One man opposing a society
If properly misunderstood becomes a myth.
I fear the understanding.
- Wallace Stevens,
"Lytton Strachey, Also, Enters into Heaven"
Current interest in Bloomsbury has done little to rescue Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians from the neglect that threatens to depose it as a classic. Among the first direct expressions of revolt against the Victorian legacy, the book was greeted with immense enthusiasm by Strachey's young contemporaries when it appeared in 1918. In Cyril Connolly's words, it "struck the note of ridicule which the whole war-weary generation wanted to hear." 1The therapeutic virtues of Strachey's ritual slaughter of the Victorian fathers - Miss Nightingale included - easily produced the conviction that "at last," as Virginia Woolf put it, "it was possible to tell the truth about the dead." 2
Telling the truth about "the dead," of course, meant more in this case than simply telling the truth about the dead Victorians who people Strachey's book. It meant telling the truth about those other, newer dead, too, the ones who lay scattered in anonymous graves across France and Belgium. Written over the course of the four years' fighting, in the spring of 1918 the book's "topical relevance," as David Garnett called it, could hardly have been greater. 3 After all, the Great War had come to be perceived, says J.K. Johnstone, as "an inheritance" from the ageEminent Victorians criticized.4 For Garnett, "the life of Gordon, and still more that of Florence Nightingale, had indeed many direct applications to the conduct of the war of 1914-1918. When the book was first published, the likeness of the Crimean War to such sideshows as the campaign in Mesopotamia must have struck every reader . . . . Even Cardinal Manning was an apt illustration of how men rose to power and their passion for it. In Doctor Arnold I saw how English education moulded men to accept convention and prefer almost any sacrifice to losing caste by thinking for themselves. I felt sure that there were many of my generation who would recognise the same implications in Eminent Victorians, and I could not doubt the book's success." 5
The psychological relief to be had from blaming the war on the Victorians even held off for a short time those historians who would soon mount an attack against Strachey's document by pointing out deviations from source material which Strachey had apparently distorted for the sake of ridicule and dramatic effect. Although the offensive began only a few months after rave reviews had greeted the book's publication in May of 1918, the skirmishes have continued into our own day, and for largely the same reasons - that Strachey "cared too much for art and too little for history." 6
Whether one believes in objective history or not, however, the polemical intentions of Strachey's narrative tend to put us off a little today. Among the numerous causes that may be assigned to the book's declining credibility are our new sympathy with the Victorians themselves, and our growing impatience with what seems to be Strachey's rather complacent diagnosis of hypocrisy and obsession in the four subjects of his biographical sketches. The text's irony now seems to inhere less in the portraits than in the portraiture. If Strachey meant to ridicule his Victorian forebears (his personal legacy was representative enough), it appears instead that the real victim was Strachey himself. After all, Eminent Victorians disturbs us most today because of the pasteboard dramaturgy and the cant that seem to follow from its easy judgments and loaded arguments. These qualities are fine for topical pamphleteering, but seem little suited to a text that aspires to immortality. Such ambition requires meanings that are more durable, more literary.
But whatever reasons we may give for the book's decline in prestige, they are as much as anything else the consequence of our failure to attend to what Strachey himself has to say.Eminent Victorians is a far shrewder project than even its champions seem to realize, and a far more balanced text than its audacities would appear to suggest. To be sure, the book's initial aim is to throw into question the pious achievements of its eminent characters. But let us see what precise kinds of problems Strachey's polemical intentions manage to generate. Strachey sets himself up, of course, as a new sort of authority, one who can separate the reality from the sham of his forbears, and so adduce a "true history" (164)7, as he puts it at one point in the Nightingale sketch, which will differ from the cover-ups written by the Victorians about themselves. Distinguishing himself from the standard Victorian biographer in the famous and problematical Preface to the narrative, Strachey makes claim to "a brevity which excludes everything that is redundant and nothing that is significant" (IX). And yet, a few sentences later on, he is the very model of redundancy himself: the biographer's "business," he says, is "to lay bare the facts of the case, as he understands them. This is what I have aimed at in this book - to lay bare the facts of some cases . . . " (14). Not only does Strachey's narrator seem wittingly to violate one of his own principles. He also claims for himself a ground of factual accuracy that his cautious modesty earlier in the Preface ("I have attempted, through the medium of biography, to present some Victorian visions to the modern eye" [vii]) has largely eschewed.
