Eminent Victorians Definitive Editionby Lytton Strachey, Frances Partridge
An unparalleled manifesto for the modern biographer, Strachey's razor-sharp essays about 4 prominent Victorians brought him tremendous fame. However, his subjects fared less well. His challenge to 19th-century liberal values skewers the legends glorifying Florence Nightingale, educator Thomas Arnold, Cardinal Henry Manning, and military hero General Charles "Chinese" Gordon.
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Henry Edward Manning was born in 1807 and died in 1892. His life was extraordinary in many ways, but its interest for the modern inquirer depends mainly upon two considerations--the light which his career throws upon the spirit of his age, and the psychological problems suggested by his inner history. He 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. Had he lived in the Middle Ages he would certainly have been neither a Francis nor an Aquinas, but he might have been an Innocent. As it was, born in the England of the Nineteenth Century, growing up in the very seed-time of modern progress, coming to maturity with the first onrush of Liberalism, and living long enough to witness the victories of Science and Democracy, he yet, by a strange concatenation of circumstances, seemed almost to revive in his own person that long line of diplomatic and administrative clerics which, one would have thought, had come to an end with Cardinal Wolsey. In Manning, so it appeared, the Middle Ages lived again. The tall gaunt figure, with the face of smiling asceticism, the robes, and the biretta, as it passed in triumph from High Mass at the Oratory to philanthropic gatherings at Exeter Hall, from Strike Committees at the Docks to Mayfair drawing-rooms where fashionable ladies knelt to the Prince of the Church, certainly bore witness to a singular condition of affairs. What had happened? Had a dominating character imposed itself upon a hostile environment? Or was the Nineteenth Century, after all, not so hostile? Was there something in it, scientific and progressive as it was,which went out to welcome the representative of ancient tradition and uncompromising faith? Had it perhaps, a place in its heart for such as Manning--a soft place, one might almost say? Or, on the other hand, was it he who had been supple and yielding? he who had won by art what he would never have won by force, and who had managed, so to speak, to be one of the leaders of the procession less through merit than through a superior faculty for gliding adroitly to the front rank? And, in any case, by what odd chances, what shifts and struggles, what combinations of circumstance and character had this old man come to be where he was? Such questions are easier to ask than to answer; but it may be instructive, and even amusing, to look a little more closely into the complexities of so curious a story.
Undoubtedly, what is most obviously striking in the history of Manning's career is the persistent strength of his innate characteristics. Through all the changes of his fortunes the powerful spirit of the man worked on undismayed. It was as if the Fates had laid a wager that they would daunt him, and in the end they lost their bet.
His father was a rich West India merchant, a governor of the Bank of England, a Member of Parliament, who drove into town every day from his country seat in a coach and four, and was content with nothing short of a bishop for the christening of his children. Little Henry, like the rest, had his bishop; but he was obliged to wait for him--for as long as eighteen months. In those days, and even a generation later, as Keble bears witness, there was great laxity in regard to the early baptism of children. The delay has been noted by Manning's biographer as the first stumbling-block in the spiritual life of the future Cardinal: but he surmounted it with success.
His father was more careful in other ways.
His refinement and delicacy of mind were such [wrote Manning long afterwards] that I never heard out of his mouth a word which might not have been spoken in the presence of the most pure and sensitive,--except [he adds] on one occasion. He was then forced by others to repeat a negro story which, though free from all evil de sexu, was indelicate. He did it with great resistance. His example gave me a hatred of all such talk.
The family lived in an atmosphere of Evangelical piety. One day the little boy came in from the farm-yard, and his mother asked him whether he had seen the peacock. "I said yes, and the nurse said no, and my mother made me kneel down and beg God to forgive me for not speaking the truth." At the age of four the child was told by a cousin of the age of six that "God had a book in which He wrote down everything we did wrong. This so terrified me for days that I remember being found by my mother sitting under a kind of writing-table in great fear. I never forgot this at any time in my life," the Cardinal tells us, "and it has been a great grace to me." When he was nine years old he "devoured the Apocalypse; and I never all through my life forgot the 'lake that burneth with fire and brimstone.' That verse has kept with me like an audible voice through all my life, and through worlds of danger in my youth."
At Harrow the worlds of danger were already around him; but yet he listened to the audible voice. "At school and college I never failed to say my prayers, so far as memory serves me, even for a day." And he underwent another religious experience: he read Paley's Evidences. "I took in the whole argument," wrote Manning, when he was over seventy, "and I thank God that nothing has ever shaken it." Yet on the whole he led the unspiritual life of an ordinary school-boy. We have glimpses of him as a handsome lad, playing cricket, or strutting about in tasselled Hessian top-boots. And on one occasion at least he gave proof of a certain dexterity of conduct which deserved to be remembered. He went out of bounds, and a master, riding by and seeing him on the other side of a field, tied his horse to a gate, and ran after him. The astute youth outran the master, fetched a circle, reached the gate, jumped on to the horse's back, and rode off. For this he was very properly chastised; but of what use was chastisement? No whipping, however severe, could have eradicated from little Henry's mind a quality at least as firmly planted in it as his fear of Hell and his belief in the arguments of Paley.
