Although they have been considered controversial, the biographical writings of Lytton Strachey are never dull. When he addresses himself to the Victorian period, those writings possess a special interest, for the biographer himself was a product of that period, and his feelings about it, while mixed, were far from vague or uncertain. The age of Victoria at once fascinated and repelled him. Its pretentiousness exasperated the artist in Strachey, but he could not help acknowledging its solidity and force and its many outstanding scientists and individuals.
Four such individuals are his subjects in Eminent Victorians. Not the greatest of their time, these four, superficially diverse in their activities, belong among the most appropriate representatives of the age. Strachey picked an ecclesiastic, a woman of action, an educational authority, and a man of adventure to illustrate the multifaceted era in which they lived and worked. The quartet of portraits proved to be a critical and financial success, and it became the cornerstone of an increasingly solid career. After its publication, Strachey was no longer in need of assistance from family or friends. Nevertheless, his treatment of Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale, Arnold of Rugby, and General Gordon did not go unchallenged. He was accused of having been unduly severe with his subjects, of handling facts with carelessness, and of indulging in superficial judgments. Such indictments often came from partisans of one or more of the subjects of Eminent Victorians, but not infrequently they were joined by more objective critics as well.
Some of these critics overlooked the point that Strachey’s biographical method aimed at verisimilitude, not photographic realism. His determination to rise above mere facts sometimes carried him too far—to outright and even outrageous caricature—but the writing remained brilliant and stimulating. The intelligent reader is more likely to be diverted than deceived by the author’s prejudices and dislikes, for they are hardly disguised. Whatever charges may be brought against Strachey today, it is generally admitted that he brought to biographical writing good proportion, good style, and colorful realism.
Cardinal Manning provided ideal biographical material and, despite his distinction as a churchman, he does not escape a touch of the Strachey lash. This representative of ancient tradition and uncompromising faith is revealed as a survivor from the Middle Ages who forced the nineteenth century to accept him as he was. Practical ability, rather than saintliness or learning, was the key to his career. In the Middle Ages, says Strachey, he would have been neither a Francis nor an Aquinas, but he might have been an Innocent.
Very early in his life, Manning had fixed his hopes on a position of power and influence in the world. Upon leaving college he aspired to a political career, but its doors were abruptly closed to him by his father’s bankruptcy. He tried the Church of England as an alternative, perhaps less promising, avenue to fulfillment. By 1851, already over forty, he had become an archdeacon, but this was...
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