I’m really interested in the Bloomsbury Group (that intellectual crowd from the 1910s-1920s that included E. M. Forster and Virginia Woolf), and so of course I’d come across multiple references to Lytton Strachey and his book Eminent Victorians, which so many literary scholars say was foundational to changing how people wrote biographies, and yet which I almost never see quoted or discussed at any kind of length at this point. Since I’m thinking of teaching on the Bloomsbury Group sometime soon, I decided I should investigate the volume a bit more closely.
Strachey came from an extremely wealthy, privileged background; his father was a general in the British colonial forces, and his mother was a famous suffragette. His mother in particular encouraged her children to engage in creative pursuits, and she seemed to think Lytton was particularly talented; he wound up attending Trinity College, Cambridge, where he joined the not-so-secret society of the Conversazione, or the Cambridge Apostles, and befriended a number of other young men who would go on to be part of Bloomsbury. His early literary output was mostly critical articles and reviews for various magazines and newspapers, and he also published a book on French literature that, while selling decently, did not net him the reputation or the cold hard cash he wanted. (Strachey’s family might have been rich, but he was one of ten kids, after all.)
He began, a bit idly, working up short snapshot biographies of various Victorian luminaries in 1912, and his research made it clear to him that these people were more flawed and more interesting than previous hagiographic accounts would make it seem. He wound up expanding four of these “silhouettes,” on Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale, Dr Thomas Arnold, and General Gordon, into short biographies, collected into one volume and published as Eminent Victorians. It was an immediate critical and commercial success.
But to a modern audience, accustomed to unauthorized and warts-and-all biographies, it may not immediately be clear why. Each biography is rather short (Arnold’s is not even forty pages!), and Strachey is clearly not interested in covering everything about their lives. Most exasperatingly, at times the figures themselves will disappear from the page entirely as Strachey goes on to discuss the political issues they were embroiled in, or the machinations of their foes, and so forth. (I will confess I found the General Gordon section truly tedious in many places. Strachey is not a captivating military historian.)
And yet also, it’s clear how in each case, Strachey aims to puncture the popular myth about each figure, or to expose the “demon” that drove each of them: that Manning was as petty and vengeful as he was pious, that Florence Nightingale was no anodyne lady saint, that Thomas Arnold was no true educational revolutionary, that General Gordon was driven by pride as much as conscience. The Victorians, Strachey is keen to stress, were not any sort of moral paragons: they were messy, flawed, egotistical people whose better angels were indeed at times overtaken by their demons, who were narrow and blinkered and foolish in the way of any human being. His takedown of Manning is particularly brutal, but sometimes his skewering approach renders the person more interesting: Florence Nightingale is all the more fascinating when one realizes she was not especially nice, but that she reserved her most unpleasant behavior on hidebound government administrators who stood in the way of providing good medical care (and Strachey takes pains to point out that Nightingale was an exceedingly competent fundraiser and administrator who transformed medical care in the Crimean War and saved many lives). His prose is also hilariously catty at various moments, downright gossipy, even. And he does make a good case for the notion that famous figures’ flaws, or demons, are as interesting as their positive qualities (if not more!) and that examining their demons lets us see them far more clearly.
But is this a work to pick up for fun? Probably not, unless you really are interested in the Victorian era and how the legends around it were both built and dismantled. Certainly Strachey revolutionized the writing of biography, but it’s easy to see how he was also speeding along a process that was already in motion, and the text reads now more like a historical artifact, given that three of these four figures no longer occupy a particularly prominent place in the cultural imagination. It’s useful to me to have read it, but it’s a product of its time that does not wholly transcend its time the way other Bloomsbury figures did. (But maybe his Queen Victoria biography is worth looking at–I admit, I am awfully curious…)
However, I did read a book by another Strachey sibling that does, I think, retain more interest to us in the modern day, and I’ll review it soon!