A prolific essayist, Lytton Strachey first gained widespread fame and notoriety as the iconoclastic author of Eminent Victorians (1918), four miniature biographies of Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale, Thomas Arnold, and General Charles Gordon.
Previously portrayed in the standard “two fat volumes” of Victorian biography which Strachey abhorred as inartistic and disorganized hagiographies at best, these four icons of the Catholic Church, medical humanitarianism, educational and moral reform, and military adventure respectively were brilliantly and wittily exposed by Strachey as all too human, obsessive, and dysfunctional, the wonder lying not in their perfection but in the fact that, given their imperfections, they had affected their era so markedly and achieved so much.
Strachey’s contemporary audience, for the most part, was ready to relish a work that, in the words of Richard Altick (1995), “turned an entire past society into a laughing stock.”
Disillusioned by the horrors of World War I, profoundly mistrustful of the establishment, and desperately seeking some psychologically understandable rationale for recent events, many of Strachey’s readers welcomed the opportunity these essays offered to reject and ridicule the late Victorian institutions that could be viewed as leading to the war to which Strachey was a conscientious objector. Although works by such earlier writers as George Bernard Shaw, H.G.Wells, G.K. Chesterton, and Max Beerbohm had already presented critical views of the Victorians, Strachey’s detractors tend to blame his work for spawning scores of later “popularized” or “jazzage biographies,” those overfictionalized and underresearched essays and book-length lives written by hacks, would-be wits, and professional de-bunkers. Such imitators damaged his reputation and fostered an image still current in some minds today of Strachey as a careless and superficial cynic.
Even most of Strachey’s detractors, however, agree that his essays are eminently readable, while one of his latest and most able defenders, Barry Spurr (1995), points out that relatively recent scholarly treatments of Strachey’s subjects tend intentionally or not to endorse Strachey’s conclusions and to confirm the breadth and depth of his knowledge—for example, in Strachey’s treatment of Cardinal Manning and John Henry
Newman in Eminent Victorians. Moreover, Strachey’s paradoxical and arresting pronouncements such as that near the opening of the preface to Eminent Victorians— “ignorance is the first requisite of the historian”—may well imply an ironic and sophisticated consciousness of the psychological complexities of his subjects, of the ambiguities and inadequacies of language and reason, and of the impossibility, in many instances, of attaining an absolute or finite conception of truth. Certainly these three concerns remain central for writers and scholars today. While Strachey stressed the importance of stringent selectivity and brevity in his biographical and historical essays, these ideals are certainly not those currently in vogue for scholarly biographers, as Michael Holroyd’s excellent twovolume biography (1967–68) of Strachey himself demonstrates. But Strachey’s emphasis on careful scholarship, discriminating treatment and organization, and an elegant, engaging style are still the hallmarks of the best modern biographies.
A leading figure of the Cambridge Apostles and subsequently of the Bloomsbury Group, Strachey also demonstrated his exceptional skills as a literary critic and prose stylist in the host of essays and reviews he contributed during his early career to the Spectator, the Independent Review, New Quarterly, Athenaeum, and the Edinburgh Review as well as in his first book, Landmarks in French Literature (1912). Here Strachey’s high estimation of such writers as Pope, Gibbon, Voltaire, and Racine is clear.
Thus the early key influences on his prose are Augustan and Victorian. His voice conveys the polished aristocratic authority of an elite; but his perspective is that of the homosexual, oppressed and suppressed, by turns indirect, hostile, melancholic, and often ironic. Strachey evolves an idiom that Spurr dubs “Camp Mandarin”—a witty parody of an elite mode, used to undermine the conventional views of the mandarins through incongruity and exaggeration. He uses a variety of rhetorical techniques, such as alliteration, triplets, Latinate vocabulary, and biblical allusion, in this way: Florence Nightingale “seems hardly to distinguish between the Deity and the Drains” (Eminent Victorians); the “holiness of the Middle Ages embodied itself in prayer, asceticism, and dirt” (“Lady Mary Wortley Montagu,” 1907); Dr. North is described as “meticulous in the true sense of the word” (“The Life, Illness and Death of Dr. North,” 1927); Carlyle as prophet cannot rival the reputation of Isaiah and Jeremiah who, unlike Carlyle, “have had the extraordinary good fortune to be translated into English by a committee of Elizabethan bishops” (“Carlyle,” 1928).
