Eminent Victorians marked an epoch in the art of biography; it also helped to crack the old myths of high Victorianism and to usher in a new spirit by which chauvinism, hypocrisy and the stiff upper lip were debunked. In it Strachey cleverly exposes the self-seeking ambitions of Cardinal Manning and the manipulative, neurotic Florence Nightingale; and in his essays on Dr Arnold and General Gordon his quarries are not only his subjects but also the public-school system and the whole structure of nineteenth-century liberal values.
"There comes a time, as one explores British Literature more thoroughly, when one encounters the name 'Lytton Strachey' with increasing frequency. At some point a refererence is made to his innovations in the craft of biography. Or perhaps, as one learns of the Bloomsbury group, or the euphemism, 'the love that dares not speak its name,' one becomes intrigued, and indulges in a bit of the old Googly-Wikipee."
Well, finally, I did get around to reading Strachey's Eminent Victorians, after many years of encountering his reputation. My motivation was to learn a bit more about the Victorian era. I attached an extra memory disk to my cerebral jack slot, and prepared for a bit of a slog. History, even when made more palatable by the spice of biography, can be a cross between beef jerky and a dog chewy. And it was not like I knew anything about Cardinal Manning, Dr.Arnold, or General Gordon. As for Florence Nightingale, somehow, over the years, her name had become all bollixed up in my storm ravaged brain with Jenny Lind, and it was a relief to be reminded that she had something to do with hospitals. I knew that...
What a surprise! Turns out that Lytton Strachey is the grandfather of Kitty Kelley, and the great-grandfather of E! News. To simplify this review a tad, these Victorian Eminences were:
- a clerical backstabber (Manning)
- a prig of an educator (Arnold)
- a mad dog of a military man (Gordon)
- a workaholic do-gooder (Nightingale).
Not that Strachey is quite so blunt. The section on Manning is an excellent introduction to the Oxford Movement, Tractarianism, Cardinal Newman, and the upheavals in the Anglican Church. The section on Arnold provides a picture of the possibilities of educational modernization and reform that were shelved for a generation. General Gordon illustrates how the British military, and by implication the Empire, grew more unwieldy, like an extended halberd, with its operations in China and Africa. Nightingale is treated in a kindly manner; her leadership in hospital reform, and heroic work with Crimean war wounded were commendable. But it took her monomaniacal personality to budge the inertia and chauvanism of the British bureaucracy.
Strachey's style is colorful and clear. And after a mere 340 pages, he provides the reader with psychological portraits of four vivid and distinct Victorian personalities. But the genius of Strachey's masterpiece, is how, just as laser beams create a hologram, these four flawed personalities illuminate the Victorian era, recreating its dynamism and its confusion. In short, suggesting how an Empire came to be, and came to be lost.
I had. After years of reading serious, scholarly biographies, the agenda in this work jumped off the pages. Strachey was a very angry man, and he channelled his anger into a passive aggressive tour de force. I ended up going back to the library for more detailed biographies of all four figures, just to get some context. (Since Strachey was writing sketches, about 50 pages or so, there was very little context.) Each of the serious biographies I read explicitly addressed Strachey's portrait, usually arguing very strongly that he misinterpreted things, ignored extenuating circumstances, etc. All of these works were published much more recently than Eminent Victorians, and it says something about the power of Strachey's writing that his versions of people has survived, even as his work is read less and less frequently.
Strachey published this in 1918, just after the end of WWI. He was part of the generation that saw their world ripped apart by the war, and they were all bitter and traumatized. He attacked these public heroes of the Victorian age as a way of drawing attention to the disaster that followed from their examples, their policies, their worldview. He had a definite agenda - to put an end to the entire corrupt, incompetent, murderous system. His light tone, and sly, snarky authorial voice were intended to make the whole thing so ludicrous that it would collapse of its own weight.
I don't know that he succeeded in that. Contra the earlier review I read, I don't think he personally started the fabled "decline in public morals." This is a fun book, and interesting book in the history of ideas, and is more interesting, the more you know about the subjects, the author, and the circumstances of its writing and publication.
Strachey's subjects are barely remembered today. I suppose Florence Nightingale's name has some small current familiarity because of its association with selflessly nursing injured soldiers. I found her biography to be the flattest of them all. She came from a privileged background, stubbornly resisted her parents' efforts to marry her off, and exerted remarkable energy, persistence, and fortitude to accomplish significant changes in military medicine (which previously languished in a horrific state).
Strachey's Dr. Arnold is a cautious educational reformer at best, rather than the revered innovator who established the English Public School system. The education provided at Arnold's Rugby School was quite limited with a dreary focus on religion and the classics. The sciences were entirely neglected. He did establish the prefectorial system whereby the old boys terrorized the younger boys who in their turn got to terrorize the next batch. Readers of Flashman will recognize Dr. Arnold as the head of the school that produced Tom Brown (and kicked Flashman out for drunkenness).
