Reading Lytton Strachey

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Eminent Victorians, Lytton Strachey

In one of the more famous take-downs in the history of biography, Lytton Strachey sets out to slay the sainted beast of a golden age in the persons of four representative figures, and he mostly succeeds. It may be hard for us to appreciate the feat at this distance (Eminent Victorians was published in 1918); the memory of that once-imposing Jabberwock – the Victorian era – is well faded. The fading itself, however, owes something to Strachey. The section on Cardinal Manning makes an irreverent history of the Oxford Movement, illustrating the sandpit dangers of odium theologicum and the mutual jealousies of worldly-wise politicians (Manning) and otherworldly mystics (John Henry Newman). In Strachey’s Florence Nightingale we find a woman so dogged in her work, and yet so doggedly hampered by her sex, that she runs a man to death. Thomas Arnold, the education reformer and headmaster of Rugby School, makes Strachey’s briefest subject. The best, however, is reserved for last in “The End of General Gordon.” And here’s why I say that Strachey “mostly” but not entirely succeeds in his take-down, because for all his personal misalignments Strachey’s Gordon Pasha (like Nightingale to a degree) is nonetheless an object of legitimate awe, even when his goals seem to us culpably eccentric. Through the whole volume – and in prose as crystalline as Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son, a book with thematic similarities – the message is clear: A culture is no less likely than an individual to fail in suspicion of its own motives or to manufacture divine endorsement of its most selfish desires, though thousands perish in consequence.

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