Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1292
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 not enough for him. For some time his glance had been straying to other pastures; finally, he made the break and became a convert to Roman Catholicism. In the process he lost a friend—a rather important one—named William Gladstone.
Thereafter his ecclesiastical career was an almost unbroken series of triumphs and advances. One important asset was his ability to make friends in the right places, especially in the Vatican. Manning became the supreme commander of the Roman Church in England, then a cardinal. His magnetism and vigor spread his influence beyond church boundaries, and at his death crowds of working people thronged the route of his funeral procession. At the end of a long and twisted road, his egoism, fierce ambition, and gift for intrigue had brought him desired as well as some unexpected rewards, not least among them the regard of the poor.
The second of Strachey’s eminent Victorians is Florence Nightingale. In his treatment of one of the most remarkable women of any age, the biographer is conspicuously successful in resisting any urge to be gallant. What her friends called calm persuasiveness, he characterized as demoniac fury; it is clear that to him the “Lady with a Lamp” might have been extremely capable but she was also tiresomely demanding and disagreeable. His account makes clear the almost miraculous energy and endurance that carried Nightingale past the many obstacles in her path.
For the sake of convenience, Strachey divides Nightingale’s accomplishments into two phases. The first is her dramatic contribution to the welfare of the British wounded during the course of the Crimean campaign; the second deals with her unflagging efforts after the war to transform the Army Medical Department, revolutionize hospital services, and work much-needed reform in the War Office itself. These aims dominated her completely, and in their execution she drove her friends ruthlessly but used herself with even less mercy. Enduring to the age of ninety, she became a legend, though, ironically and cruelly, her last years brought senility and softness upon her. They also brought, after consciousness had dulled almost into insensibility, the Order of Merit.
Dr. Thomas Arnold, the father of the poet and critic Matthew Arnold, is generally considered to have been the founder of the British public school system. Strachey’s bias against the doctor is obvious in Eminent Victorians, based largely on the fact that Dr. Arnold was determined to make good Christians, as well as good Englishmen, out of his public school boys. (Strachey had little patience with either Christianity or Christian institutions, a point of view that colors his attitude toward all his subjects in Eminent Victorians.) Strachey also disapproved of the prefectorial system Dr. Arnold instituted at Rugby, which Strachey credits with two dubious, if unexpected, effects on later English education: the worship of athletics and the worship of good form. Although to some Victorians, Dr. Arnold was one of the most influential pedagogues, Strachey considers him the apostle of harmful and absurd ideas.
It is with apparent relief that the biographer turns to his fourth and final portrait, which provides a strong contrast between the single-mindedness of the educator and the maddening inconsistencies of General Charles George Gordon. The general’s personality is unveiled as a mass of contradictions that no biographer could ever hope completely to unravel. A mischievous, unpredictable boy, he developed into an undisciplined, unpredictable man, and a romantic legend wove itself about his early, swashbuckling exploits in China and Africa. His deeds were genuinely heroic—no one has ever questioned Gordon’s bravery—but they combined oddly with his passion for religion. He was influenced strongly, and to an approximately equal degree, by brandy and the Bible. Inclined, on the whole, to be unsociable, he maintained an icy reserve, except for fits of ungovernable temper vented upon unlucky servants or trembling subordinates.
Gordon, in his fifties, was chosen by the English government for a delicate African mission. The mission, a military one requiring the utmost of a negotiator’s self-control, tact, and skill, was the arrangement for the inglorious evacuation of British forces from the Sudan, a project for which Gordon was disqualified by his opinions, his character, and everything in his life. What followed was the tragedy at Khartoum, an episode seldom matched in military annals for the mystery and horror with which it enveloped the fate of the principal actor.
Thus the biographer’s searching glance at four eminent Victorians ends on a dramatic note. Widely differing in background, vocation, and personality, the four individuals illustrate different phases of the England of the later nineteenth century. They are related to one another, however, by the possession of a restless, questing vitality and by the fact that each left a mark upon the age.