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July 26, 2005

Colourful Eminence - Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Eminent Victorians
by Lytton Strachey
first published 1918

I always liked the story about Lytton Strachey's appearance in front of a conscientious objection tribunal in the Great War. When asked the standard question about how he would respond if he saw German soldiers raping his sister he replied, "I should offer myself in her place". The story may well be apocryphal interview panel stories are extremely prone to myth and Strachey was 34 when the war started but it is easy to imagine for someone brought up on the camp characters in British sitcoms. More importantly, it seems to make him one of us, a contemporary out of his time, like Falstaff.

So this was the dominant preconception with which I approached Eminent Victorians, Strachey's best known work. It is an unusual book, consisting of four biographical essays. The subjects are Cardinal Henry Manning, Florence Nightingale, Dr Thomas Arnold and General Charles "Chinese" Gordon. At 98 pages the essay on Manning is the longest while the shortest is the one on Arnold at 26 pages long. The formula is not original: Suetonius, Plutarch and Aubrey's Brief Lives are predecessors. But it surprisingly unusual and reading it made me wonder why the bookshelves are full of vast biographies of people, which generally overrun their degree of interest by some distance, whereas thematic sets of biographical essays are relatively rare. Is it intellectual respectability or commercial necessity? Or the need for a certain ratio of pages to months of research?

For Eminent Victorians is both better written and more interesting than most biographies. Strachey's style is not to debate or judge or analyse his subjects, but to construct a Weberian "plausible story" of what really went on in their minds. He offers us not only a clear picture of the outlook of each of his major characters at any one time, but also of that of many people who are minor to this narrative if not to history. These include, for instance, Mr Gladstone, Cardinal Newman and Queen Victoria, about whom Strachey later wrote at length.

Thus I cannot accept the reputation of this book that it debunks its characters, their period and its ethos.

Florence Nightingale emerges as an intense, tireless, driven person, often brilliantly effective in both administration and the kind of politics which gives you some resources to administer in the first place. True, she is also fairly ignorant and deeply suspicious of the theory of germs and fiercely intolerant of people who don't work as hard as her or see things her way. But that is the nature, surely, of those who move metaphorical mountains. This is not hagiography and whoever thought that nice girls revolutionised anything? Nightingale's mind is described by Strachey as (p. 156):

so positive, so realistic, so ultra-practical.
A fair comparison might be Ebenezer Howard who had such a formative influence on modern planning and who was described by Bernard Shaw as an "heroic simpleton".

Gordon is no simpleton and the story of how a fifty-something soldier of fortune, fading into obscurity, became a popular hero whose death forced the Liberal government's hand on the expansion of the British Empire is a filmscript. True, in Strachey's account he is a mystical fanatic with very poor judgement, but he also has a flinty integrity and eccentricity which makes him a complete outsider. One cannot help warming to a man who, about to be torn apart by Muslim fanatics, confides in his diary (p. 253):

I dwell on the joy of never seeing Great Britain again with its horrid, wearisome dinner-parties and miseries . . . . I would sooner live like a Dervish with the Mahdi than go out to dinner every night in London.

To the contemporary reader the most powerful theme of the book as a whole is religion. All four subjects are religious, not in the sense of Sunday religion, the sort which may be a formal truth or a comfort, but seriously religious. Their religion in each case appears to transcend personal ethical questions as well as philosophy and politics in ways which would not be true of eminent Georgians or eminent English contemporary figures. This is well symbolised by Gordon's admiration for Ernest Renan's atheism as having more integrity than the Christianity of most of his contemporaries.

One might grade the four in terms of the seriousness of their religious belief. Arnold would undoubtedly come first as his whole life seems to be about the application of religious belief. Nightingale and Gordon were both religious eccentrics who might just have performed the same deeds without religious doctrine, though saw their mission in religious terms. Paradoxically (or not?) the least religious figure in many respects is the Cardinal. Yes, he joined in the anguish of the Oxford Movement about whether the Anglican Church could really be seen as a constituent part of the Holy Catholic Church, but Strachey offers us an account of Manning which shows him as a kind of Vicar of Bray, subordinating doctrinal statements to career requirements and most conscious, for example, of his status in the Roman church if he converts.

A non-theme, though perhaps a sub-theme for contemporary readers, is sexuality. Nightingale, who was dealt a strong hand in the marriage game, rejected all offers. Gordon, we are told, was happiest in the company of boys. Manning put the marriage and family which he had had as an Anglican vicar behind him to an alarming degree and never mentioned them. Only Arnold fitted the stereotype of the normal Victorian. So there is temptation to a post-Freudian nudge-nudge, wink-wink explanation for three of the eminences. On the other hand it is at least as plausible to say that the psychopathology of mission and ambition overrides sexuality, that Florence Nightingale failed to become the society hostess she could easily have been because she had a powerful calling.

The other great question raised by the book as a whole concerns the creation and manipulation of image. Eminent Victorians were eminent because the machinery existed to create eminence in ways in which it had not been created before. Nightingale and Gordon were the creations of newspaper campaigns in the mind of Queen Victoria just as much as in those of her subjects. Arnold would have been an obscure, quietly influential schoolmaster but for the single-handed efforts of Tom Hughes: the pilgrims who fell on their knees in front of his statue in the chapel at Rugby School were drawn by the character in the novel [the subject of a previous Retrospective Review] rather than by the reality.

Which raises questions about who created these images and who benefited from them. These are separate and complex questions, as Strachey allows. We get closest to conspiracy theory in the case of Gordon. The job-specification (to evacuate the Sudan) was wholly inappropriate for a man of his temperament and, when combined with his violent death and a jingoistic press, created the conditions for a political victory for the Imperialists as nothing else would have done. But generally Strachey sees the forces at work rightly, in my view as complex and beyond intentional control. And we must remember that all of these characters were actually attacking aspects of the "establishment" of their day Manning the Anglican Church, Nightingale the army, Arnold the tradition of the "public" schools and Gordon pretty well everybody. It is important to acknowledge that Victorian England possessed a powerful form of what Robert Michels called the "critical spirit" and one consequence of this was that it lionised radicals and outsiders.

In this context I cannot avoid mentioning Michael Holroyd's Introduction to the Pelican (and now Penguin) edition of the book, one of the daftest pieces in a genre in which daftness is often found at high levels. Strachey is seen, simply and conventionally, as a prime mover in the destruction of "Victorian values", literally a forerunner of the "permissive society" and an opponent of Margaret Thatcher. He is much better than that and one feels that though he is convincingly cynical and sceptical about the beliefs and hypocrisies of the nineteenth century, so he would be about those of the twentieth (he died in 1932) and twenty-first unlike Holroyd.

References are to the Pelican edition.

Lincoln Allison has recently retired as Reader in Politics, University of Warwick. He is continuing his education by reading those classics he has previously neglected. His previous Retrospective Reviews can be read here.

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According to the rather good film "Carrington" (which charted the Strachey-Carrington love affair), Strachey's reply to the rape question was: "I should attempt to interpose myself between them".

Best wishes

Posted by: Richard D North at July 27, 2005 11:43 AM
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