Eminent Victorians (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading) [NOOK Book]

Overview


"Discretion is not the better part of biography," Strachey warns us, and it is with this motto that he paints his portraits of Cardinal Manning, Dr. Arnold, Florence Nightingale, and General Gordon. The caricatures - which represent the world of religion, philanthropy, education, and politics - expose the high Victorian myths, and reveal a slightly darker truth about the leading figures of the era.

Some say that he led the world into the next generation, but that claim is essentially over inflated. What can be ...
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Eminent Victorians (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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Overview


"Discretion is not the better part of biography," Strachey warns us, and it is with this motto that he paints his portraits of Cardinal Manning, Dr. Arnold, Florence Nightingale, and General Gordon. The caricatures - which represent the world of religion, philanthropy, education, and politics - expose the high Victorian myths, and reveal a slightly darker truth about the leading figures of the era.

Some say that he led the world into the next generation, but that claim is essentially over inflated. What can be said is that the line between fiction and non-fiction was blurred. A new genre was born: literary biography.
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Meet the Author


Giles Lytton Strachey was born in 1880 into a well-educated, upper-middle class, and highly-eccentric family. His days at Cambridge led to his becoming a dominant member of the elite Bloomsbury group, which included such passionate thinkers as Maynard Keynes, E.M. Forester, and Leonard and Virginia Woolf. It was in this clique that Strachey was able to voice and support behavior that had previously been condemned, such as homosexuality, feminism, and opposition to World War I. Besides Eminent Victorians (1918), his biographical works include Queen Victoria (1921), Elizabeth and Essex (1928), and Portraits in Miniature (1931).
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Introduction

It is the end of the Victorian era, and the world is dealing with the impact of World War I. The stage is set. On May 9, 1918, Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians is an immediate success that explodes Victorian values and slices through the myths of an era. Originally entitled Victorian Silhouettes, Strachey created short biographies of four leading figures: Cardinal Manning, Dr. Arnold, Florence Nightingale, and General Gordon. “Discretion is not the better part of biography,” Lytton warns us, and it is with this motto he paints his portraits. His writing style was in sharp contrast to the sober, colorless biographies of historians and academics. The four caricatures of leading Victorian figures in Eminent Victorians represent the world of religion, philanthropy, education, and politics. The biographies were written to expose the high Victorian myths and reveal a slightly darker truth. Michael Holroyd, the pre-eminent expert on Strachey, informs us, “his ability combined a scholarly capacity for absorbing facts, with a novelist’s gift for presentation.” It is with this novelist's eye, then, that he exposes his subjects, employing caricature, exaggeration, and the compelling touch of drama. Some said that he led the world into the next generation, but that claim is essentially over inflated. What can be said is that the line between fiction and non-fiction was blurred. A new genre was born: literary biography. The extent to which artistic license distorted the real characters was a matter of great criticism. These criticisms did not detract from the success of the book, today or back in 1918. Eminent Victorians is a delightfully readable assembly, and it elevated biography to art.

Giles Lytton Strachey was born in 1880. He was a dominant member of the well-known Bloomsbury Group, and the group acted as a sort of test group for his works in progress. His biographical works include: Eminent Victorians (1918), Queen Victoria (1921), Elizabeth and Essex (1928), and Portraits in Miniature (1931). When he died in 1932, he left behind a substantial body of meticulously finished work, which was guarded in trust by his younger brother James Strachey. The Strachey family was well-educated, upper-middle class, and highly eccentric. Lytton Strachey did not have many happy school days, but when he finally landed at Cambridge, he found a place where he could be accepted for who he was and a place to nurture his true talents. It had been spotted in his youth that he possessed the potential for the high calling of literature.

At Cambridge, he was accepted into the secret Cambridge Conversazione Society, also known as the Apostles, who were an elite group of passionate thinkers. Unlike other societies, members remained Apostles even after they had graduated. Older and well-established members still attended and influenced and molded the group of freshmen. From the Apostles evolved famed Victorian social and artistic discussion circle The Bloomsbury Group. It was in this clique of Maynard Keynes, E.M. Forester, and Leonard and Virginia Woolf that Strachey was able to voice and support behavior that had previously been condemned. He carried the ‘intellectual aristocracy of England.’ He was a homosexual and spoke for women in their struggle for equality. He was a conscientious objector to World War I, and he-uninhibited by convention-did not make excuses. In this climate, he would write Eminent Victorians, which deflated the figure heroes and icons of the Victorian era. It was not the pen of a historian he was using; he was far more inclined towards literature. Instead, he used great linguistic dexterity and brash caricature to bring the myths to light, to drag them down to a human level. Freed from the constraints of common biography, Lytton Strachey employed a great deal of freedom of interpretation that would mark his well-received later works, such as Elizabeth and Essex.

Eminent Victorians’ great success was largely due to the fact that the biographies are so humorous. The famous mathematician and philosopher, Bertrand Russell, who was in prison for anti-war activities, commented, “It caused me to laugh so loud that the officer came to my cell.” There were critics and leading historians, who were not so happy with his method of biography. It was, after all, a certain dark humor he was working with. The critics noted that Lytton Strachey wrote under the influence of the great Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Dostoyevsky is known for extensive exaggeration and overly dark, dramatic scenes. This influence is apparent in Strachey’s own use of dark comedy and the heavy use of exaggeration. He skillfully added demons and drama to the biographies for artistic effect. He used these devices quite boldly, particularly in his depiction of Florence Nightingale: “…A demon possessed her,” he tells us. However, the problem was that Lytton Strachey actually distorted facts and details so that they would fit in with his portrait.

