Britain in the Late Victorian Era
In 1885, Britain was entering the final quarter of the Victorian Era (1837–1901). In that year, General Gordon was killed at Khartoum, seventyeight- year-old Cardinal Manning was at the height of his prestige, sixty-five-year-old Florence Nightingale was still working on the humanitarian causes in which she believed—and five-year-old Strachey was about to attend the Hyde Park Kindergarten and School in London.
For Britain, this was a time of both progress and unrest at home, and imperial expansion abroad. From 1884 to 1885, the structure of Britain’s modern parliamentary democracy took shape. The Reform Act of 1884 extended the franchise to all working men (women, however, did not receive the vote until 1918), and the Redistribution Act of 1885 created parliamentary constituencies of roughly equal size. These reforms were passed during the second administration of prime minister William Ewart Gladstone, one of the greatest statesmen of the age, whose elusive character Strachey tracks in Eminent Victorians.
Despite political progress, however, the decade from 1885 to 1895 was a period of social unrest and economic uncertainty. There was a depression in agriculture, trade was fluctuating, unemployment was high, and there were many industrial disputes. In 1889, for example, 75,000 dock laborers went on strike in London, and won an improvement in their working conditions. Strachey...
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Satire is the use of wit and humor to ridicule or show scorn of a subject. Strachey’s satire in Eminent Victorians is pervasive. He uses it to diminish not only his biographical subjects and a host of minor figures, but also many of their principle beliefs, especially those in the area of religion.
Strachey’s tone throughout tends to be mocking and half-amused, as he chronicles the curious antics of his subjects. He is ready to poke fun wherever he can. Strachey uses satire to present his view of Manning as a man of worldly ambition. For example, according to Strachey, Manning was attracted to the Oxford Movement not because of the truth of its religious ideas but because it elevated the clergyman to a higher status:
The cleric was not as his lay brethren; he was a creature apart, chosen by Divine will and sanctified by Divine mysteries. It was a relief to find, when one had supposed that one was nothing but a clergyman, that one might, after all, be something else—one might be a priest.
Almost everything about Manning is satirized: his active early life as a country clergyman (‘‘he was an excellent judge of horseflesh’’) his diary entries recording his struggles with the terrible temptations of ambition; his earnest reading of the Church Fathers to assuage his religious doubts; and the obsessive care with which, in old age, he pored over his papers that...
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Compare and Contrast
1800s: Britain’s Industrial Revolution leads the world, and the British Empire continues to expand. More than a quarter of the world’s landmass is under British rule, including India, Canada, Australia, South Africa, portions of east and west Africa, Ceylon, Malaya, Hong Kong, Singapore, and (at the end of the Victorian age) Egypt and the Sudan.
1920s: The First World War ends in 1918. Communism reigns in Russia. The British Empire is in decline and a movement for self-determination in the colonies gathers force. In Britain, working class organizations are strengthened, and socialism grows more popular. Fascism and Nazism will soon rise in Italy and Germany, respectively.
Today: Although Britain flourishes economically, it no longer has an empire. Instead, it is a member of the European Union, and its nineteenth century role as the world’s superpower has passed to the United States.
1800s: In England, churchgoing amongst the middle and upper classes is high, and functions as a sign of status. Working class families, for the most part, do not go to church.
1920s and 1930s: Churchgoing declines overall, with the exception of Roman Catholics. The decline is partly due to the increasing availability of social diversions, such as the cinema, opportunities for participating in and watching sports, and the increase in the number of popular newspapers, magazines, and books. Another...
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Topics for Further Study
Mark Twain wrote, ‘‘Biography is the clothes and buttons of the man, but the real biography of a man is lived in his head twenty-four hours a day, and that you can never know.’’ Was Twain right? Can a biographer ever really capture the essence of another person’s life? If someone were to write a biography of you, how would they know what you are really like?
Should a biographer feel some empathy or affection for his subject to create a realistic portrait? If the biographer dislikes the subject, should he or she still write the biography? What difficulties might arise for the biographer if the subject of the biography were still living?
