Lytton Strachey blazes a new trail in writing biography

August 16, 2021 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, journalism, writers, writing.

If you tried to read a biography during the late 19th or early 20th century, chances are it was pretty rough going and very possibly not very enlightening. Biographies during that time adhered to strict Victorian standards of propriety and subservience to the rich and famous. The good qualities and achievements of the subject were inflated, and mistakes or flaws were ignored or explained away.

In other words, hagiography rather than biography.

Lytton Strachey, with the publication of his Eminent Victorians in 1918, pointed biography in a different direction and changed biographical writing for everyone who came after him.

Strachey’s book is a collection of four biographical portraits of Cardinal Henry Edward Manning, Florence Nightingale, Thomas Arnold, and General Charles Gordon that Strachey meant to be the first of a series that would show how Victorians were bound up by their ideas of sex and religion. Strachey emphasized the psychology of his subjects rather than the historical facts, some of which he got wrong.

It was the style with which he wrote about these eminent Victorians that set biography on a new course.

The book appears at number 50 on The Guardian’s 100 best non-fiction books of the 20th century, and this is part of what editor Robert McCrum says about it:

Eminent Victorians would transform the art of biography, but it did not do so by force of content or integrity of method. Strachey was a great stylist. His inimitable tone is most in evidence in “The End of General Gordon”:

“The glare and the heat of that southern atmosphere, the movement of the crowded city, the dark-faced populace, the soldiers and the suppliants, the reawakened consciousness of power, the glamour and the mystery of the whole strange scene – these things seized upon him, engulfed him, and worked a new transformation on his intoxicated heart. England, with its complications and its policies, became an empty vision to him; Sir Evelyn Baring, with his cautions and sagacities, hardly more than a tiresome name. He was Gordon Pasha, he was the Governor-General, he was the ruler of the Sudan. He was among his people – his own people, and it was to them only that he was responsible – to them, and to God.”

Biographer Antonia Fraser writes that she first encountered the book when she was 14 years old, and it showed her that history could be fun:

As a child I had quickly decided that I too would write history – I had the complete confidence of the ignorant – and there being no time like the present in the leisure of childhood, knocked off a few works that have mercifully vanished. One thing had never struck me in all of this: that there was an art to the writing of history, beyond the art of ascertaining the facts and expounding the story. It was in this way that the sheer pleasure of reading Lytton Strachey came as a revelation to me. I had somehow never imagined, in the rather stodgy books I had read on my beloved historical characters, that there was pleasure to be had, beyond the voyage of discovery itself. Now I was plunged into a new world. Or rather, since the book consists of four biographical essays, four new worlds.

Strachey was born in London in 1880, attended Cambridge University, and spent much of his early career writing magazine articles. He was a founding member of the Bloomsbury literary circle that included Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster. His first great literary success was Eminent Victorians, which had mixed reviews from the critics but was popular with the general reading public. Its publication was followed by a biography of Queen Victoria in 1921. He died of stomach cancer in 1932.

His biographical approach, which deemphasized facts and concentrated on psychological insights, was hailed and denounced by critics, but it freed the next generations of writers from the strict and staid approach of the Victorians.

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