in reality, than people’s fondness for considering all poetry as fiction would imply.” I believe that the same is true of the romance of biographical pursuit, and that Romantic stories and romantic moments can emerge in the most unromantic places. Even, perhaps, at LaGuardia on a stormy Sunday in April.
Daisy Hay recently completed a doctorate in English Literature from New Hall, Cambridge. She has written for academic journals and literary magazines such as the European Romantic Review, the Times Literary Supplement, and Slightly Foxed. She lives in London.