Friday, September 12, 2014

Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey

Eminent Victorians is Lytton Strachey’s 1918 British best seller. It contains the biographies of four people considered to have exemplified the era’s morality and standards (Henry Edward Manning, Florence Nightingale, Thomas Arnold and Charles Gordon). In its time, this book was a quiet innovation. It challenged the iconic worship of the 19th Century’s upright British saints. It provided an alternative to the “standard biography,” which “commemorate[s] the dead” with “ill-digested masses of material” (Strachey, p. viii).  As a result, it reads like a grouping of literary profiles with more art than history.

Strachey wrote with an arch humor that will leave a wicked smile on your face. He stealthily assassinates Lord Acton as “a historian to whom learning and judgment had not been granted in equal proportions” (Strachey, p. 100). He slowly roasts Lord Hartington as a man beloved by his listeners for being dull: “It was the greatest comfort…they could always be absolutely certain that he would never…be either brilliant or subtle, or surprising or impassioned or profound…as they sat listening to his speeches, in which considerations of stolid plainness succeeded one another with complete flatness…they felt…supported by the colossal tedium” (Strachey, p. 315). It’s funny, but it’s not history.

An historian might find herself a bit frustrated with the presentation and quality of information. In service to creating a tasteful work, Strachey sometimes skimps on the facts or passes-over issues that would cause his readers to blush. Florence Nightingale and Sidney Herbert had a close working relationship and a deep friendship. The author describes this relationship as “an intimacy so utterly untinctured not only by passion itself but by the suspicion of it” (Strachey, p. 167). With all due respect to the chastity of Ms. Nightingale and the marital fidelity of Mr. Herbert, there is no way Strachey could have known this.

Though his style is largely restrained, amusing, and dilettantish, Strachey can be relentless when he has an opinion. One central theme throughout the biographies is that the idols of Victorian England are somewhat cracked. Cardinal Manning is not just the genial saint of British Catholicism; he is also a cruel, politically manipulative autocrat (Strachey, p. 86). Florence Nightingale is not at all the passive “Lady with the Lamp;” she is a driven professional whom, the author claims, pushed Sidney Herbert into an early grave (Strachey, pp. 181-2). Thomas Arnold, historically portrayed as a reformer of boys’ education, is shown to be responsible for a litany of educational missteps, not the least of which was to forestall science instruction (Strachey, p. 213). General Gordon was both a military hero and a disobedient soldier whose rashness caused his own death (Strachey, p. 283). All of this is said more softly and with a greater mass of verbiage than I have space to allow. Strachey does not pointedly hammer at the idols. He cautiously taps, relentlessly taps, until the statue has a crack and the imperfection is annoyingly obvious to those who prefer their icons flawless.

One may argue, as some did, that his characterizations are unfair and his citations sparse. But in the present, one does not read Eminent Victorians for its historical accuracy. Some of the information may be interesting, and some of it may even be true. But more important to the modern reader are an illustration of what early 20th Century English readers appreciated and an admiration of some fine, subtle, sardonic writing.

Strachey, Lytton. Eminent Victorians. New York: Random House, 1962.

For review of a book on the British Empire during this time period, see:
http://greatnonfictionbooks.blogspot.com/2014/03/empire-by-niall-ferguson.html

For a politically progressive history of London, see:
http://greatnonfictionbooks.blogspot.com/2013/02/a-peoples-history-of-london-by-german.html