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Eminent Victorians

by Lytton Strachey

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Ambition Strachey’s portrait of Cardinal Manning moves relentlessly along a single track. Unlike the pious and good man perceived by the masses, Manning was ruthlessly ambitious. He pursued his own selfinterest in a calculated path of career advancement. This character trait was apparent, according to Strachey, from Manning’s early years, and the pattern continued throughout his life. The earliest hint is a subtle one. When Manning was a schoolboy, he was caught out of bounds by a master. By a clever trick Manning temporarily evaded the pursuing master, thus giving ‘‘proof of a certain dexterity of conduct which deserved to be remembered.’’ The dexterity of conduct was the way in which Manning always sensed the best way to advance his own cause.

Thwarted in his political ambitions by his father’s bankruptcy, Manning transferred his hopes to the sphere of religion. Thereafter he always had an ear for when opportunity might come knocking. When he was a country curate, for example, he married the rector’s daughter. Strachey implies this was because that gave him a better chance of advancement within the Church of England hierarchy, even though he was really in love with another girl.

With a promising career in the Anglican Church, Manning distanced himself from the Oxford Movement not over any theological issues but simply because his association with the Movement might damage his chances of advancing beyond his position as Archdeacon of Chichester. After all, ‘‘Nobody could wish to live and die a mere Archdeacon.’’

Strachey has to face a challenge to his thesis when discussing Manning’s departure from the Church of England, at a time when his star was on the rise, to become a lowly new convert to Catholicism. This might appear to contradict the picture of a man who coveted worldly ambition and achievement. Recognizing this, Strachey states, with some artful qualification, that ‘‘it is difficult to feel quite sure that Manning’s plunge was as hazardous as it appeared.’’ He then uses innuendo to suggest that Manning had already reached an understanding with the pope that ensured he would be looked after in his new religious home.

The theme of worldly ambition reaches its climax when Manning is appointed Archbishop of Westminster, the head of England’s Catholics. As Strachey puts it:

Power had come to him at last; and he seized it with all the avidity of a born autocrat . . . . He was the ruler of Roman Catholic England, and he would rule.

But even that position of absolute power was not enough to satisfy Strachey’s Manning. There was ‘‘something that irked him still.’’ That something was Newman, the only man who could challenge Manning’s preeminence. And so, from his position of power, Manning crushed Newman’s hopes of returning to Oxford and building an oratory there.

In spite of this lust for power, however, there was another, contradictory strain in Manning’s personality, that of self-abnegation. The man who acted so astutely in his own self-interest was also a man who felt the call to submit passively to a higher, divine authority; to distrust worldly ambition, and simply to accept what came along in life. Much of this, Strachey implies, was motivated not so much by Manning’s love of God but by his fear of hell. Manning struggled all his life with this self-renouncing aspect of his personality, but it was always the climbing ambition, often disguised as a call to service, that won out.

Sexuality and Femininity In his essay on Florence Nightingale, Strachey makes it clear that Nightingale’s success came at the expense of her femininity, including the fulfillment of erotic...

(This entire section contains 1353 words.)

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desire. He relates an incident in which the young Nightingale met a man who might have made a suitable marriage partner:

The most powerful and the profoundest of all the instincts of humanity laid claim upon her. But it rose before her . . . in the inevitable habiliments of a Victorian marriage; and she had the strength to stamp it underfoot.

Those energies thereby suppressed were directed into the furtherance of her humanitarian mission. Moreover, Strachey suggests that the driving force of her personality, which he compares to being possessed by demon, was masculine rather than feminine in nature. In order to make a mark in her chosen vocation in a man’s world, she had in effect to become a man. Thus the real Florence Nightingale was the opposite of the gentle, saintly ‘‘Lady with the Lamp’’ that generations of schoolchildren have learned about.

Nightingale’s masculine nature is illustrated in her dominance of the men around her, especially Sidney Herbert. In that relationship, the usual roles of the sexes, especially in Victorian England, were reversed. Nightingale was the active force, supplying the energy and the vision; Herbert was the willing subordinate, dedicating himself to helping her fulfill her goals, and eventually working himself to death to please her.

The fierce, dominant element in Nightingale’s personality is also apparent in Strachey’s descriptions of her at the hospital in Scutari. She succeeded there not by ‘‘womanly self-abnegation’’ but by discipline, hard work, and ‘‘the fixed determination of an indomitable will. Beneath her cool and calm demeanour lurked fierce and passionate fires.’’

Common sense suggests, with Strachey, that the gentle lady of legend could never have accomplished all she did in the nightmarish bureaucratic maze that was England’s War Office without a layer of steel to her personality. But Strachey, alert to the hidden springs of motivation and the abnormal elements in a person’s behavior, makes it clear that in Florence Nightingale, her obsessions led her further, into neurotic, compulsive, bullying behavior.

Education The theme of education is prominent in the essay on Thomas Arnold. Strachey’s own school days were unhappy, and this may have predisposed him to look askance at the man he blamed for establishing the prevailing temper of the English public school. (A public school in England is the equivalent of a private school in America.) Strachey’s main objection to Arnold, apart from his pompous and self-righteous personality, is Arnold’s failure to implement reforms when the times demanded it. Arnold’s obsession with moral and religious issues blinded him to the need to develop a curriculum that would meet the needs of the emerging Victorian Era. Instead, Arnold chose to continue a curriculum based in the classics.

Religion Religion is a recurring theme and a constant target of Strachey’s satire. He aims his literary barbs at the whole panoply of religious belief, whether the issue is doctrinal disputes within the Church of England, the reformist zeal of the Oxford Movement, the dogma of Papal Infallibility, or the writings of Nightingale and Arnold on religious matters, especially Arnold’s musings about the relationship between church and state and his commentary on the New Testament. On all these matters, Strachey writes with great amusement and little sympathy. It is as if he is examining the incomprehensible and ridiculous beliefs of a remote tribe that no modern person could take seriously.

When it comes to General Gordon’s religious beliefs, Strachey is partly satirical, partly baffled. Gordon is presented as an eccentric with an unusual brand of religious faith. On the very first page, Strachey pictures him wandering around the Holy Land with a Bible under his arm, trying to locate the Garden of Eden, and believing he knows the exact spot where the Ark of Noah first touched ground. Strachey later notes that Gordon was given to spending time alone, in which he ‘‘ruminated upon the mysteries of the universe’’; his religious tendencies ‘‘became a fixed and dominating factor in his life.’’ As Gordon read and reread the Bible (which was the only thing he did read), he developed a mystical and fatalistic attitude, in which he appears to have believed that anything that happened to him, or any mood or instinct that took hold of him, was simply the manifestation of God’s will. This religious fatalism, Strachey argues, was a contributing factor in the complex web of events that led to the final disaster at Khartoum.