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Eminent Victorians

by Lytton Strachey

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Historical Context

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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 mentions how influential Cardinal Manning was in speaking directly to large crowds of dock workers, when it was clear that they had won the dispute, urging them not to prolong the suffering of their wives and children. Over the following six years, there were strikes involving gas workers, railway porters, brick-makers, boot and shoe makers, colliers and iron workers, and others.

Coinciding with the labor troubles, Britain was rapidly losing ground to its industrial competitors, primarily Germany and the United States. By 1900, the British iron and steel, and coal industries had fallen behind those of Germany and the United States. Britain remained the foremost power in shipbuilding, but Germany led in chemicals, and the United States in the electrical industry.

In the face of this industrial competition, Britain looked to extending its political sovereignty to less developed areas of the world where it could extract raw materials cheaply. The last decade of the nineteenth century has been called an era of imperialism. Britain focused on acquiring territory in Africa, in which it competed with the other imperial European powers, primarily Germany and France. Britain had already occupied Egypt in 1882, and now extended its control to the Niger territories, Kenya and Uganda, and Northern and Southern Rhodesia. The Sudan was occupied, and as Strachey mentions in his biography of General Gordon, Lord Kitchener’s army inflicted great slaughter on the Sudanese army in 1898. The Boer War (1899–1902) established British control in South Africa.

World War I and Its Aftermath This rising tide of imperialism formed the political atmosphere in Britain during the period that Strachey grew to manhood. By the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, Britain was increasingly concerned about the rapid rise of German power, particularly the German Navy, which threatened Britain’s long-held maritime supremacy. As a result, Britain drew closer to France, its old enemy, and the battle lines of World War I began to take shape. A crisis in the Balkans in the summer of 1914 precipitated the sudden and rapid descent into a general European war.

The loss of life in World War I was immense. In the Battle of the Somme in 1916, the British army lost 60,000 on the first day. Over three months later, total British casualties stood...

(This entire section contains 838 words.)

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at 460,000, and the British had managed to advance just seven miles along a thirty-mile front. In 1917, British losses at Passchendaele reached 300,000 in a three-month battle. When the war finally ended in November, 1918, the British casualties numbered 750,000 dead and nearly 1,750,000 wounded.

Appearing in May, 1918, Strachey’s Eminent Victorians was received by a people tired of war, shocked at the appalling carnage, and, at least in the intellectual classes, cynical about the policies that had dragged Britain into a ruinous, four-year continental war. Strachey, who was a pacifist, was well aware that the politicians who had allowed Britain to slide into war in 1914 were all products of the late-Victorian age. One of Strachey’s friends, David Garnett, commented that ‘‘Lytton’s essays were designed to undermine the foundations on which the age that brought war had been built’’ (quoted by Richard D. Altick in ‘‘Eminent Victorianism: What Lytton Strachey Hath Wrought’’).

With his satirical portraits of four revered figures of the Victorian age, Strachey set about puncturing the hypocrisy that underlay the surface of Victorianism and delivering a blow to its prestige. As Altick points out, he was not the first to do so. Authors such as George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, and G. K. Chesterton had already been critical of Victorian thought. In the wake of Eminent Victorians, the anti-Victorian mood increased, and the book also changed the way biographies were written. In Britain and America, Strachey imitators wrote many ‘‘debunking’’ biographies, in which more eminent subjects were toppled from their lofty pedestals.

Literary Style

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Satire 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 recorded the ‘‘vanished incidents of a remote past’’: ‘‘He would snip with scissors the pages of ancient journals, and with delicate ecclesiastical fingers drop unknown mysteries into the flames.’’

Satire also characterizes Strachey’s treatment of Florence Nightingale’s pretensions to serious religious thought. Late in her life she decided to correct the errors of contemporary Christianity, but Strachey makes it clear that Nightingale’s estimate of her own intelligence is seriously at odds with his own assessment of her. He describes her thoughts:

She would rectify these errors. She would correct the mistakes of the Churches; she would point out just where Christianity was wrong; and she would explain to the artisans what the facts of the case really were.

The author presents Nightingale’s belief in herself only to mock it; the satire reveals her arrogance and inflated sense of self-importance.

Strachey is most relentlessly satirical in his account of Arnold, who obviously arouses his scorn. For example, after a long paragraph in which Strachey describes in quite flattering terms Arnold’s attractive appearance that suggested a man of ‘‘ardour and determination,’’ he reaches a conclusion at the end of the paragraph that ridicules Arnold and undermines everything said earlier:

And yet—why was it?—was it in the lines of the mouth or the frown on the forehead?—it was hard to say, but it was unmistakeable—there was a slightly puzzled look upon the face of Dr. Arnold.

The implication is that this puzzled look gives the lie to Arnold’s bold self-confidence about all matters.

Strachey also presents Arnold’s views on education, as well as his positions on political, social, and religious issues, in satirical manner. On the matter of religious toleration, for example, ‘‘He believed in toleration . . . within limits; that is to say, in the toleration of those with whom he agreed.’’

Amongst the many minor figures to be subjected to Strachey’s satirical pen was the reactionary Lord Panmure, the Secretary of State for War who tried to thwart Nightingale’s reform plans:

It was most irksome; and Lord Panmure almost began to wish that he was engaged upon some more congenial occupation—discussing perhaps, the constitution of the Free Church of Scotland—a question in which he was profoundly interested.

Again, there is the half-amused tone, quite gentle this time, and the reader is left with the impression of a man who takes a great interest in an extremely dull issue, implying a smallness of mental range unsuitable for one in a high position in the government—which is exactly the impression Strachey wishes to create.

Irony Irony generally means that the expressed words of the author are the opposite of his intended meaning. The title of the book, Eminent Victorians, is itself ironic, and much of Strachey’s satire employs irony.

