Eminent Victorians

by Lytton Strachey

Paper Book, 2006




Mineola, N.Y. : Dover Publications, 2006.


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.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Ganeshaka
Ok. Monocle? Check. Queen Anne chair? Check. Glowing embers, hearth? Check. So then, camera, action!

"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
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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.
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LibraryThing member teckelvik
I read this book many years ago, maybe in college, and enjoyed it. It was a quick, easy read. I was familiar with the subjects, admittedly, least so with Cardinal Manning. It felt brisk and light-hearted. Years later, I read a review which stated that Strachey began the modern tendency to tear down
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and mock public figures, and gave this book as the start of the decline of public morals. I was a bit surprised at how much animosity the author had towards this slim little volume. So, when I saw it on the "Recommended" shelf at my local library, I picked it up to see if I had missed anything.

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.
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LibraryThing member dougwood57
Lytton Strachey is credited with reinventing the art of writing biographies in his brilliant Eminent Victorians. Strachey published the book in 1918, not long after the end of the Victorian Era. Rather than attempt a comprehensive history of the Victorian Era, which he viewed as impossible,
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Strachey instead wrote short biographies of four truly eminent Victorians that punctured the moral pretensions and historical myths of that famous era.

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.
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LibraryThing member pjsullivan
Although it sometimes comes at the expense of clarity, there is some artful writing here. Some examples:

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."

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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.
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LibraryThing member literarysarah
Lytton Strachey published his quartet of biographical sketches in 1918. Witty, irreverent, and not entirely accurate, they're still great fun to read. Strachey picked four heroes of the Victorian age and viciously chronicled their deeds and faults. His sketch of Cardinal Manning contains an
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examination of the Oxford Movement and a time of renewed religiosity. The following sections give us narratives about Florence Nightingale, Thomas Arnold, and General Gordon. A peculiar piety is shared by all his subjects. Because they were all eminent in their day, their influences and acquaintances sometimes overlapped. The repeated mention of some of the "supporting cast" add to the joy of reading these in order. This is a snapshot of the nineteenth century by a man of the twentieth who, along with his readers, was ready to make a break with the past.
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LibraryThing member TheAmpersand
I read "Eminent Victorians" a few years ago, but I don't think I understood why it was considered an interesting or notable history. After this rereading, I think I might get it. It's not the biographical data it contains that makes it important: it's bibliography isn't exactly extensive, and,
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while Florence Nightingale is likely to be the only figure here that is still familiar to modern readers, all four of its subjects were extremely famous in their own day. In witty, strategically understated prose, Strachey argues that these four personages owed a great deal of their success to less-than-admirable character traits: a superficial morality that masked powerful ambitions, a constant tension between self-promotion and self-abnegation, a talent for organization and bureaucratic maneuvering, and an overweening self-confidence and, sometimes, an astonishing disregard for facts. I was, for example, amazed to learn that for all the work she did in sanitation and medical training, Ms. Nightingale wasn't convinced by Pasteur's germ theory. It should probably be noted that Strachey might have been writing with an agenda in mind; he belonged to a social set that sought to unmask what they saw as Victorian hypocrisy. Still, the portraits he presents here are largely convincing. He seems to have a talent for isolating the most revealing bits of the mountains of personal memoranda and personal docuementation that each of his subjects left behind. In any event, his book still serves as a valuable historical document: reading the self-lacerating diary entries of the thinkers involved in the Oxford Movement, or bits of General Gordon's manic, messianic account of the siege of Khartoum might tell you more about the Victorian mindset than an armful of Trollope. Especially recommended to those with a special interest in the Victorian period or in the Modernists who sought to overcome their Victorian origins and seek a new path.
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LibraryThing member edwinbcn
Eminent Victorians is a truly interesting book of biography, which, however, appeals less and less to modern readership. Its remarkable and unique quality depends on the literacy of its readers, and as the Victorian Age is now quite remote, most of the sublime power of the book is obscure to the
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general readership.