Meet the Author
Giles Lytton Strachey, whose iconoclastic reexaminations of historical figures changed forever the course of modern biographical writing, was born in London on March 1, 1880, the eleventh child of a distinguished upper-class family. His father was an elderly lieutenant-general in the army who had spent much of his career in India. Strachey's upbringing was supervised primarily by his mother, a strong-willed young Scotswoman well versed in English and French literature. He was educated in a series of private schools and attended University College, Liverpool, before entering Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1899. A member of the secret Cambridge Conversazione Society, better known as the Apostles, he made lasting friendships with Clive Bell, Leonard Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, and other intellectuals who rejected Victorian mores and later formed the core of the illustrious Bloomsbury group. Thwarted in his attempts to pursue an academic career, Strachey returned to London in 1905. There he found work as an essayist for various journals and became drama critic for The Spectator. The favorable reception of his first book, Landmarks in French Literature (1912), bolstered his commitment to writing.
Strachey's next work, Eminent Victorians (1918), caused a succès de scandale, establishing him as a leader of the reaction against the Victorians that followed World War I. "Lytton Strachey's chief mission . . . was to take down once and for all the pretensions of the Victorian Age to moral superiority," noted Edmund Wilson. "In Eminent Victorians he stripped forever of their solemn upholstery the religion, the education, the statesmanship and thephilanthropy of the society which had brought it about." His biographer Michael Holroyd agreed: "Evangelism, liberalism, humanitarianism, education, imperialism—these were Strachey's targets: and he struck them beautifully." Cyril Connolly deemed it "the work of a great anarch, a revolutionary textbook on bourgeois society," and it is reported that Bertrand Russell laughed out loud while reading Eminent Victorians during his imprisonment for antiwar activities.
Strachey scored a triumphant success with his next biography, Queen Victoria (1921). Although he set out to reveal the mediocrity of Victoria's character, critics agree that instead Strachey became totally enraptured by his subject. "Queen Victoria is an achievement of genius, and it has revolutionized the art of biography," wrote E. M. Forster. "Strachey did what no biographer had done before: he managed to get inside his subject. Earlier biographers, like Macaulay and Carlyle, had produced fine and convincing pictures of people; Lytton Strachey makes his people move; they are alive, like characters in a novel. . . . A whole society and its inhabitants rise from the grave, and walk about. . . . Queen Victoria is a masterpiece." Virginia Woolf agreed: "Victoria is a triumphant success. . . . In time to come Lytton Strachey's Queen Victoria will be Queen Victoria, just as Boswell's Johnson is now Dr. Johnson. The other versions will fade and disappear."
Strachey pushed the boundaries of biography still further in Elizabeth and Essex (1928). Sometimes considered a historical drama rather than a formal biography, it presents a compelling Freudian analysis of Queen Elizabeth. Though the book was attacked by many critics for its lurid portrayal of the monarch's sexuality, Sigmund Freud praised Elizabeth and Essex in a letter to Strachey. "As a historian you show that you are steeped in the spirit of psychoanalysis," he wrote. "You have approached one of the most remarkable figures in your country's history, you have known how to trace back her character to the impressions of her childhood, you have touched upon her most hidden motives with equal boldness and discretion, and it is very possible that you have succeeded in making a correct reconstruction of what actually occurred."
Portraits in Miniature (1931), the last volume that Strachey published during his lifetime, comprises a series of biographical "silhouettes" written throughout the 1920s. Edmund Wilson said of it: "In Portraits in Miniature, which seems to me one of Strachey's real triumphs, he gives glimpses, through a series of thumb-nail sketches of for the most part minor historical and literary personages, of the evolution of modern society from the Elizabethan to the Victorian Age."
Lytton Strachey died at Ham Spray House, his home in Berkshire, on January 21, 1932. Characters and Commentaries, a collection of his literary criticism, appeared the following year as a companion volume to the earlier Books and Characters (1922). His other posthumously published books include The Collected Works of Lytton Strachey (1948), Ermyntrude and Esmeralda (1969), Lytton Strachey by Himself (1971), and The Shorter Strachey (1980). In assessing his achievements biographer Leon Edel noted: "What Strachey understood, for all his abrasiveness, was the principle of human volatility; he knew that the ego seeks at all costs its basic defenses; and he knew what other biographers had not learned—that a biographical subject is consistently ambiguous, irrational, inexplicable, self-contradicting; hence, it truly lends itself to irony and to delicacies of insight and sentiment. . . . Lytton Strachey had dared to do what other biographers feared: to interpret his materials courageously, to say what things meant."
Virginia Woolf agreed: "The figure of Lytton Strachey is so important a figure in the history of biography that it compels a pause. For his three famous books, Eminent Victorians, Queen Victoria, and Elizabeth and Essex, are of a stature to show both what biography can do and what biography cannot do. . . . The anger and the interest that his short studies of Eminent Victorians aroused showed that he was able to make Manning, Florence Nightingale, Gordon, and the rest live as they had not lived since they were actually in the flesh. . . . In the lives of the two great Queens, Elizabeth and Victoria, he attempted a far more ambitious task. Biography had never had a fairer chance of showing what it could do. For it was now being put to the test by a writer who was capable of making use of all the liberties that biography had won."
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