Falling Upwards tells the story of the enigmatic group of men and women who first risked their lives to take to the air, and so discovered a new dimension of human experience. Why they did it, what their contemporaries thought of them, and how their flights revealed the secrets of our planet in wholly unexpected ways is its subject.
In this heart-lifting book, the Romantic biographer Richard Holmes floats across the world following the pioneer generation of balloon aeronauts, from the first heroic experiments of the Montgolfiers in 1780s to the tragic attempt to fly a balloon to the North Pole in the 1890s. It is a compelling adventure story of the kind that only Holmes could tell.
Dramatic sequences move from the early Anglo-French balloon rivalries, the crazy firework flights of beautiful Sophie Blanchard; the revelatory ascents over the great Victorian cities and sprawling industrial towns of Northern Europe; and the astonishing long-distance voyages of the American entrepreneur John Wise, and the French photographer Felix Nadar.
Later we find balloons used to observe the horrors of modern battle during the American Civil War (including a memorable flight by General Custer); the legendary tale of sixty balloons that escaped Paris during the Prussian siege of 1870; and the terrifying high-altitude flights of James Glaisher FRS who rose above seven miles without oxygen, helping to establish the new science of meteorology as well as the environmental notion - so important to us today - of a `fragile' planet.
Besides the aeronauts themselves, readers will also discover the many writers and dreamers - from Mary Shelley to Edgar Alan Poe, from Charles Dickens to Jules Verne - who felt the imaginative impact of flight and allowed it to soar in their work.
Through all these adventures, the narrative continually lifts off in unexpected literary and scientific directions, exploring the interplay between technology and science fiction, the understanding of the biosphere, and the metaphysics of flight itself. Most of all, through the strange allure of the great balloonists, Holmes offers another of his subtle portraits of human endeavour, recklessness and vision.
Richard Holmes is the author of The Age of Wonder, which won the Royal Society Prize for Science Books and the National Book Critics Circle Award and was one of the ten New York Times' Best Books of the Year in 2009. His balloon book, Falling Upwards, was chosen as a Best Book of the Year by seven newspapers in 2013. His other biographies include Shelley: The Pursuit (winner of the 1974 Somerset Maugham Prize), Coleridge: Early Visions (winner of the 1989 Whitbread Book of the Year Award), Coleridge: Darker Reflections (shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize and winner of the Duff Cooper Prize), and Dr. Johnson & Mr. Savage (winner of the 1993 James Tait Black Prize). This Long Pursuit completes the autobiographical trilogy begun in Footsteps (1985) and Sidetracks (2000). Holmes was awarded the OBE in 1992, and was elected an Honorary Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge, in 2010. He is the 2018 winner of the BIO Award presented by the Biographers International Organization for sustained achievement in biography. He lives in London and Norwich with the novelist Rose Tremain.