Richard Holmes stops just short of the demonic in his pursuit of dead Romantics, and his classic Footsteps led a revolution in biography. Suzi Feay went on his trail
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All that night I heard footsteps: down by the river through the dark trees, or up on the moonlit road from Le Puy to Le Monastier. But I saw nothing except the stars ... lying alone somewhere in the Massif Central of France, dreaming of the dead coming back to life again. I was eighteen.

IT'S one of the great button-holing openers. Who is this 18-year-old with the clear, self-confident voice, and what is he doing alone and exalted on a French mountainside at night? Whose are those mysterious footsteps? And who are these dead, to be brought back to life by this dreaming teenager?

Richard Holmes made his name at 29 with Shelley: The Pursuit, an unquestionably great biography which banished forever the image of the poet as ineffectual angel. "That fluttering apparition is not to be found here," he warned, "where a darker and more earthly, crueller and more capable figure moves with swift pace through a bizarre though sometimes astonishingly beautiful landscape."

Wherever Shelley fled, the capable, swift Holmes followed: to Wales, Ireland and the Lake District, through France, Switzerland and Italy. Before Holmes, literary biography was largely a question of delving in the archives. He became identified with a new, athletic style of biography, and 11 years later he gave it a name. Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer, published in 1985 and now being reissued, gave us "footstepping": the technique by which biographers dog their subjects, aiming as far as possible to eat what they ate, sleep where they slept, suffer their privations and see what they saw.

The four sections of Footsteps prove that even before The Pursuit, Holmes was an experienced literary bloodhound. In 1964, fresh out of school, he tracks Robert Louis Stevenson through the Cevennes; during the Paris evenements, he is more concerned about the fate of Mary Wollstonecraft in the Terror; in 1972 he is combing Italy for houses associated with Shelley; and in the final, and most disturbing section, he indulges his obsession with the suicidal French poet Gerard de Nerval, a quest which leads him into the occult.

Along the way, emblematic figures issue cryptic warnings. "It is not always wise to go over the hills," warns a cafe-owner. "Il faut vivre ta propre vie a toi," says a fellow hobo in the Cevennes. And at the end, footsteps patter back again, this time entirely benign - his friend Francoise, who kisses him awake from a daydream on a Paris park bench and murmurs: "Tu devais rentrer chez toi."

"I'D NEVER bought a flat before, I'm very late for a first-time buyer. I thought I'd celebrate my 50th birthday. There were of course other reasons: I'd met Rose." Richard Holmes evidently believes in fate. He is so keen to demonstrate the first impact of the view from his North London study window that he opens his front door and retreats into the dark stairwell. "We'd seen various places that were hopeless. And we came up these slightly unlikely stairs - they're wonderfully crooked - and I came in you see -" he barrels past me "- and there it was." He points to the horizon. "That's the church where Coleridge is buried."

Holmes is small and trim, with a smooth, round face and a gappy, engaging grin. He seasons his conversation with pinches of French, pulls down long verbatim quotes out of the air and puts on self-mocking silly voices, as when he lisps about his own "thlim volume" of verse or quavers: "as ay get older ...".

Apart from the London flat, he spends most of his time in Norwich with the novelist Rose Tremain. For a famous literary vagabond, he does not stray far. "I've lived in this area for 25 years, at three addresses. But I've always wanted to live on a top floor. Remind me to show you the view from the rooftop. It's very significant in my life."

Footsteps is the vehicle for many of his musings about the biographical form. Tramping across a bridge into a village, he describes the hallucinatory, prickling sense that Stevenson is actually waiting for him: "I began to look for him in the crowds, in the faces at cafe doors." Then he sees, about 50 yards downstream, the old bridge, "broken, crumbling and covered with ivy. So Stevenson had crossed there, not on this modern bridge. There was no way of following him, no way of meeting him. His bridge was down." It is a salutary lesson: he has been in danger of taking the pursuit too literally.

Later, standing in the thickly shaded garden in Bagni di Lucca where Shelley translated Plato's Symposium, he sets up his ancient camera, "a 30-year-old Ensign with a Bellows lens", setting the aperture at ten foot to infinity. "Ten foot to infinity, I think, is exactly the range of focus required by a biographer - from the close-up portrait to the full historical perspective." This leads to one of the most eerie passages in the book. On developing the photo back in London, Holmes noticed a small, ghostly figure standing under the trees, its dark eyes fixed on the viewer: "A faint, tingling sensation passed over the top of my scalp. I felt I was looking at a photograph of little William, Shelley's dead son." "Willmouse" died, aged four, in 1819.

A few moment's reflection persuade him of a more likely explanation - that one of Signora Pellegrini's children had crept out to see what the funny English visitor was doing. Holmes bounces up and fetches a photograph album showing the original contact sheet of that 1972 trip. None of the garden photos came out, he explains, pointing to a row of black rectangles. In one, he thought he discerned faint shapes, and sent it to a specialist developer. "So you can see why I thought there might be something supernatural about what came out," he grins.