Later longer works by Strachey like Queen Victoria (1921) and Elizabeth and Essex (1928) continue to demonstrate the vivid novelistic qualities and psychological interest in character of his earlier essays, but some of his best work is in his collections of critical essays, many of which are characterized by the quality and artistry that Strachey, a pleasing and anxious being himself, recognized and so admired in John Aubrey’s Brief Lives (1669–96): “the pure essentials—a vivid image, on a page or two, without explanations, transitions, commentaries, or padding. This is what Aubrey gives us; this, and one thing more—a sense of the pleasing, anxious being who, with his odd old alchemy, has transmuted a few handfuls of orts and relics into golden life” (“John Aubrey,” Portraits in Miniature, 1931).
Born 1 March 1880 in Clapham, south London. Studied at Abbotsholm School, Derbyshire, 1893; Leamington College, until 1897; Liverpool University College, 1897– 99; Trinity College, Cambridge, 1899–1903, B.A. in history, 1903. Met Thoby Stephen, Clive Bell, and Leonard Woolf at Cambridge, the latter two becoming, with Strachey, part of the Bloomsbury Group, along with Virginia Woolf, E.M.Forster, painters Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, economist John Maynard Keynes, art critic Roger Fry, and others. Conscientious objector during World War I. Met the painter Dora Carrington, 1915: lived with her on and off in a mainly platonic relationship in Tidmarsh, Berkshire, from 1917, and at Ham Spray house, Berkshire, from 1924; they were joined by Ralph Partridge, who married Carrington, 1919. Died (of cancer of the stomach) at Ham Spray
house, 21 January 1932.
Essays and Related Prose
Eminent Victorians, 1918
Books and Characters: French and English, 1922.
Pope: The Leslie Stephen Lecture for 1925, 1925
Portraits in Miniature and Other Essays, 1931
Characters and Commentaries, 1933
Literary Essays (part of the Uniform Edition of works), 1943
Biographical Essays (part of the Uniform Edition of works), 1943
Spectatorial Essays, 1964
The Really Interesting Question and Other Papers, edited by Paul Levy, 1972
The Shorter Strachey, edited by Michael Holroyd, 1980
Other writings: Landmarks in French Literature (1912.), a biography of Queen Victoria (1921), a study of Queen Elizabeth I and the Earl of Essex (1928), a play, and a collection of poetry.
Collected works edition: Uniform Edition, 6 vols., 1949.
Edmonds, Michael, Lytton Strachey: A Bibliography, New York: Garland, 1981
Altick, Richard, “Eminent Victorianism,” American Scholar 64 (Winter 1995):81–89
Beerbohm, Max, Lytton Strachey, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, and New York: Knopf, 1943
Ferns, John, Lytton Strachey, Boston: Twayne, 1988
Holroyd, Michael, Lytton Strachey: A Critical Biography, London: Heinemann, 2 vols., 1967–68; New York: Holt Rinehart, 1968; revised edition, as Lytton Strachey: A Biography, London: Penguin, 1971
Holroyd, Michael, Lytton Strachey: The New Biography, London: Chatto and Windus, 1994; New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1995
Kallich, Martin, The Psychological Milieu of Lytton Strachey, New York: Bookman Associates, 1961
Merle, Gabriel, Lytton Strachey (1880–1932): Biographie et critique d’un critique et biographe, Paris: Champion, 2 vols., 1980
Sanders, C.R., Lytton Strachey: His Mind and Art, New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1957
Scott-James, R.A., Lytton Strachey, London: Longman, 1955
Spurr, Barry, A Literary-Critical Analysis of the Cotnplete Prose Works of Lytton Strachey (1880–1932): A Re-Assessment of His Achievement and Career, Lewiston, New York, and Lampeter, Dyfed: Mellen Press, 1995
Srinivasa lyengar, K.R., Lytton Strachey: A Critical Study, London: Chatto and Windus, 1939
Yu, Margaret M.S., Two Masters of Irony: Annotations on Three Essays by Oscar Wilde and Lytton Strachey, Folcroft, Pennsylvania: Folcroft, 1974 (original edition, 1957)
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