Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey.

Eminent Victorians is a collection of biographical writings on four 'Eminent Victorians': Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale, Thomas Arnold, and General Gordon. It was written by Lytton Strachey, a member of the Bloomsbury Group, and was first published in 1918.

Like Virginia Woolf, Strachey had an interest in biography as a genre or concept. As he writes in his preface -
It is not by the direct method of a scrupulous narration that the explorer of the past can hope to depict that singular epoch. If he is wise, he will adopt a subtler strategy. He will attack his subject in unexpected places; he will fall upon the flank, or the rear; he will shoot a sudden, revealing searchlight into obscure recesses, hitherto undivined. He will row out over that great ocean of material, and lower down into it, here and there, a little bucket, which will bring up to the light of day some characteristic specimen, from those far depths, to be examined with a careful curiosity. Guided by these considerations, I have written the ensuing studies. I have attempted, through the medium of biography, to present some Victorian visions to the modern eye. They are, in one sense, haphazard visions—that is to say, my choice of subjects has been determined by no desire to construct a system or to prove a theory, but by simple motives of convenience and of art. It has been my purpose to illustrate rather than to explain. It would have been futile to hope to tell even a precis of the truth about the Victorian age, for the shortest precis must fill innumerable volumes. But, in the lives of an ecclesiastic, an educational authority, a woman of action, and a man of adventure, I have sought to examine and elucidate certain fragments of the truth which took my fancy and lay to my hand.
He begins with Cardinal Manning - Henry Edward Manning (15th July 1808 – 14th January 1892) - and he writes not only what we would expect from any biography, about his life, his influence and importance, but also offers other insight - Manning's unswerving  ambitions, writing,
Undoubtedly what is most obviously striking in the history of Manning's career is the persistent strength of his innate characteristics. Through all the changes of his fortunes the powerful spirit of the man worked on undismayed. It was as if the Fates had laid a wager that they would daunt him; and in the end they lost their bet.
On Florence Nightingale (12th May 1820 – 13th August 1910) Strachey writes on her neuroses, beginning,
And so it happens that in the real Miss Nightingale there was more that was interesting than in the legendary one; there was also less that was agreeable. 
Doctor Arnold (13th June 1795 – 12th June 1842), the headmaster of Rugby School from 1828 to 1841 (who is featured in Thomas Hughes' Tom Brown's School Days, 1857) is used for a critique of the public school system, Strachey writes that Arnold -
... hoped to turn Rugby into 'a place of really Christian education'. The boys were to work out their own salvation, like the human race. He himself, involved in awful grandeur, ruled remotely, through his chosen instruments, from an inaccessible heaven. Remotely—and yet with an omnipresent force. As the Israelite of old knew that his almighty Lawgiver might at any moment thunder to him from the whirlwind, or appear before his very eyes, the visible embodiment of power or wrath, so the Rugby schoolboy walked in a holy dread of some sudden manifestation of the sweeping gown, the majestic tone, the piercing glance, of Dr. Arnold. Among the lower forms of the school his appearances were rare and transitory, and upon these young children 'the chief impression', we are told, 'was of extreme fear'. The older boys saw more of him, but they did not see much. Outside the Sixth Form, no part of the school came into close intercourse with him; and it would often happen that a boy would leave Rugby without having had any personal communication with him at all.
General Gordon (28th January 1833 – 26th January 1885) does not escape Strachey's sharp eye either. In the final chapter, 'The End of General Gordon', he concludes the piece with,
... General Gordon had always been a contradictious person—even a little off his head, perhaps, though a hero; and besides, he was no longer there to contradict … At any rate, it had all ended very happily—in a glorious slaughter of 20,000 Arabs, a vast addition to the British Empire, and a step in the Peerage for Sir Evelyn Baring.
The fact is, and perhaps it's already evident - I really didn't like this book. Perhaps the first problem was I was at a disadvantage in having not even heard of Cardinal Manning or General Gordon, and I don't feel as though I learned about anything other than Strachey in this. The time of its publication and post-Victorian Britain was, intellectually, an interesting time - the stuffy age was over, ways of thinking and expressing oneself was changing. There's a sense of striking out in Eminent Victorians - it was not enough to move forward, Strachey fired shots at what had past. As Virginia Woolf wrote in 'How it Strikes a Contemporary' from The Common Reader First Series (1925; this book was dedicated to Strachey),
No age can have been more rich than ours in writers determined to give expression to the differences which separate them from the past and not to the resemblances which connect them with it.
That attitude I understand, but Eminent Victorians came out, I felt, as rather snide at times (as Leon Edel remarks, Eminent Victorians is full not so much of truth but "malice and subterfuge". For example with Florence Nightingale - she was an eminent Victorian and she did great work: does her character lessen that? Had a less neurotic woman or man done what she had, would it have been more noble? And even if it hadn't been noble at all, does that mean the good that had been done was less good? I think not. 

Strachey's occasional spite was sometimes amusing, I do concede. E. M. Forster believed Strachey was 'in pursuit of the truth' (though I should note that he didn't quite reach it - critics have pointed to the many inaccuracies in Eminent Victorians), but I do think Strachey's words towards the end of his preface - "Je n'impose rien; je ne propose rien: j'expose" ["I do not impose anything; I proposed nothing: I expose"] is revealing of some kind of bias in itself. "Expose" can be a harsh word, and he does impose - he imposes the idea that, essentially, these old and as I said 'stuffy' Victorians were not as eminent as we might have thought. By that he does come closer to seeking the truth in that he refuses to conform to the accepted general perception and for that it is a good work. All the same, I felt I learned more about Strachey and about the Bloomsbury Group than I did of Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale, Thomas Arnold, and General Gordon.

Portraits included in the first edition of Eminent Victorians

Cardinal Manning.
Florence Nightingale.
Dr. Arnold.
General Gordon.

Further Reading


  1. to me, l.s. is just a delight. his phraseology is much like Gibbon's, but with a humorous/sarcastic bite that tickles my funny bone. he was an original, and perhaps his perspective originated from his difficulties in trying to survive in a more or less hostile social environment. anyway, i've read everything he wrote several times and he's a continuous source of refreshment whenever the world becomes too much with me. tx for the interesting post; i see him a bit differently now...

    1. This is my first book of Strachey's, and I would like to read some others of his - can you recommend anything?

    2. well, he was primarily an essayist, and any of his collections are of interest; "landmarks in french literature" i found enlightening, and it was more edifying than sarcastic, i thought...

    3. I'll look out for that - thank you :)

  2. What a good idea to read and review this book! I hope you don't mind I have posted your blog entry on my FB page.
    This is one of my best loved books from the Bloomsbury set, with "Queen Victoria". I like your point of view and your review.
    Thank you.

    1. No problem, I'm glad you liked it :)

  3. I've read Strachey's Elizabeth and Essex and it was excellent! Margaret George wrote a biography on Elizabeth I and I was certain that she borrowed much of it directly from Strachey. I'm so glad that you read and reviewed this one. Now I have another Strachey recommendation to read!

    1. I'll look out for Elizabeth and Essex - should be interesting. Never read any biographies of Elizabeth I other than Kings and Queens of England :)


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