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Eminent Victorians

by Lytton Strachey

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Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 476

When first published in May, 1918, Eminent Victorians received laudatory reviews in the press, and sales exceeded Strachey’s expectations. The book was reprinted in Britain six times within a year of publication, and was also popular in America. Translations were made into French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Swedish. It seemed that the reading public, especially the younger segment, were receptive to a biography that toppled some icons of the Victorian age from their lofty pedestals.

There were only a few dissenting voices in the early reviews. One of them was Edmund Gosse, a biographer himself, who was not generally sympathetic to the Victorians. But in a letter to the Times Literary Supplement, reprinted by Strachey’s biographer, Michael Holroyd in Lytton Strachey and the Bloomsbury Group, Gosse complained that Strachey’s portrait of Lord Cromer in his biography of Gordon was an ill-natured caricature which made Cromer unrecognizable to his friends. Strachey replied that ‘‘Unfortunately, in this world, it is not always a man’s friends who know him best.’’

Professional historians were less impressed with Eminent Victorians than the general public. There were complaints that Strachey had slanted the evidence, and that his irreverent tone was inappropriate for the seriousness of his subject. In 1944, British historian F. A. Simpson wrote ‘‘Methods of Biography,’’ an influential short article in which he accused Strachey of misrepresenting the incident in which Manning meets the pope, in order to promote his own bias. However, Holroyd argued that Strachey had accurately interpreted his source material, which was the official biography of Manning by E. S. Purcell.

In an article published in 1957, another British historian, Hugh Trevor-Roper, criticized Strachey’s picture of Gordon sitting in his tent with his Bible on one side and a bottle of brandy on the other. Trevor-Roper claimed that in reality, the second object was not a brandy bottle but a prayer book, and Strachey had invented the brandy simply because it was funnier. However, Holroyd refuted Trevor-Roper, pointing out that in another source consulted by Strachey, and later confirmed by other sources that Strachey could not have known, Gordon was indeed presented as a secret drinker.

According to Holroyd, the criticisms of professional historians damaged the reputation of Eminent Victorians. The general reader was encouraged to think of the book as a ‘‘debunking’’ biography that had had a regrettable influence on modern biography.

Although that view is not universally shared, and Eminent Victorians still wins admiration for its style and its insight, a recent judgment by noted literary critic Richard D. Altick sided with the negative judgments of the historians. In ‘‘Eminent Victorianism: What Lytton Strachey Hath Wrought,’’ Altick comments that Strachey used his sources ‘‘with great license, selecting and tampering with the data to conform to his fixed idea of his subject and going so far as to suppress contrary evidence and falsify quotations.’’

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