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Book review: “Eminent Victorians” By Lytton Strachey

Twenty years ago, a friend of mine, Steve Swanson, recommended Lytton Strachey’s “Eminent Victorians” as a classic in the field of biography — and a delightful read as well.

I’ve owned a copy for nearly that long, but only now have come to make my way through it, and I find that everything Steve said about the book is true. Even more so.

If you’re interested in history — in reading history and learning about history — you will relish “Eminent Victorians” for its psychological insights, its clear understanding of the landscape of a particular society, its honesty and courage, and Strachey’s skill at crafting sentences and turning phrases.

Strachey’s voice is strong, direct and idiosyncratic. He can be snarky, at times. Or, at least, he can seem snarky since he writes with such wit about the foibles and blindnesses of his subjects. Yet, for me, “snarky” implies a destructive spirit, and that’s not Strachey. Even as he’s making fun of someone, he is also willing — and goes out of his way — to see the person in the round, to recognize what the person did that was useful, helpful, good.

Although the book was published in 1918, its writing is as fresh as if it were written for next month’s New Yorker.

Somewhat prominent

Strachey wanted to tell the history of the Victorian Age by examining the lives of four somewhat prominent (but not the most prominent) personalities:
• Cardinal Henry Edward Manning (1808-1892), an ambitious Anglican cleric who, after conversion, became an ambitious Roman Catholic cleric and rose to the highest church post in the nation and was mentioned as a possible candidate for Pope.
• Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), who was known to the public as the saintly nurse to British troops during the Crimean War but whose greater impact came later in behind-the-scenes labor over decades to reform the health services of the nation and its army.
• Thomas Arnold (1795-1842), the headmaster at Rugby School, whose reforms there had widespread impact on English public schools, i.e., primary and secondary schools for the children of the British elite and aristocracy.
• General Charles George Gordon (1833-1885), a soldier of hyper-religious preoccupations, high military skill and world-class stubbornness whose death at the hands of rebels in Khartoum made him a national martyr.

While not on a level with the greatest personalities of the age, such as William Gladstone and Queen Victoria herself, these were names from the recent past well-known to Strachey’s readers. In telling their stories, he wanted to spotlight certain aspects of the just-passed age. He wasn’t trying to fit them into some political or social theory. The opposite, in fact, he writes.

Human beings are too important to be treated as mere symptoms of the past.

Splash of cold water

To understand the splash of cold water in the face that “Eminent Victorians” was at the time of its publication, you have to know that the writing of biography had evolved in Great Britain to the production of heavy handed hagiography. Strachey notes:

The art of biography seems to have fallen on evil times in England…..Those two fat volumes, with which it is our custom to commemorate the dead — who does not know them, with their ill-digested masses of material, their slipshod style, their tone of tedious panegyric, their lamentable lack of selection, of detachment, of design? They are as familiar as the cortege of the undertaker, and wear the same air of slow, funereal barbarism.

Strachey’s goal was to be detached, to select his material from the “masses” and shape it into a sharp, quick analysis of a person that said something in its pointedness that the lumbering date-heavy bios were unable to articulate.

The Will of God

For instance, he writes that Gordon spent much time trying to decipher the Will of God in his life — but in a particularly upper-class, English gentleman, self-assertive, accustomed-to-command sort of way.

What he did find [in his pocket Bible] was that the Will of God was inscrutable and absolute; that it was man’s duty to follow where God’s hand led; and, if God’s hand led towards violent excitements and extraordinary vicissitudes, that it was not only futile, it was impious, to turn another way.

Fatalism is always apt to be a double-edged philosophy; for while, on the one hand, it reveals the minutest occurrences as the immutable result of a rigid chain of infinitely predestined causes, on the other, it invests the wildest incoherences of conduct or of circumstance with the sanctity of eternal law.

In other words, Gordon wanted to do whatever he wanted to do, but still be able to tell himself that it was God’s Will. The result was pretty wild and incoherent.

The title of that chapter is “The End of General Gordon.” Gordon was little known to the public until his name surfaced in 1884 when British officials were trying to figure out what to do about a rebellion in the Sudan which was, in the way of the times, under the sway of Great Britain. Some comments Gordon made about Sudan led to a journalistic clamor for him to be sent to sort things out.

He was sent, ignored his orders and was slain when Khartoum was overrun two days before a British relief expedition arrived.

His name was made.


Strachey’s chapter gets at the complexities behind the man the public saw as a martyr — the complexities ignored in the saint-making accounts and histories produced following his well-publicized death.

Complexities are at the heart of the other profiles. For instance, about Florence Nightingale, Strachey writes:

The Miss Nightingale of fact was not as facile fancy painted her. She worked in another fashion, and towards another end; she moved under the stress of an impetus which finds no place in the modern imagination. A Demon possessed her. Now demons, whatever else they may be, are full of interest. 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.

How less agreeable?

She worked her Cabinet ally literally to death. An invalid for much of her life, she was harsh and acerbic with her other helpers. Although, as a woman, she lacked any status in official decision-making, she bullied, bruised and battered successive government and military opponents to achieve her reforms.

