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Recently read: Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians

[Originally published at the now defunct group blog explananda.com]

Posted on July 13, 2008
Tags: book_reviews

Lytton Strachey, card-carrying member of the Bloomsbury group, mainly wrote biography. His smash hit was Eminent Victorians, a curious roundabout history-by-way-of-biography based around four Victorian figures. Declaring in the first line of his book that we know too much about the Victorian age to write a history of it, Strachey choses a different method: brief biographies of representative figures. The plan is to attempt a glimpse of a much broader whole, through the keyhole of a few dominating personalities of the period. And what a jaundiced view it turns out to be. Eminent Victorians was written largely during the first World War, and Strachey book is in part an attempt to discredit an entire scheme of values that he felt had culminated in the war.

Strachey’s Eminent Victorians is said to have helped shape the modern approach to biography. But I hope that the influence is selective. Go ahead and keep the style, or at least learn something from it, I think: Strachey’s writing is crisp and disciplined, the delivery nearly unerring. But there is little to learn from Strachey when it comes to fairness and accuracy. This is especially easy to judge in the “definitive edition” of Eminent Victorians put out by Continuum press, which is apparently so anxious to correct possible misunderstandings of Strachey’s subjects that it actually intersperses Strachey’s biographies with brief critical essays, rather than collecting the critical material together at the end of the book, as might have been more conventional. I would usually find an editorial intrusion like this annoying, but in this case I found it welcome and helpful. The critical notes make clear that the portraits of Florence Nightengale and Dr Thomas Arnold, the headmaster of Rugby, in spite of a few distortions, come closest to being fair, whereas the biographies of Cardinal Manning and General Gordon are clearly slanderous. Indeed, the afterward to the biography of General Gordon verges on open contempt for Strachey.

Copyright on this work has lapsed, so here’s a little taste of the book. It’s a sketch of Lord Panmure, in charge of the War Office:

That burly Scottish nobleman had not, in spite of his most earnest endeavours, had a very easy time of it as Secretary of State for War. He had come into office in the middle of the Sebastopol campaign, and had felt himself very well fitted for the position, since he had acquired in former days an inside knowledge of the Army—as a Captain of Hussars. It was this inside knowledge which had enabled him to inform Miss Nightingale with such authority that “the British soldier is not a remitting animal.” And perhaps it was this same consciousness of a command of his subject which had impelled him to write a dispatch to Lord Raglan, blandly informing the Commander-in-Chief in the Field just how he was neglecting his duties, and pointing out to him that if he would only try he really might do a little better next time. Lord Raglan’s reply, calculated as it was to make its recipient sink into the earth, did not quite have that effect upon Lord Panmure, who, whatever might have been his faults, had never been accused of being supersensitive. However, he allowed the matter to drop; and a little later Lord Raglan died—worn out, some people said, by work and anxiety. He was succeeded by an excellent red-nosed old gentleman, General Simpson, whom nobody has ever heard of, and who took Sebastopol. But Lord Panmure’s relations with him were hardly more satisfactory than his relations with Lord Raglan; for, while Lord Raglan had been too independent, poor General Simpson erred in the opposite direction, perpetually asked advice, suffered from lumbago, doubted, his nose growing daily redder and redder, whether he was fit for his post, and, by alternate mails, sent in and withdrew his resignation. Then, too, both the General and the Minister suffered acutely from that distressingly useful new invention, the electric telegraph. On one occasion General Simpson felt obliged actually to expostulate. “I think, my Lord [he wrote], that some telegraphic messages reach us that cannot be sent under due authority, and are perhaps unknown to you, although under the protection of your Lordship’s name. For instance, I was called up last night, a dragoon having come express with a telegraphic message in these words, ‘Lord Panmure to General Simpson—Captain Jarvis has been bitten by a centipede. How is he now?’”

General Simpson might have put up with this, though to be sure it did seem “rather too trifling an affair to call for a dragoon to ride a couple of miles in the dark that he may knock up the Commander of the Army out of the very small allowance of sleep permitted him”; but what was really more than he could bear was to find “upon sending in the morning another mounted dragoon to inquire after Captain Jarvis, four miles off, that he never has been bitten at all, but has had a boil, from which he is fast recovering.” But Lord Panmure had troubles of his own. His favourite nephew, Captain Dowbiggin, was at the front, and to one of his telegrams to the Commander-in-Chief the Minister had taken occasion to append the following carefully qualified sentence—“I recommend Dowbiggin to your notice, should you have a vacancy, and if he is fit.” Unfortunately, in those early days, it was left to the discretion of the telegraphist to compress the messages which passed through his hands; so that the result was that Lord Panmure’s delicate appeal reached its destination in the laconic form of “Look after Dowb.” The Headquarters Staff were at first extremely puzzled; they were at last extremely amused. The story spread; and “Look after Dowb” remained for many years the familiar formula for describing official hints in favour of deserving nephews.

Funny! Anyway, I recommend the edition of this book I linked to above, since the essays are clear, readable, and, if you care about fairness, essential. I do think it’s odd that they don’t have footnotes translating little snippets of foreign languages. This surely would have been worthwhile in an edition into which so much thought was already being put. And it’s the sort of thing an editor might have accomplished by 10am on any given day by hauling an academic out of bed at 8am, sitting him at a desk, plying him with coffee, and shouting the occasional encouragement.

Anyway, I think Strachey’s idea that we can form a decent idea of an age by reading cruelly biased accounts of a few of its more interesting characters is obviously loopy. But as far as I can tell, the book does convey something of the feeling that swept over many thinking people in the dying days of World War I that the ideals and the values that people carried with them into the war were rotten. That, and the fact that it’s pretty funny, makes this book a good read.