One hundred years ago Lytton Strachey brought out "Eminent Victorians," four novella-length biographical essays, composed in burnished, exquisitely ironic prose, that took gleeful aim at Cardinal Henry Edward Manning, Florence Nightingale, Thomas Arnold and Gen. Charles "Chinese" Gordon. These four worthies — 19th-century England's leading Catholic ecclesiastic, the founder of modern nursing, the headmaster of Rugby School (and father of poet and culture critic Matthew Arnold) and the empire's most beloved soldier — were each sent through the wringer. Biography has never been quite the same since.
Strachey (1880-1932) believed that biography was an art, one that required focus, compression and shading, what he called "a becoming brevity," as well as an appealing style and a distinctive authorial point of view. Of the Victorian era's two-volume official lives, he scornfully wrote, "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?" Art, after all, partly consists in knowing what to leave out.
"Eminent Victorians," published in 1918, was Strachey's second book, preceded by the spirited and still useful "Landmarks in French Literature" and by dozens of essays and reviews. To read these or any of Strachey's shorter works — the best are collected in "Books and Characters" and "Portraits in Miniature" — is to discover a Strachey who is less the feline debunker and more an amused and amusing appreciator. The sketch of a minor Elizabethan, such as Sir John Harington, the brilliant critical pieces on Alexander Pope and Stendhal, the accounts of rival French salon hostesses Madame du Deffand and Mademoiselle de Lespinasse — these remain ever-fresh examples of what one might call literary entertainment. No wonder that the master of that subgenre, Max Beerbohm, esteemed Strachey so highly and spoke almost gushingly about the beauty of his prose.
In some ways, that prose is what mainly survives today of "Eminent Victorians." Being an agnostic aesthete and a leading member of the Bloomsbury circle, Strachey couldn't resist poking fun at piety and earnestness, seeing in them the outward form of religious mania and personal ambition. As a result, his lively essays have been dismissed by later scholars for seriously misrepresenting their subjects. No matter. "Eminent Victorians" can still be read, and should be read, just for its style and superb storytelling.
Let me cite some examples. Strachey didn't worship Florence Nightingale as the saintly "Lady With the Lamp," as she was once commonly nicknamed, but instead viewed her as a force of nature. After describing Nightingale's accomplishments in hospital reform, he wrote: "It was not by gentle sweetness and womanly self-abnegation that she had brought order out of chaos. . . It was by strict method, by stern discipline, by rigid attention to detail, by ceaseless labour, by the fixed determination of an indomitable will." For years I kept this passage pinned above my desk.
Besides forging sentences like hammer blows, Strachey could also orchestrate longer, bravura passages, such as this one from the opening pages of "Cardinal Manning"
"For many generations the Church of England had slept the sleep of the . . . comfortable. The sullen murmurings of dissent, the loud battle-cry of revolution, had hardly disturbed her slumbers. Portly divines subscribed with a sign or a smile to the Thirty-nine Articles, sank quietly into easy livings, rode gaily to hounds of a morning as gentlemen should, and, as gentlemen should, carried their two bottles of an evening. To be in the Church was in fact simply to pursue one of those professions which Nature and Society had decided were proper to gentlemen and gentlemen alone. The fervours of piety, the zeal of Apostolic charity, the enthusiasm of self-renunciation — these things were all very well in their way—and in their place; but their place was certainly not the Church of England."
In the essay on Thomas Arnold, Strachey grows almost aphoristic when he sums up English boarding schools as "a system of anarchy tempered by despotism" or refers to masters instructing boys in "the bleak rigidities of the ancient tongues." When Arnold, "rapt in devotion or vibrant with exhortation," sermonized in Rugby chapel, it is said that he "propounded the general principles both of his own conduct and that of the Almighty." Note the presumption that Strachey slyly assigns to the schoolmaster.
In 1885, Gen. Charles "Chinese" Gordon perished in the defense of Khartoum, slaughtered by followers of the Mahdi, the upstart Arab leader who claimed to be a promised messiah. Strachey's exceptionally exciting, even cinematic account of this event rivals "Lawrence of Arabia" in its depiction of the spiritually tormented Gordon of the Sudan. It also tries, through a barrage of rhetorical questions, to determine who was to blame for Gordon's death — the man himself? His Islamic doppelganger, the Mahdi? The English press? The dillydallying politicians of London and Egypt? The correct answer is, of course, all of them.
Still, Strachey's depiction of the Middle East as a bloody crossroads where religious fervor, nationalism, inept colonialism and rank ambition come together seems all too familiar. Not that Strachey exempts the West of its own fanaticism. As a young soldier, Gordon was sent out to China, where "he was in time to witness the destruction of the Summer Palace at Peking — the act by which Lord Elgin, in the name of European civilization, took vengeance upon the barbarism of the East."
Strachey's argument in "Eminent Victorians" — that biographies should shape their material rather than simply ladle it out in gobs — is now orthodoxy. Even multivolume works, such as John Richardson's "Life of Picasso" or Robert A. Caro's "The Years of Lyndon Johnson," pay as much attention to their narrative artistry as they do to spadework in archives or the interviewing of castoff mistresses and aging politicians. For at least some of this, we can thank the iconoclastic Lytton Strachey.
Michael Dirda reviews books every Thursday for The Washington Post.
By Lytton Strachey
Penguin Classics. 288 pp. Paperback, $15