Starchey and the Writing of Biographies

In his preface to Eminent Victorians, Strachey states that biography is ‘‘the most delicate and humane of all the branches of the art of writing.’’ As to the rules and conventions of this delicate art, however, views have changed considerably over time. The purpose of the earliest biographies in English was to commemorate and glorify the deeds of great warriors. When early Christian monks took to writing biography, they added to the commemorative aspect the purpose of encouraging morality. Thus was hagiography, the lives of the saints, born. (Much later, hagiography was to be hilariously satirized in Eminent Victorians at the expense of John Henry Newman, who, Strachey reminds us, published a series of books entitled Lives of the Saints.)

Biography somewhat closer to the modern defi- nition did not fully emerge until the sixteenth century, with the publication of William Roper’s Life of Thomas More and George Cavendish’s Life of Wolsey, in which the authors made efforts to write the truth about their subjects’ lives, even if that involved adverse comment. In the eighteenth century, James Boswell wrote Life of Samuel Johnson (1791), which is still regarded by many as the finest biography in the language. It presents a vivid portrait, without didactic intent, of a complex human being as he really was.

Unfortunately for the art of biography, the Boswell tradition lasted only for about fifty years. The Victorian age slipped back into the concept of biography as hagiography. Many biographies were written by relatives of the subject, who presented their ‘‘great man’’ as a paragon of virtue, untouched by scandal, moral failings, or anything else that might cast a dark shadow on his memory. Charles Kingsley’s biography, for example, written by his wife in 1877, was dedicated to ‘‘the beloved memory of a righteous man.’’

According to Harold Nicholson, in The Development of English Biography, the ‘‘catastrophic failure’’ of Victorian biography was due to ‘‘religious earnestness,’’ which Nicholson associated with the Thomas Arnold generation. (It was Arnold, of course, whose religious piety and earnestness was so mercilessly satirized in Eminent Victorians.) This earnestness, Nicholson states, did not permit ‘‘truthful representation,’’ and a ‘‘Victorian fog’’ descended on the art of biography. One of the examples Nicholson cites is Dean Stanley’s Life of Arnold, published in 1844, the very book which Strachey used to undermine the ‘‘official’’ view of the former headmaster of Rugby School.

There were a few exceptions to the rule, including James Anthony Froude’s Reminiscences (1882–1884), a biography of Thomas Carlyle in which the author did not minimize the disagreeable temperament of his subject. This is the same Froude who crops up in Eminent Victorians as a disciple of Newman who writes a biography of St. Neot for his mentor’s series—giving Strachey an opportunity for some mischievous fun. (Even Froude later condemned this piece as ‘‘nonsense.’’)

But for the most part, the Victorian biography was a lamentable affair, ‘‘written not to reveal but to conceal human nature’’ (as Robert Gittings puts it in The Nature of Biography). It is such works that Strachey describes in his preface to Eminent Victorians:

Those two fat volumes, with which it is our custom to commemorate the dead—who does not know them, with their ill-digested masses of material, their slipshod style, their tone of tedious panegyric, their lamentable lack of selection, of detachment, of design? They are as familiar as the cortège of the undertaker, and wear the same air of slow, funereal barbarism.

No one could have expressed it better. But faced with the dead weight of this tradition, what was Strachey to do? How was he to approach his task? In his much-discussed preface, he lays out his method and purpose.

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