A Sense Of The World

Review by Andrew Crumey

Published in Scotland On Sunday

A Sense Of The World
Jason Roberts
Simon & Schuster, £12.99

A nineteenth-century commentator said that no traveller from Marco Polo to Mungo Park could match the achievements of James Holman. He was one of the most celebrated and bestselling travel writers of his day, yet today no one has heard of him. Even more remarkable is that Holman was completely blind. American author Jason Roberts has produced the first full-length biography of this forgotten hero.

An Exeter apothecary’s son, Holman was born sighted and became a naval officer, but a mystery illness struck in 1810, leaving him blind at the age of 24. Supported by a charitable foundation, he enrolled as a student in Edinburgh, learned to write with a device called a Noctograph consisting of a wooden frame with guide wires and carbon paper, then set off unaccompanied on a trip to Europe. Friends who read his account of his travels afterwards suggested he publish it, and the result was a sensation.

Holman then decided to travel right round the world. Despite being arrested in Russia and having a spat with a rival travel writer, the first leg of his journey enhanced his mounting fame. But with the publication of A Voyage Round The World, his reputation slipped. Holman credulously included anecdotal hearsay – such as Maori women supposedly suckling seal pups – and the critics pounced.

Travel books at the time were full of such unsubstantiated information, but Holman’s failings were seen as a symptom of his blindness, undermining any claim to authoritativeness. Holman’s observations, the critics sniped, were all second hand. And if a blind man can travel to such hostile countries, it only shows they are not really hostile at all. Despite honours including fellowship of the Royal Society, Holman’s star faded, and he ended his days in a seedy London lodging house, working on an autobiography that vanished without trace after he died alone aged 70. The precious manuscript probably ended up on a fire.

Holman’s moving story raises important issues, and Roberts’ writing style is eloquent and restrained. Nevertheless his book suffers from an excess of what can only seem, to all but the most patient of readers, like needless digressions. Every byway of naval, political and medical history is pursued, and a name can hardly be mentioned without its prompting some new deviation into back-story. This approach can work well in popular histories with a familiar central figure or theme; but here, the unknown Holman struggles to emerge from the weight of the author’s commendably exhaustive researches.

He was a genial, good humoured man who loved scaling the rigging of sailing ships, tried his hand at target shooting, and risked his life in burning tropical forests. He enthused about female beauty perceived through touch, and on one occasion was invited to recognise a woman by her breasts. Yet Roberts’ account is strangely humourless; his insistence that Holman was never “lascivious” seems overly deferential to the enforced politeness of nineteenth-century society, and an evasion of biographical scrutiny.

Holman’s adventures were remarkable: he clocked up, on foot, horseback, carriage or sledge, a distance equal to the Moon’s. But by concentrating on the externals and encumbering his narrative with too many extraneous details, Roberts allows Holman to slip back into the shadows that so sadly engulfed him.