Lytton Strachey bent the rules and even the facts. But he still defines the liberties a biographer can take with a life in service of the truthby Kathryn Hughes / August 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
It is hard, now, to recapture the mood of excited, disgusted babble that greeted Eminent Victorians on its publication in 1918. Lytton Strachey’s scourging pen-portraits of four icons of high Victorianism-Cardinal Manning, Miss Nightingale, Dr Arnold and General Gordon-struck many as an act of vicious impiety, a pissing on the spirit that had pulled Britain triumphantly through the war. For others, the book was a timely reminder that Victorian values were not only smug and silly, but dangerous. As far as his fellow Bloomsberries, Virginia Woolf and Bertrand Russell, were concerned, Strachey’s four fallen idols embodied a brand of relentless self-interest masquerading as high-mindedness which had led directly to the killing fields of northern France.
Strachey’s sceptical attitude to his subjects, so different from the respectful, commemorative tone of Victorian biography, was not the only thing that was new. His methodology, too, represented a radical break with the past. Instead of working through the primary sources and shaping them into a two-volume Life and Letters, whose narrative marched steadily from cradle to grave, Strachey relied on secondary sources to produce short, impressionistic sketches. In a celebrated sentence from his introduction, he talked of rowing out over “that great ocean of material” before lowering down a little bucket to bring up to “the light of day some characteristic specimen… to be examined with a careful curiosity.” Uninterested in being inclusive, extensive or even particularly fair, Strachey’s plan was to pounce on a few key episodes from his subjects’ lives before working them up into a series of sharp-edged, glittering vignettes.
Strachey was able to maintain his scathing stance towards his subjects, all the more deadly for being delivered in the prose of sweet reason, only because he ignored any evidence that worked against his thesis. Thus Nightingale’s gentle voice or Arnold’s genuine cleverness are deliberately overlooked in Strachey’s determination to produce a portrait of the “Lady of the Lamp” as a maniacal Fury or the headmaster of Rugby as a “blockhead.” Sometimes he went even further. There is no evidence that Thomas Arnold was anything other than nicely proportioned, but Strachey so liked the idea of cutting the great man down to size that he hinted, “his legs, perhaps, were shorter than they should have been.”
Over the years, criticisms of Strachey’s nastiness-his Gordon is a drunk, his Manning a two-faced schemer-have inevitably focused on his un-scholarly methodology. Historians have…