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
Published in August 2002 issue of Prospect Magazine
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 worried about the absence of footnotes and his abbreviated bibliographies. Others have pointed to the way that inconvenient countervailing evidence is deliberately overlooked. In this new edition of Eminent Victorians, four contemporary commentators offer cool and thoughtful “afterwords” on how Strachey’s treatment of his subjects stands up. David Newsome decides that Cardinal Manning has been hard done by, especially with regard to the early death of his wife. Strachey has the cleric complacently shrugging off his bereavement as the will of God, while the evidence is compelling that, at the age of 84, he was still battling with feelings of overwhelming loss. Mark Bostridge, by contrast, believes that Eminent Victorians is basically fair to Florence Nightingale. While Strachey may edit and embroider, he stays sufficiently close to the sources to pass muster as a biographer rather than a writer of historical fiction. The other two contributors, Terence Copley and John Pollock, hold Strachey to account for, respectively, ruthlessly omitting the importance of Arnold’s contribution to educational thought, and plainly abusing Gordon as a maniacal drunk. Yet the debates stirred up by Eminent Victorians-about the nature of historical truth, the role of the biographer, the relationship between insight and imagination-are particularly pressing now. The historian Andrew Roberts recently took Diana Souhami, the winner of this year’s Whitbread Biography Prize, to task for declaring that “objectivity is something we are leaving behind.” What tripe, says Roberts, who worries that Souhami’s playful attitude to the historical record, especially in cases where that record is patchy or unknowable, is leading biography into “a sterile, postmodern, politically correct age of third-rate work.” In another equally public conversation earlier this year, Roy Jenkins was criticised for using only secondary sources to write his biography of Churchill, the inference being that he was too lazy to grub around with dreary primary ones. Re-reading Eminent Victorians reminds one that there is nothing new in these controversies over biographers who make things up or rely on other peoples’ research. Nor is there anything novel about choosing to write a short biography, or one which deals with a group of people rather than an individual. Much has lately been made of the need for “brief lives” to suit the time-pressured reader of the 21st century. To this end, Short Books has launched a series of little biographies of 60,000 words or so designed to be gobbled like sweets. Other publishers have followed the conspicuous success of the slender Longitude by commissioning teeny books on people you may not have heard of. Just as Strachey was reacting to the massive, double-decker lives of the 19th century, so today’s “less is more” approach follows a decade when biographies proved their worth by regularly weighing in at 200,000 words. Strachey’s decision to gather several short lives together (originally there were to have been a dozen) likewise anticipated the current trend for group biographies. While the Victorians thought of their “great men” as virtually self-made, brought into being through will rather than contingency, Strachey was more interested in how his flawed heroes shone a light on the circumstances that made them. He is concerned not with Manning, Nightingale, Arnold and Gordon themselves, but in what this “set of mouth bungled hypocrites” can be made to reveal about the age which revered them. Similarly, Jenny Uglow’s eagerly awaited The Lunar Men will explore that gang of Midlands free-thinkers who changed the face of England in the late 18th century, achieving this in a way that individual biographies of James Watt or Josiah Wedgwood never could. Critics of the time tried to talk down Eminent Victorians as a cheap joke. The fact that, 90 years on, it still speaks straight to the heart of debates about the theory and practice of biography is testimony to Strachey’s enduring achievement.