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Hacking up the Victorians

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 truth

By Kathryn Hughes   August 2002

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…

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