Even in the Crimea, she was much beyond the tender angel of legend:

Certainly, she was heroic. Yet her heroism was not that simple sort so dear to the readers of novels and the compliers of hagiologies — the romantic sentimental heroism with which mankind loves to invest its chosen darlings: it was made of sterner stuff….

It was not by gentle sweetness and womanly self-abnegation that that she had brought order out of chaos in the Scutari hospitals, that, from her own resources, she had clothed the British Army, that she had spread her dominion over the serried and reluctant powers of the official world; it was by strict method, by stern discipline, by rigid attention to detail, by ceaseless labor, and by the fixed determination of an indomitable will.

Beneath her cool and calm demeanor lurked fierce and passionate fires. As she passed through the wards in her plain dress, so quiet, so unassuming, she struck the casual observer simply as the pattern of a perfect lady; but the keener eye perceived something more than that — the serenity of high deliberation in the scope of the capacious brow, the sign of power in the dominating curve of the thin nose, and the traces of a harsh and dangerous temper — something peevish, something mocking, and yet something precise — in the small and delicate mouth. There was humor in the face; but the curious watcher might wonder whether it was humor of a very pleasant kind; might ask himself, even as he heard the laughter and marked the jokes with which she cheered the spirits of her patients, what sort of sardonic merriment this same lady might not give vent to, in the privacy of her chamber. As for her voice, it was true of it, even more than of her countenance, that it ‘had that in it one must fain call master’. Those clear tones were in no need of emphasis: ‘I never heard her raise her voice’, said one of her companions. ‘Only when she had spoken, it seemed as if nothing could follow but obedience.’ Once, when she had given some direction, a doctor ventured to remark that the thing could not be done. ‘But it must be done,’ said Miss Nightingale. A chance bystander, who heard the words, never forgot through all his life the irresistible authority of them. And they were spoken quietly — very quietly indeed.

Saying something

Excuse the long quote. I let it run on because it will give you a clear sense of Strachey’s voice as a writer and his willingness to say something — to go beyond the safe inventorying of dates and transcribing of letters and anecdotes, and make a point.

Quite unlike those weighty two-volume tomes that readers of his time were used to.

The shortest of the four profiles is the one about Arnold who, in taking over Rugby, had no interest in changing the educational curriculum. A school, from his point of view, wasn’t there to teach the children anything beyond Latin and Greek (so they would have a private language unknown to the hoi polloi). Instead, it was to teach them to be good Christian gentlemen.

Not surprising, considering his childhood:

It is true that, as a schoolboy, a certain pompousness in the style of his letters home suggested to the more clear-sighted among his relatives the possibility that young Thomas might grow up into a prig; but, after all, what else could be expected from a child who, at the age of three, had been presented by his father, as a reward for proficiency in his studies, with the twenty-four volumes of Smollett’s History of England?

“Good form”

In carrying out his reforms, Arnold relied on the sixth form, the oldest boys in the school, to be his enforcers. This approach won wide acceptance among the other public schools. But there was an unintended consequence which Arnold, who died fairly young of a heart attack, never lived to see.

Teachers and prophets have strange after-histories; and that of Dr. Arnold has been no exception. The earnest enthusiast who strove to make his pupils Christian gentlemen and who governed his school according to the principles of the Old Testament, has proved to be the founder of the worship of athletics and the worship of good form. Upon those two poles our public schools have turned for so long that we have almost come to believe that such is their essential nature, and that an English public schoolboy who wears the wrong clothes and takes no interest in football, is a contradiction in terms.

So much for instilling Christian values.

Cardinal Manning is the subject of the longest essay, and that’s because it is not only the story of his life but of the life of Cardinal John Henry Newman, another Anglican convert to Catholicism.

Newman now is considered almost a saint by the Catholic Church. Manning is pretty much forgotten. But, when they lived, they were rivals of a sort, and Manning was the one with the upper hand.

“The relentless talons”

Consider what happened when Manning, newly named to head British Catholicism, met with Newman, fresh from publishing his literary masterpiece “Apologia Pro Vita Sua”:

Newly clothed with all the attributes of ecclesiastical supremacy, Manning found himself face to face with Newman, upon whose brows were glittering the fresh laurels of spiritual victory — the crown of an apostolical life. It was the meeting of the eagle and the dove.

What followed showed, more clearly perhaps than any other incident in his career, the stuff that Manning was made of. Power had come to him at last; and he seized it with all the avidity of a born autocrat, whose appetite for supreme dominion had been whetted by long years of enforced abstinence and the hated simulations of submission. He was the ruler of Roman Catholic England, and he would rule. The nature of Newman’s influence it was impossible for him to understand, but he saw that it existed; for twenty years he had been unable to escape the unwelcome iterations of that singular, that alien, that rival renown; and now it stood in his path, alone and inexplicable, like a defiant ghost.

“It is remarkably interesting,” he observed coldly, when somebody asked him what he thought of the Apologia: ‘it is like listening to the voice of one from the dead.”

And such voices, with their sepulchral echoes, are apt to be more dangerous than living ones; they attract too much attention; they must be silenced at all costs. It was the meeting of the eagle and the dove; there was a hovering, a swoop, and then the quick beak and the relentless talons did their work.”

‘Nuff said.

Patrick T. Reardon

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