An occult thread runs through the book. There is a digression on werewolves; in the Bay of Lerici he grapples with the last weeks of Shelley's life when nightmares walked at Casa Magni; back in Paris to investigate Nerval, he fills notebooks with arcane symbols and thumbs the Tarot for inspiration. His own card must be the Fool, card zero: the visionary wanderer with a bundle, stumbling on the brink of a precipice.

FOR a deceptively light book, Footsteps had a difficult birth. It began with two failed projects: a biography of Nerval - "I still worry about him," says Holmes, as though he were an errant nephew - then a book about Romantic travellers. "It was absolutely dead, despite very good material. Out of the wreckage, I thought, I have to do something much more direct." He wrote the Stevenson section straight off: "It had obviously been brewing away somewhere, but I felt I was in uncharted ground. I couldn't tell if it was terribly bad." I read a bit to a great and close friend when it was still very rough. It was late at night and I read about three pages and turned round, and she was fast asleep!"

Holmes is indulgent to lovers. The much criticised Fanny Stevenson gets a fair hearing, as does Gilbert Imlay, Mary Wollstonecraft's faithless American lover, who, he points out, probably saved her life during the Terror by registering the militant feminist as his wife (America was France's ally). And, probing Shelley's complex emotional menage-a-trois, he can't bring himself to condemn Mary Shelley's meddling step-sister Claire Clairmont. For the past few years there has been Rose, of course, whom he drops into the conversation with perceptible delight. But shifting behind the narrative of Footsteps are other female figures: the "great and close friend", perhaps, and Francoise, and the waitress in the patisserie at Florac, "the prettiest girl in the whole of the Cevennes", who gives him a plate of eclairs gratuit, because she likes his hat.

There is a brown hat on a chair in Holmes's hall, and for a moment I think it's Le Brun, the battered fedora with "magical virtues" which accompanied him through the Cevennes. It deflected lightning, he wrote, enabled him to see in the dark, and gave him intense dreams about Stevenson when he fell asleep with it tipped over his nose. But this is wish-fulfilment of Willmouse proportions. Le Brun is long decayed, and this is only a replacement.

"When you're working on a biography," he says, "there's archive time, there's travelling time and also this thing called dreamtime: which may literally mean dreaming about it, but it's more the continually turning it over in your head." At the moment he is deeply absorbed in the second volume of his weighty Life of Coleridge, a project which suffered a hiatus while he wrote Dr Johnson and Mr Savage, the odd-one-out in his oeuvre since it falls outside his period. The first volume of Coleridge covered the early years of promise; surely all that remains is the poet's decline into chronic sponging and addiction?

"There is a trajectory - it goes down and down and how far can it go? Then he gradually recovers. In a way it's an extraordinary triumph. There is this mess and horror and confusion and out of it he survives into writing good stuff, really good criticism. He is also so funny. Part of the fascination of his career is that it's so different from the younger generation. They have this sort of rocketary curve, don't they - they get on it, accelerate, getting louder and louder, then wham, they're gone, which is of course very interesting to write about because it's dramatic. But it leaves out a lot of other shapes about what life's about; one of them's going through a terrible middle patch. How people get through that is to me a more interesting story." He quickly anticipates the next question: "I think it's also to do with my age, obviously. I wrote Shelley when I was in my late twenties and that was the kind of thing I needed to write then. I wanted this epic story: fast-moving, very colourful, lots of travel and a kind of reckless feeling about it."

His projects often begin in another form: a poem, a play or a dialogue. He limbered up for The Pursuit with an imagined diary of Charles Vivian, the boat-boy who perished with Shelley on the Ariel, and who lived with the family for three weeks - a time of great psychic activity in the household, what with naked infants rising from the waves, and Shelley's Doppelganger quoting Goethe on the terrace. "Also an extremely good poem going on, "The Triumph of Life". Such a tragedy it wasn't finished." He talks with some emotion of handling the original loose sheets of the poem, and this kind of immediacy is what inspires him. For Holmes, the ideal subject lived "somewhere around 1775, when people suddenly started writing very directly, both about the objects around them and what was happening inside them. It was the age of sensibility and sincerity: what I call `really really'. And `really really' begins with Rousseau, I think. Dr Johnson and Mr Savage is set in the 1740s and gosh, I had to work much much harder to bring it back and make the language speak and shine."

The poet Geoffrey Hill has sniped that biographers are the new patrons, lordly beings to whom mere creators have to pander. Regularly the cry goes up that people are reading the Life and neglecting the Work. "This is the thing people say, that biography is going to take over. I just don't think it's true at all. Biography takes you back, always: we want to re-read this poem or that novel." He is attracted by a form which remains unstable: "I don't think it's guaranteed to last. It could be a form like Restoration comedy that has this wonderful, glowing heyday and then just disappears."

At twilight, we climb a precarious ladder on to the roof of the study and admire the view over the tangled back gardens of Tufnell Park. Up here, Holmes studies the stars and watches the jumbo jets on their flight paths into Heathrow. I ask him whether he still stays up all night to write and commune with the dead. "No, I've mostly phased that out." All the same, he describes coming up here recently to observe that Shelleyan phenomenon, the eclipse of the moon. "That was about two in the morning, wasn't it?" I say vaguely, and he shoots back: "3.17am."

! `Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer' is republished by HarperCollins at pounds 12.99.