I would imagine that few people could tell exactly who Lytton Strachey was and what he did, even those who recognize his name; with a few exceptions in scholars, academics, and devotees of Bloomsbury and Strachey’s close friend/ex-fiancee Virginia Woolf. This is a mistake. It is more than that Strachey was, by the time of his death in 1932, something of an international celebrity, cutting a distinctive profile with his massive but gaunt body, long beard, and reedy voice. For at the same time Woolf was revolutionizing fiction alongside Joyce, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and other contemporaries, Strachey was reinventing full-length non-fiction almost overnight.
The biographies and memoirs of the nineteenth century looked very, very different from the ones which dominate the best-seller list today. The promise of James Boswell’s magisterial The Life of Samuel Johnson had given way to two types of books: multi-volume chronologies which crammed every available piece of information on a certain figure into their dense pages with little style or imagination, more akin to textbook than biography, and preachy hagiographic texts which bore little relationship to reality. And on most occasions, both “styles” were combined into one whole, as the weighty, endless run of events carefully omitted all which could potentially tantalize or be too open to interpretation.
Lytton Strachey was a man who lived to tantalize and to make people read more into matters. An intense yet thoughtful man who went from a large, eccentric family straight into a large, eccentric circle of fellow intellects at Cambridge (including John Maynard Keynes, Leonard Woolf, Clive Bell, Bertrand Russell, Rupert Brooke, and Strachey’s own brother/Freud translator James), he grew into a role of insightful observer and outspoken critic simply by watching and absorbing his friends and relations. These tendencies grew even more marked in general society, where Strachey was doubly an outsider: a conscientious objector during the turbulent decades which culminated in World War I, and an active homosexual who could only be as open about it as the time allowed (which was very little), but was always more than comfortable in his own skin. People talk about self-esteem, but Strachey had a self-knowledge and acceptance, and a knowledge of the philosophy and changing sexuality of the world, which gave him strength.
It helped, of course, that he was a terrific and witty writer, blessed with one trait which kills so many budding careers: brevity. For all his skill at complex, aesthetically-delightful sentences, Strachey always knew when to put the period down, finish the chapter, leave the audience with a biting moral. His books are never long and always memorable for these reasons.
This brevity and aestheticism first emerged in his distinctive literary criticism, but came out in a grand way, a way which truly shocked the world, in 1918. Pacifism by itself would never be enough for a man as eloquent as Strachey. He needed to use his words to react to the horrors of a war which killed so many so senselessly, and he centered the blame on the empire-crazy, muscular-Christian culture that had dominated Great Britain since the Victorian era. Strachey read up on these times, wrote, re-wrote, and produced Eminent Victorians during the final months of the conflict. The reaction immediately set in with all the violence of the machine guns on the Maginot Line.
Strachey’s four short biographies were not written as a run-through of names, dates, and events. Instead, he artistically arranged his narratives, grouping events together thematically and dwelling at length not on the action itself but, like a novelist, on the feelings and psychology behind the action. Such imagination in non-fiction was unprecedented, but was nothing compared to how Strachey skewered the culture he was born into. One by one, all the sacred cows of the Victorian era were grinded into prime hamburger meat under Strachey’s vigorous turning of the handle. The opening biography, on Cardinal Henry Manning, was a sustained mockery of the Christian churches as empty vessels deluding the masses, presided over by worldly, ambitious clergymen who played at politics (Manning) or good-hearted but hopelessly simple, credulous, and ineffective dreamers who had the most tenuous ties to reality (John Henry Newman and the Oxford Movement). Florence Nightingale, the patron saint of the Victorian Era, became in Strachey’s portrait a domineering, destructive woman with as many vices as virtues, a woman to be afraid of. Dr. Thomas Arnold, the man whose mastership of Rugby gave the Victorians their idea of proper education, was lambasted for only creating a further way to divide the classes through a system which truly taught nothing. And in the final portrait, of General Charles Gordon and his death defending Khartoum, Strachey let fly a relentless blast against the futility of war and the disgusting behavior of politicians who make decisions which send people to their end for the most inconsequential reasons while staying safe within their towers and trying not to carry the blame.