Strachey's treatment of the life of Cardinal Manning is fascinating although the subject is arcane. Even in 1918 when Strachey wrote his book he said that few remembered Manning. The Pope's recent visit to the UK highlighted one Manning's archrivals, Cardinal Newman. Both Manning and Newman had risen high in the Anglican hierarchy when the Oxford Movement gradually led them to doubt that Henry VIII had been divinely inspired when he founded that church. Both converted to Catholicism, but the politically astute Manning managed a meteoric rise to Cardinal (with the connivance of the Pope's top assistant) while Newman languished in obscurity. Newman had ideas and ideas were threatening and indeed essentially heretical to Pio Nono, Pius IX (the pope who formally decreed papal infallibility). Only in his dotage was Newman gifted the red hat when the Duke of Norfolk intervened with the Pope on his behalf. Strachey's life of Cardinal Manning is simply a treat of wonderful writing, wit, with a thorough skewering of papal pomposity.
The highlight of Eminent Victorians, for me, was the final biography of General Gordon, in which Strachey blows apart the mythology surrounding Gordon and indeed the Empire. Gordon had been hired by the leaders of Shanghai during the Taiping Rebellion to lead the Ever Victorious Army, which as Strachey notes had been seldom victorious prior to Gordon's ascendancy. Gordon famously dispatched the rebels.
Gordon later served as British governor-general of the Sudan, but more often worked as a mercenary. He had returned to England and relative obscurity when the Mahdi Revolt broke out in the Sudan (see Mahdi Revolt). Gladstone wanted nothing more than to exit the Sudan, but he needed someone self-effacing with diplomatic skill for the job. Conservative elements in Gladstone's own government hit upon Gordon as the ideal man for the job. It is difficult to imagine any person less suited for the task of withdrawing than the strong-willed, idiosyncratic, and mercurial Gordon. With the appointment made, the die was cast: Gordon arrived in Khartoum, decided he could not abandon those fine people, and ended up a martyr when the city was predictably overrun (refusing numerous opportunities to leave for safety). The Gordon biography is simply high art.
Bertrand Russell described Eminent Victorians as "brilliant, delicious, exquisitely civilized". I agree completely. Read it.
On public school education:
"A system of anarchy tempered by despotism. A life in which licensed barbarism was mingled with the daily and hourly study of the niceties of Ovidian verse."
On Monsignor Talbot:
He could apply flattery with so unsparing a hand that even princes of the church found it sufficient."
On Dr. Hall:
"A rough terrier of a man who had worried his way to the top of his profession."
On Cardinal Newman:
"With a sinking heart, he realized at last the painful truth: it was not the nature of his views, it was his having views at all that was objectionable."
If it is sardonic wit you want, you will find it here, in these four essays. Whether you will find these particular Victorians interesting is another matter. General Gordon, Florence Nightingale, Dr. Thomas Arnold, and Cardinal Manning are not as relevant today as they once were. But these psychological essays created quite a stir in their time, and even changed the course of the art of biography.
To a general readership, Eminent Victorians may appear rather boring, as it presents four, short but rather dense biographies. The biographies of these four people, Cardinal Henry Edward Manning, Florence Nightingale, Dr Thomas Arnold and General Charles George Gordon, are barely informative enough to learn the most basic biographical facts about their lives. Instead, each biography tries to debunk the myth surrounding each of these people.
To Edwardian and early modern readers (the book was published in 1918), these figures of the Victorian Age would have been household names. To modern contemporary readers of the early Twenty-First Century, however, most are unknown, with the exception of Florence Nightingale. The original appeal and interest of Eminent Victorians will merely exist for readers with a more than broad interest and knowledge of the Victorian Age, but even for them it is of interest to know what to look for in the book.
The most accessible two biographies, which are still largely self-contained are the biographies of Florence Nightingale and General Gordon. Almost everyone had heard of Florence Nightingale, who is mainly remembered for her unrelenting devotion to care for the sick and wounded. However, as Lytton Strachey shows, this is a myth, a reputation based on a false image. Shattering that image, as Strachey shows Florence Nightingale in a much better light. In fact, Ms Nightingale benefits from Strachey more truthful description. The image that had been created around the popular figure of Florence Nightingale was that of a caring nurse, basically the ideal stereotype of the Victorians for women, an image that did no justice to Ms Nightingale as an oustanding organizer and manager. Lytton Strachey's revaluation of Florence Nightingale, ahead of emancipation and feminism, lifts Ms Nightingale in our esteem, the realization of which forms quite a remarkable chute.
In a similar way, the heroic General Gordon is shown to be a buffoon. This becomes entirely evident from reading Strachey's short biography as all elements to make that deconstruction are contained within the text.
The biographies of Cardinal Manning and Dr Thomas Arnold are written along similar lines, but possibly less accessible as these figures appeal less to our imagination, and are less well remembered.
Each of the four biographies has a length of about 50 pages. A short-cut to understanding and appreciation of reading Eminent Victorians might be achieved by only reading the biographies of Florence Nightingale and General Gordon.
I like Strachey's writing. I've seen it described as "bitchy," but I don't think that's right at all. I would call it unstinting. I also liked how Arthur Clough randomly wandered through all four narratives (and Gladstone, too, but that seems a bit less random to me).
The stories about Khartoum were horrible in so many ways. Augh!