Two notable examples of irony occur in the biography of George Gordon. Gordon arrived in China in time to ‘‘witness the destruction of the Summer Palace at Peking—the act by which Lord Elgin, in the name of European civilisation, took vengeance upon the barbarism of the East.’’ It is clear that in this context, ‘‘civilisation’’ and ‘‘barbarism’’ are reversed in their meanings.

Strachey takes a similar dig at the cultural intolerance and cruelty of the West when he concludes his biography with a reference to the battle of Omdurman in the Sudan, thirteen years after the fall of Khartoum and the death of Gordon: ‘‘At any rate it had all ended very happily—in a glorious slaughter of twenty thousand Arabs, a vast addition to the British Empire, and a step in the Peerage for Sir Evelyn Baring.’’ It hardly needs to be pointed out that for Strachey there was clearly nothing happy or glorious about this event.

Innuendo Innuendo is an indirect suggestion, often used to imply something harmful or unpleasant. Strachey uses innuendo when he discusses Manning’s conversion to Roman Catholicism. After his conversion, Manning was at the bottom of the ecclesiastical ladder, which might imply that he was motivated to convert by genuine religious beliefs, not worldly ambition. But Strachey undermines this by suggesting that something may have been discussed at a meeting between Manning and the pope three years earlier. Manning said very little about this meeting, which encouraged Strachey to call it a ‘‘mysterious interview.’’ The implication is that the pope may have promised Manning some advancement if he would convert, but no evidence is offered to substantiate the suggestion.

Strachey also uses subtle innuendo in his hints that Gordon may have been a drunkard and a homosexual.

Figurative Language There is a notable metaphor that illustrates the structural principle that operates in the biography of Manning. Throughout his account, Strachey contrasts the practical, scheming Manning with the more romantic, idealistic figure of Newman. This reaches a climax late in the book when Manning, who is trying to block Newman’s plans, is represented as an eagle and Newman a dove. The result is a foregone conclusion: ‘‘there was a hovering, a swoop, and then the quick beak and the relentless talons did their work.’’

In ‘‘Florence Nightingale,’’ Strachey uses animal imagery. Nightingale is at one point described, like Manning, as an eagle, but the more important comparison is with a tigress in the jungle. The tigress’s victim is Sidney Herbert, and he is presented in the metaphor as a stag, ‘‘a comely, gallant creature springing through the forest.’’ The outcome, as with the eagle and the dove, is inevitable: ‘‘One has the image of those wide eyes fascinated, suddenly by something feline, something strong; there is a pause, and then the tigress has her claws in the quivering haunches; and then—!’’

Compare and Contrast

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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 reason for the decrease in churchgoing is that the churches adopt unpopular positions on social issues such as divorce and the desirability of allowing public entertainment on Sundays.

Today: Churchgoing continues to decline, and Britain has become largely a secular society. A poll conducted in 2000 shows that under a million people (less than two percent of the population) attend regular Sunday services. This figure is half what it was in the 1970s.

1800s: Public and private behavior is governed by a strict moral code. Manners are formal, and in social relations, outward appearances are considered vitally important. Attitudes on sex and the human body are prudish. Dress is formal and elaborate; the body is completely covered. Underneath the public face of Victorianism, however, there is a great deal of hypocrisy. In London, prostitution flourishes. Women’s rights are severely limited.

1920s: The years after World War I produce a reaction against Victorian prudery. Dress becomes less formal. Women, like men, can go hiking in shorts, for example, and bathing suits for both sexes are briefer. In 1920, women in Britain gain the right to vote.

Today: British society is more informal than in previous generations; relations between the sexes are less governed by formal rules. Gender roles are more flexible, and women pursue careers in professions formerly the exclusive preserve of men. Unlike the large families favored by their Victorian ancestors, the British family is typically small, and power is often divided more equally between husband and wife. In contrast to Victorian prudery, sex is openly discussed, and in a consumer society sex is used in advertising messages to sell everything from cars to cigarettes.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources 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.

Further Reading 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 for modern biographers to follow.

Kallich, Martin, The Psychological Milieu of Lytton Strachey, Bookman Associates, 1961. This is an examination of Strachey’s work in the light of Freudian psychoanalytical theories.

Whittemore, Reed, ‘‘Biography and Literature,’’ in the Sewanee Review, Vol. 100, No. 3, Summer 1992, pp. 382–96. Whittemore compares biographical or other works by Virginia Woolf, Sigmund Freud, Strachey, Patricia O’Toole, and Joanna L. Stratton, and shows the structural trends in the genre of biography.


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Further Reading

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 ideas about the practice of writing biographies. Argues that Woolf erred in choosing Sidney Lee and Harold Nicolson as representative of the old and new styles, respectively; maintains that the “new style” was best exemplified by Strachey.

Powell, John. “Official Lives: Lytton Strachey, the Queen’s Cabinet, and the Eminence of Aesthetics.” Nineteenth Century Prose 22, no. 2 (Fall, 1995): 129-152. An analysis of Strachey’s introductory indictment of so-called official lives. Argues that a preoccupation with aesthetic form obscured Strachey’s concern for accurate biographical representation.

Stratford, Jenny. “Eminent Victorians.” British Museum Quarterly (Spring, 1968): 93-96. Provides a full description of Strachey’s four exercise books of notes and drafts, which are now in the British Library. Discusses the various influences on Strachey’s writing.

Taddeo, Julie Anne. Lytton Strachey and the Search for Modern Sexual Identity: The Last Eminent Victorian. New York: Harrington Park Press, 2002. Chronicles Strachey’s struggles as a gay and neurasthenic writer to defy Victorian ideology and create new forms of art and identity.


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