If someone in America today were to write a book similar in intent to Eminent Victorians, what figures either from the present or the recent past might he or she pick to satirize, and why?
Which biography in Eminent Victorians did you find most interesting, and why? Do you think Strachey was fair to his subjects, or did he deliberately try to show them in a less than flattering light?
Write a short satirical sketch of someone you know or someone who is well known, such as a politician, movie star, or rock star. Remember that satire uses wit and humor; it does not consist of insults or abuse.
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What Do I Read Next?
Strachey’s Queen Victoria (1921) is not as satirical as Eminent Victorians, although there is much humor and comedy in the story of an ordinary woman called to great responsibilities.
Anthony Nutting’s biography, Gordon of Khartoum, Martyr and Misfit (1966), sees Gordon as motivated by a death-wish arising from his knowledge of his own homosexuality.
In Florence Nightingale: Avenging Angel (1999), Hugh Small draws on new material and argues that Nightingale’s invalidism after the Crimean War was due to guilt—she realized that thousands of British soldiers died because medical staff failed to practice sanitary procedures that she should have enforced. In contrast to other biographers (including Strachey), Small argues for Nightingale’s belief in the germ theory of infection.
Like its famous predecessor, A. N. Wilson’s Eminent Victorians (1990), reexamines the lives of six representative Victorian figures, including two (Gladstone and Newman) who appear in Strachey’s book. The other figures discussed are Prince Albert, Charlotte Brontë, Josephine Butler (feminist and reformer) and Julia Margaret Cameron (photographer).
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Altick, Richard D., ‘‘Eminent Victorianism: What Lytton Strachey Hath Wrought,’’ in American Scholar, Vol. 64, No. 1, Winter 1995, pp. 81–89.
Gittings, Robert, The Nature of Biography, University of Washington Press, 1978, p. 35.
Holroyd, Michael, Lytton Strachey and the Bloomsbury Group, Penguin, 1971, pp. 161–242, 297.
———, Lytton Strachey: The New Biography, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995.
Kaplan, Justin, ‘‘A Culture of Biography,’’ in The Literary Biography: Problems and Solutions, edited by Dale Salwak, University of Iowa Press, 1996, p. 7.
Sanders, Charles Richard, Lytton Strachey: His Mind and Art, Yale University Press, 1957, pp. 164–211.
Simpson, F. A., ‘‘Methods of Biography,’’ in Spectator, Vol. 172, January 7, 1944, pp. 7–8.
Ferns, John, Lytton Strachey, Twayne, 1988. This is a survey of Strachey’s development as a writer in relation to his life. Ferns shows how Eminent Victorians grew out of Strachey’s opposition to World War I, for which he held the late-Victorian generation responsible.
Iyengar, K. R. Srinivasa, Lytton Strachey: A Critical Study, Kennikat Press, 1967, pp. 52–61. Iyengar surveys Strachey’s work, praises his clarity of discernment and artistic sense, and regards him as an example...
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Bibliography (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Altick, Richard. “Eminent Victorianism: What Lytton Strachey Hath Wrought.” American Scholar 64, no. 1 (Winter, 1995): 81-89. Argues that Strachey’s aim in Eminent Victorians was explicitly literary. Because he took such liberties with historical fact, it is Strachey’s method that came to be discredited, rather than the Victorian ethos he attempted to subvert.
_______. “The Stracheyan Revolution.” In Lives and Letters: A History of Literary Biography in England and America. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1966. An excellent summary of the pivotal role of Eminent Victorians in the development of biography as a genre. Surveys Strachey’s iconoclastic strategies.
Holroyd, Michael. Lytton Strachey: The New Biography. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995. Provides a rich historical context for understanding the development of Eminent Victorians, including information regarding negotiations with Strachey’s publisher. The first and fuller version of this biography, published in 1968, contains more literary criticism.
Monk, Ray. “This Fictitious Life: Virginia Woolf on Biography and Reality.” Philosophy and Literature 31, no. 1 (April, 2007): 1-40. Examines Woolf’s essay “The New Biography” (1927), which explored various...
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