These manifest inconsistencies in the Preface carry the suggestiveness of a clue. Though Michael Holroyd has made apologies for whatever contradictions may appear in the text, it is probably more accurate to say that the text's very condition is one of contradiction. In fact, Strachey's attempt to set himself up as an authority capable of separating fact from fiction embroils him in a series of paradoxes so overt as to seem almost intentional. Indeed, Strachey appears to burlesque those distinctions between truth and legend that have always been taken as the cornerstone of his fame.
Consider, for example, the portrait of Florence Nightingale. "Everyone knows the popular conception, " says the narrator at the start of the sketch. "But the truth was different. The Miss Nightingale of fact was not as facile fancy painted her" (135). What, then, is Strachey's version of the truth? "A Demon," he says, "possessed her" (135). Somehow the seriousness of the psychological assertion - if that is what it is - is reduced by the absurdity with which it is expressed. Indeed, Strachey's peculiar version of "fact" displays an astonishing capacity for hyperbole, one that even rivals Miss Nightingale's for a melodramatic understanding of her life and mission - the understanding, at least, that we get through Strachey's loaded version of what the facts of her biography seem to be. Moreover, the ambiguous keyword "vision" appears throughout the Nightingale portrait, sometimes as a cipher for fancy, myth, and legend, and sometimes as a cipher for the narrator's refutations and counterclaims. The distinctions are necessarily hard to grasp, and Strachey's use of the same word on both sides of the imaginary boundary line between the world of fact and the world of fiction makes it no easier to be clear about his categories. Strachey's "fact," after all, is just as fanciful as the legends it seeks to overturn. Indeed, our present uneasiness about the book's simpleminded distinctions between truth and myth may even help to point us in the direction of what seems to be the narrative's hidden strategy of intent.
As it turns out, fact and fiction are simply rival interpretations of the same evidence. In fact,Eminent Victorians is everywhere concerned with interpretation, and the relentlessness with which it discerns the presence of decipherment in all aspects of the stories it tells elevates interpretation to the status of a major theme in the narrative. The narrator, of course, is an interpreter par excellence, working only from other books, as Holroyd reminds us, hence pursuing his personal indictment of the fathers more or less strictly within the confines of an exegesis - he even lists his sources, all of them published, at the end of each chapter. "It is only possible to discern with clearness," says the narrator of Manning's story in an exemplary aside, "amid a vast cloud of official documents and unofficial correspondences in English, Italian, and Latin, of Papal decrees and voluminous scritture, of confidential reports of episcopal whispers and the secret agitations of Cardinals" - the subject of all this has yet to appear - "the form of Manning, restless and indomitable, scouring like a stormy petrel the angry ocean of debate" (169-70). It is rather dramatic and detailed picture that emerges despite the "cloud" of evidence that Strachey has found to obscure the subject of his search. Like the Army telegraphist in the Nightingale portrait, it is his job, after all, "to compress the messages which pass . . . through his hands" (168).
Strachey's concern with the labor of reading evidence and writing evaluations of it is clearest in the the choices he makes to describe and motivate his characters. Like the narrator, all four subjects read and write habitually, even obsessively. Manning, for example, uses his diary to examine "with relentless searchings . . . the depths of his heart" (45), because his whole life, piety and politics alike, resolves itself, in Strachey's words, into the question of "how . . . to judge" (48). Miss Nightingale, meanwhile, pours out her frustrations during the Crimean campaign in an endless series of letters, and produces later in the story a massive volume of analysis about the British Army little different in form and method from the constant decipherment of the Bible and other religious tracts that absorbs both Dr. Arnold and General Gordon in the second pair of Strachey's four portraits.