Cardinal Manning, the first and the longest of the four portraits, was an attack on a leading Evangelical figure of the Victorian era. In the first paragraph of the biography, Lytton tells us, “He belonged to that class of eminent ecclesiastic-and it is by no means a small class-who have been distinguished less for saintliness and learning than for practical ability.” It was Strachey's account of Manning's interview with Pope Pius IX, prior to his conversion to Catholicism, which received the most criticism. “In the light of later years one would be glad to know what precisely passed at that mysterious interview of his with the Pope, three years before his conversion.” Lytton Strachey has us believe there was, in fact, ‘mystery’ in the meeting; however, historian F.A. Simpson points out that Manning did in fact keep a journal that detailed the meeting with the Pope, and there was no mystery involved at all. Early in the biography, Lytton comments, “Such questions are easier to ask than to answer.” The question is skillful, as the answer has been implied throughout this most severe biography.

As previously mentioned, artistic license runs rampant in the portrait of Florence Nightingale. The myth of the saintly nurse, the lady with the lamp, is told to children as an example of charity and selflessness in the face of tragedy. On the first page of the biography, we are presented with: “…she worked in another fashion towards another end, she moved under the stress of an impetus…. A demon possessed her.” These are very strong words for a model lady of Victorian England, who was idealized for her modesty and self-sacrificing contributions to the Crimean War.

His method of caricature is employed physical descriptions. Nightingale is the “perfect lady, however there was sign of power in the dominating curve of the nose.” It is with the pen of a fiction writer that he takes things one-step further. The death of Sir Sidney Herbert, who aided Nightingale in her charitable works, is described, “If Miss Nightingale had not been so ruthless, Sidney Herbert would not have perished…. It was her demon that was responsible.” Strachey has us almost believe that she killed him herself. Strachey alternates between respecting Nightingale's drive and criticizing her as a frenzied demon. For this reason, Strachey's attack on Nightingale is criticized for its divided attitude.

Lytton Strachey was besieged with illnesses in his youth, and he was sent to several schools that were unsuccessful in cultivating his unique intelligence. His unhappy school days were probably at the root of his attack on Dr. Arnold, who was appointed the headmaster of Rugby to make educational reforms in the school system. “After Dr. Arnold, no public school could venture to ignore the virtues of respectability,” Lytton tells us, and went on to criticize Dr. Arnold's liberalism for being “the founder of the worship of athletics and the worship of good form.” Another writer, Thomas Hughes, was to graduate and criticize the Arnold regime in his novel, Tom Brown's Schooldays, giving the public a most severe depiction of life inside Rugby College. In this biography, Strachey was particularly hostile, resorting to snide personal remarks, such as describing Arnold: “…his legs perhaps shorter than they should have been.” Michael Holroyd explains, “In fact Arnold and Strachey were about the same height, although the former looker shorter and the latter taller.” Working with only one sourcebook on Arnold as a reference, Lytton Strachey resorted to complete caricature to delineate the life of Dr. Arnold.

Charles Gordon was a great British general in the nineteenth century. During the Taiping Rebellion in China, which had destroyed hundreds of cities, Gordon took command of the army and put a halt to the rebellion. He opened up large portions of the Nile and, in 1877, was appointed governor of the Sudan. General Gordon, in the final biography, is somewhat spared the Strachey invective because Strachey was working without any sourcebooks at all. Still, Lytton drops his clues skillfully as to the nature and character of the general: “…his soul revolted against dinner parties and stiff shirts, and the presence of ladies -- especially fashionable ladies filled him with uneasiness.” He describes the general's drinking habits: “For months he would drink nothing but water; and then the water that was not so pure.” Strachey made repeated references to brandy-or “b. and s.” Many critics asked, “What right had a sickly scribbler to criticize the hero of Khartoum?” They looked closely to see if there was any validity to the colorful depiction of the general's habits. The truth was revealed; the general may have enjoyed a brandy or two, but there was nothing to support Strachey's account that “the Holy Bible was not his only solace.” The idea of the general's drinking had come from mere gossip; a column in the Academy had mentioned “water with whiskey.” Lytton had used this trivial mention to his own ends and fabricated a whole life.

The biographies were specifically written as an attack on Victorianism. They were anarchist texts that exposed the mores and pretensions of the era. Instead of relating historical facts, Lytton Strachey employed a method of biography that leaned heavily on artistic devices and humor to drive home the point. He freely interpreted the human lives of the Victorian myths. Walter Raleigh commented, “Nothing can make your book undelightful.” Sigmund Freud was a supporter of Eminent Victorians: “As a historian you show that you are steeped in the spirit of psychoanalysis.” Despite the inexactness of details in the biographies, he still maintained high ranking supporters. There were many detractors as well. The fact was that the art of biography changed with Lytton Strachey. He created a new genre: literary biography. His works became the pilot of all modern biography. It was, after all, his role as a writer to recreate the lives as he saw fit. The fact that he did so boldly-without excuses and with great wit-can be seen as an argument against the repressive, prudish culture of the Victorian era. The writings of Lytton Strachey were a relief and delight to the artists and intellectuals of his day, and the reason why the works, in the spirit of the enfant terrible, are still wickedly enjoyable today. —Diana Adams
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