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February 1, 2016 BOOKLIST
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Lytton Strachey held gold-card membership in the Bloomsbury group, an informal but influential arts society centered in London’s Bloomsbury Square from the early 1900s to WWII. Novelist Virginia Woolf remains the most recognized name of the group, which is not to say that other Bloomsbury figures have fallen into obscurity. E. M. Forster, for instance, is still considered a major twentieth-century novelist, and Lytton Strachey’s biographies not only are read nearly a century after they were written but also continue to be recognized as seminal in the development of the art of biographical writing.
Strachey attended Cambridge University, and his tilt toward a writing life manifested itself early. His second book (after Landmarks in French Literature, 1912), Eminent Victorians, was published in 1918 and reset the course of biographical writing forever. Queen Victoria (1921) and Elizabeth and Essex (1928) advanced his perceptions of the best way to write life stories.
To Strachey, the biography as practiced before his day was a rather stodgy medium, laden with far-too-copious detail about the minutiae of daily life and groaning under the weight of eulogy. The preface to Eminent Victorians is where Strachey codified his understanding of biographical writing. Per Strachey, a good biographer aimed “to preserve . . . a becoming brevity—a brevity which excludes everything that is redundant and nothing that is significant—that, surely, is the first duty of the biographer.” What Strachey saw in biographical treatments before his day—“those two fat volumes, with which it is our custom to commemorate the dead . . . who does not know them, with their ill-digested masses of material, their slipshod style, their tone of tedious panegyric, their lamentable lack of selection, of detachment, of design?”—should, in his mind, be replaced by the idea that “it is not his [the biographer’s] business to be complimentary; it is his business to lay bare the facts of the case, as he understands them.”
In Eminent Victorians, Strachey selected four biographical subjects: Cardinal Manning, archbishop of Westminster, a powerful figure in English religious and secular life; nurse extraordinaire Florence Nightingale; Dr. Thomas Arnold, school reformer; and General Charles George Gordon, soldier and colonial administrator who famously lost his life in a religious uprising in the Sudan.
Critical word upon the book’s publication and for a long time after was that Strachey’s portraits were basically character assassinations and that he steered a completely opposite course away from the hagiography he found biography to be when he came onto the writing scene. But contemporary readers, now used to biographies that are not simply vessels for praise, will see that Strachey was indeed out to adjust popular Victorian attitudes toward these individuals but not to destroy them. Modern readers expect to see blemishes.
“Cardinal Manning” comes first in the quartet of portraits, and at nearly 130 pages, it is also the longest. We are handed Strachey’s understanding of Cardinal Manning this way: as one who “belonged to that class of eminent ecclesiastics—and it is by no means a small class—who have been distinguished less for saintliness and learning than for practical ability.” Reading the churchman’s profile here is to observe the path of a master politician securing the headship of the Roman Catholic Church in England. And when that was accomplished, “power had come to him at last; and he seized it with all the avidity of a born aristocrat, whose appetite for supreme domination had been whetted by long years of enforced abstinence and the hated simulation of submission. He was the ruler of Roman Catholic England, and he would rule.”
“Florence Nightingale” is clearly the most recognizable name of Strachey’s four subjects. Her reputation sees her as a “saintly, self-sacrificing woman, the delicate maiden of high degree who threw aside the pleasures of a life of ease to succour the afflicted.” Alas, Strachey found the truth to be altogether different. She was actually a workaholic—“her desire for work could now scarcely be distinguished from mania”—who would run over anyone standing in the way of the projects she had in mind, most significantly health reform in the Royal Army. But Strachey’s iconoclasm never sinks to the level of unfairness or misinterpretation.
At just under 40 pages, the third of the portraits is the shortest. Most contemporary American readers will have very little familiarity with the subject, but the profile here is definitely approachable. Dr. Thomas Arnold was the headmaster of Rugby in the 1820s and 1830s and responsible for reform of not only that school’s curriculum but also the public system overall. His goal focused on ensuring that religious principles ranked as a major component of education; in the process, he made himself a celebrity. Strachey, however, holds back from all-out applause; to him, Dr. Arnold “proved to be the founder of the worship of athletics and the worship of good form.” A subtle jab but a jab nonetheless.
“The End of General Gordon” will find particular interest among history-oriented readers. General Charles George Gordon was an English soldier who successfully led British troops in China and served as governor-general of the Sudan, at all times “envisag[ing] his moods and his desires, his passing reckless whims and his deep unconscious instincts, as the mysterious manifestations of the indwelling God.” (Yes, a sarcastic swipe on Strachey’s part!) Gordon’s name entered the Book of Fame for his defense of the Sudanese capital of Khartoum from a religious insurrection led by a fanatical spiritual leader.
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