February 19, 2018

Lytton Strachey, Eminent Victorians

On this day in 1918 Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians was published. Its four essays -- on Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale, Dr. Thomas Arnold and General Gordon -- are credited with introducing a new form of biography, as intended. "Who does not know them," Strachey wrote of the typical tome, "with their ill-digested masses of material, their slipshod style, their tone of tedious panegyric, their lamentable lack of selection, of detachment, of design?" His aim was to unstuff the Victorian armchair, replacing the comfort of unchallenged fact and hero-worship with something more personal and critical. Despite punching holes through the conventional portraits of his four, venerated Victorians, Strachey did so in an artful and highly popular way. The odd Lord and Lady such-and-such cried foul over Strachey's selectivity and cheek, but this only added to the sales and the fun, and left Strachey wanting more: "I'm really rather disappointed that none of the Old Guard should have raised a protest," he told one friend. "Is it possible that the poor dear creatures haven't a single kick left?"

In his recent, highly-regarded biography of Strachey -- source for much of what's in the movie Carrington -- Michael Holroyd writes that "Eminent Victorians was to be one of the seminal Bloomsbury texts," a book that was "the product of a new age" and which "let a genie, gleeful and irreverent, out of the bottle" of biography writing. Strachey's description of General Gordon's last stand at Khartoum, for example, portrayed his subject as a bible-thumping, brandy-bottled, Don Quixote. It cast doubt not just on Soldiering and Empire, but on such others involved as Lord Hartington, and through him on those at home less eminent but just as Victorian and "curiously English":
    For indeed he [Hartington] was built upon a pattern which was very dear to his countrymen. It was not simply that he was honest: it was that his honesty was an English honesty -- an honesty which naturally belonged to one who, so it seemed to them, was the living image of what an Englishman should be. In Lord Hartington they saw, embodied and glorified, the very qualities which were nearest to their hearts -- impartiality, solidity, common sense -- the qualities by which they themselves longed to be distinguished, and by which, in their happier moments, they believed they were.... Above all, they loved him for being dull. It was their greatest comfort -- with Lord Hartington they could always be absolutely certain that he would never, in any circumstances, be either brilliant, or subtle, or surprising, or impassioned, or profound. . . .
Ian Hamilton says that Strachey's success was due to style: "The tone was officer-class, the sentiment was other rank." Some complained about his facts and sources, Bertrand Russell saying that Strachey was "indifferent to historical truth." Historian Peter Clarke complains additionally about his manners, picturing Strachey "with his eye pressed to the keyhole, recording for posterity what the butler saw," but as Holroyd points out, this may be preferable to the butler who sees all but tells nothing.

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