When Strachey was done with it, Britain’s great age of prosperity and empire seemed dark and hollow. By taking the same source material as other biographers and interpreting it anew.
But it only “seemed” that way.
Strachey wrote with a refined yet salacious sense of humor, in a way that anticipated Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and The Onion. Like his storytelling, he never overused his wit or called attention to it, but inserted just the right amounts of sarcasm, suggestion, and nutty details into his work (i.e. Nightingale hiring a man in her entourage mainly to tie parcels with string, Newman and his colleagues rigorously explaining why certain numbers are used in the Bible, the magnificent description of Lord Hartington and his conscience in the Gordon biography). The result was a work which didn’t anger—Strachey, an easygoing man, wouldn’t have wanted that—as much as one that made people laugh out loud, and then think a little in the end.
But beyond the humor, Strachey also kept people from completely hating his major figures with his efforts to probe their psychology and explain their motivations. THIS was his greatest break from the nineteenth-century biographers, even more than his use of humor. Like his beloved French novelists, Strachey wrote of people as neither good nor evil but complex, flawed and capable of evil, but always with a finer quality to keep them from completely sinking into badness. His pen made the past seem all the more living and breathing, more recognizable and relatable. People could see their own traits in those of the great epoch-making men and women of the past, and they responded.
How much they responded could be seen in Strachey’s subsequent work. Eminent Victorians made him a sensation, but his next two books, along with the compendium of his essays Portraits in Miniature, brought him international celebrity and lucrative success, even more than that of Virginia Woolf at that time. He first wrote a full-length (though still short at 200 pages) life of the most eminent Victorian of them all, Queen Victoria, but instead of taking barbed shots, he used Victoria’s deep relationships with Melbourne, Palmerston, Gladstone, Disraeli, and above all her beloved Albert to focus on interactions, interpretations of Victoria’s thoughts, and mundane, unexpected, and telling details…and ultimately produced a sympathetic and long-lasting portrait. This gentler but no less accomplished Strachey followed Queen Victoria with a book of low-key but startling ambition, Elizabeth and Essex. For this book, Strachey relegated history to the background and wrote a grand romance, complete with ups, downs, commentary from the sidelines by friends and enemies, and a final (and in this case permanent) break-up. It was more a Shakespearean exploration of human nature in the heat of passion then a biography, but stayed rooted in historical fact and evidence…and was the forerunner of so many books which followed, so many books which sought to depict a celebrity’s private life without scruple, as well as the modern trend in magazines and the internet to analyze and focus on a person’s relationships as opposed to their actual work.
Elizabeth and Essex was his biggest hit yet, but by the time it was published, Strachey was juggling the editing of Sir Charles Greville’s diaries, a job he did not want, with his tumultuous love life—a constant source of unhappiness—and his turbulent relationship with his best friend Dora Carrington, whose unrequited love for Strachey made her more famous to history than her exceptional painting. Then Strachey, never in the best of health, developed stomach cancer. His many friends rallied to his side, but he died at the age of fifty-two before he could take his writing to newer places. It is a sad what might have been for literature, but what we do have of Lytton Strachey is a gift, one which would welcome continued revival and scholarship.
My favorite story about Lytton Strachey, which will close this piece, sums up the man and why I love him very well. At the hearing where he declared his conscientious objection, the examiners asked what he would do if German soldiers invaded England and attempted to rape his sisters.
Strachey paused, then said in all confidence, “I should try to interpose my own body.”
The Addison Recorder is not and will never be a vehicle for the writers’ political ideas, but with the election tomorrow, I wish to add one postscript: I hope that Barack Obama will continue, if re-elected, and Mitt Romney will be able, if elected, to laugh at themselves, and to be aware of the existence of multiple points of view, the values which guided Strachey’s artistic creations concerning the business of life.