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.
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LibraryThing member seabear
It was okay and kind of interesting but had a touch of celebrity about it. There was little justification for exactly why Cardinal Manning or Dr Arnold were famous. I'm sure readers knew first or secondhand in the 1930s why they were well known, but for me, not so much. The parts on people who had
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more active lives (Florence Nightingale and General Gordon) were more interesting.
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LibraryThing member xine2009
Strachey's intent is to criticize Victorian England by presenting humorously satirical biographies of the age's heroes. I think he is successful, except in the case of Florence Nightingale, who comes off as a great, brave woman in spite Strachey's revelation of her flaws (which seem to me rather
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typical of those who achieve great things in spite of huge obstacles). Now I want to read a good biography of Nightingale.
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LibraryThing member rizeandshine
I think a lot of the ground-breaking irreverence and wit of Eminent Victorians was lost on me as a 21st century reader where our leaders and heroes are often presented warts and all. No one is so revered that he or she is not subject to some sort of ridicule and in fact I'd go so far as to say that
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dwelling on someone's faults tends to be the norm. At any rate, it was an informative read and I did find myself chuckling here and there at the author's cheek. I found the section on Florence Nightengale most interesting.
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LibraryThing member mermind
This book was undoubtedly daring and iconoclastic when it was published. It skewers some Victorian sacred cows while exposing the worst characteristics of the Victorians, dourly cruel religiosity, ruthlessly cruel ambition, and stupidly cruel hypocrisy. The prose is deft and devastating.
LibraryThing member antiquary
Perhaps more a literary classic than good history. Probably unfair to its subjects, but notoriously clever about saying it.
LibraryThing member nmele
I read Lytton Strachey years ago and felt this book had been overhyped, but rereading it in my late sixties, I found myself admiring his use of telling facts to open up the iconic facades of his four subjects and reveal something true about each as a human being rather than as an archetype or
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Victorian exemplar.
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LibraryThing member JVioland
Four British personages, Florence Nightingale, George Gordon, Thomas Arnold and Cardinal Manning are skewered by the wit of Strachey. He holds them - among others - responsible for a legacy that had embroiled England (slightly before and through WWI) in controversial positions. The Victorian era
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government is held up to ridicule. Nightingale is portrayed as an obsessive, demanding and intolerant woman. Gordon is an egotistical general who was hardly as competent as his public image, Cardinal Manning is seen as a jealous rival of Cardinal Newman a convert to Catholicism, and Arnold was responsible for the wholly inadequate educational system that stressed sports ahead of science and discipline before common sense. In all, it is a book of enlightenment on the Victorian era often depicted in a romantic, heroic way. A good read.
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LibraryThing member thatotter
From this book I learned that there is a Catholic saint called Pantaloon.

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,
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too, but that seems a bit less random to me).

The stories about Khartoum were horrible in so many ways. Augh!
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LibraryThing member wealhtheowwylfing
Strachey was beloved by Virginia Woolf, plus it's about Victorians--two great tastes! I expect this book to be like eating peanut butter swirled into chocolate. om nom nom.
LibraryThing member OperaMan_22
The initial chapter (on Cardinal Manning) was exceedingly tedious, especially if one had no knowledge of who Cardinals Manning and Newman and some of the other major players were. The remaining chapters, if you managed to persevere through the first, picked up a bit, especially the final chapter on
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General Gordon.
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LibraryThing member jwhenderson
Eminent Victorians is a seminal work of biography that elevated the genre to the status of fine art. The biographical project was liberated by Strachey's humour, iconoclasm, and narrative flair, which replaced veneration with cynicism. For a decade, his images of Cardinal Manning, Florence
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Nightingale, Thomas Arnold, and General Gordon transformed people's conceptions of Victorians.
When Lytton Strachey's biographical articles on four "great Victorians" were published in 1918, they sent a shockwave through Victorian England. It was the beginning of the modern biography, elevating the genre to the status of high literary art. Strachey used his iconoclastic wit and cynicism to approach his themes rather than devotion.
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LibraryThing member ocianain
A little man's attempts to pull down his betters so as to salve his fragile ego; he fails. Maybe it just me, but what person with half a wit doesn't know everyone is screwed up somehow! This is news to Strachey? I just assume people are screwed up from the git go and then see what they do from
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there. I'm no Anglophile, but Strachey made Gordon a human character to me, I'm sure that wasn't his intent, just goes to show.
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LibraryThing member gpower61
A wonderfully iconoclastic book in which a long-haired gay aesthete detonates the great and good of imperial England with insouciant brilliance and the obsequious tradition of Victorian biography/hagiography along with them. The ‘ascetic’ Cardinal Manning is portrayed as a worldly and
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calculating careerist; Thomas Arnold as an educator who elevated religious indoctrination and ‘character-building’ above actual education; and General Gordon as an egotistical, drunken and ultimately self-destructive adventurer. Interestingly, as she is the only female in the quartet, Strachey is rather more sympathetic towards Florence Nightingale, though by no means uncritical, and clearly on her side in her battles with the male dunderheads of the War Office.

Strachey may have been less than industrious with the research (he did no primary research), sometimes loftily indifferent to mere facts and a dab hand at embroidery in the interests of getting a laugh, but he wrote like an avenging angel and Eminent Victorians is eminently readable. Whatever its strengths and weaknesses as history, it’s straight from the top drawer as a work of literature. Above all, it’s very funny and teeming with great one-liners, sarcasm elevated to the level of art and lethal verbal hand-grenades disguised as elegant epigrams.

Strachey was writing against the backdrop of the appalling slaughter of the First World War (he was declared medically unfit but was an outspoken conscientious objector nonetheless) which was, arguably, the logical culmination of all that Victorian deference and veneration of ‘great men.’ Behind the sardonic humour this is a deeply felt work and through layers of irony Strachey wrote from the heart.

In his preface, reacting against the turgid two volume biographies of the time, he asserts that brevity should be the essence of biography. Despite Strachey’s reputation as the founder of modern biography this is one piece of advice many subsequent biographers have chosen to ignore. The idea persists that a definitive biography is possible and, it seems, the longer the biography the more ‘definitive’ it is. The two biographies of recent times I have enjoyed most are relatively concise by the blockbusting standards still prevalent in the genre - Ma’am Darling (99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret) and One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time. Both are by satirist Craig Brown and possess distinctly Stracheyan qualities of playfulness, inventiveness of form and subversive wit. Like Strachey, Brown is concerned not with imparting new information about his subjects but providing a fresh perspective on a familiar story. He has said that his approach to biography is to leave out the boring bits; Lytton Strachey would undoubtedly have approved.
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