Moreover, if there is one common factor that explains why Strachey's characters appear so preposterous to us, it is because they find huge significance in absurd portents and clear answers to issues shrouded in ambiguity - much, in fact, the way Strachey himself does. Strachey's description of the kinds of theological hermeneutics that engage Manning and Newman in the first, and probably the best, portrait, might well be (mis)taken for a description of his own activity in the narrative: "But directly someone found it important to give them a new and untraditional interpretation" - Strachey is at this point discussing the Thirty-nine Articles of the Anglican church - "it appeared that they were a mass of ambiguity, and might be twisted into meaning very nearly anything that anybody liked" (31).
Hence Strachey sets himself up in the same position of blatant and often criminal authority for which he derides the subjects of his sketches. The adventures of his characters resemble nothing so much as the adventures of their narrator in his attempt to render their lives. The style of his own power over history tends in fact to mirror the style and power of his Victorian protagonists since, like them, he threads his way through the evidence with a singlemindedness of intent that begins to focus as much abuse on his own enterprise as on the material it is intended to indict. Indeed, Strachey's hyperbolic demeanor seems so much like the comportment of his subjects that he appears almost to have learned his methods from them. The narrator's mandarin prose is often no less starched and affected than the targets of its invectives are supposed to be, with the result that Dr. Arnold's Rugby and Strachey's Bloomsbury tend to seem far more alike than they are different.8
This reflexive strategy establishes a kind of retrograde movement or counterplot that tempers the narrative's otherwise uninhibited polemic. It even accounts for the almost absurd degree of attention the narrator lavishes on the nuances of Biblical interpretation and theological disputation throughout the book. Except for the usual reasons of humorous scorn and abuse, there seems little cause for the atheistic Strachey to write about four religious fanatics and to dwell for so long and with such relish on the intricacies of the various religious questions that obsessed all his subjects. Even stranger is the fact that all this proceeds with little of Strachey's customary vituperation and even less of the languid yawning that one expects the Bloomsbury attitude toward theological questions to be. The reason, though, is clear enough: Strachey is downright fascinated by interpretation in whatever form it appears.
The intrigues of religious interpretation generate the whole drama of Strachey's portrait of Manning, and if we are to ascribe the uniqueness of the sketch to something more than its simple psychologizing, the cause must be the narrator's constant attentiveness to the specific hermeneutic dramas that lead both Manning and Newman - the co-hero of the sketch - along the intertwining paths of their respective careers. Strachey's interest in these disputations is, of course, more a function of his interest in interpretation itself than in the fatuous religious dilemmas that Manning and Newman both try to resolve by means of their hermeneutic imaginations. Indeed, both men are interpreters before they are anything else, with Newman's aestheticism and Manning's political schemes both functions of their shared propensity for decipherment.
Dr. Arnold is above all a theological interpreter, too. According to Strachey's citation from a description of Arnold by "one of his contemporaries," the headmaster's "religious doubts" are the result of his confusion about " "the proof and the interpretation of the textual authority" " (208). (It goes without saying, of course, that the Higher Criticism and its effects on a figure like Clough provide still another reflection on Strachey's hidden theme.) Despite his puzzlement, however, Arnold envisions Rugby as a "theocracy" because he is an obsessive reader of the Bible, deciding to "treat his boys at Rugby as Jehovah had treated the Chosen People" (214). Even his commitment to the study of Greek and Latin comprises a model insistence on the interpretation of documents. Moreover, his conviction that the aim of education " "is," " in his own words, " "not knowledge, but the means of gaining knowledge" " (219) establishes a clear ground of identity between himself and Strachey the narrator, whose own interest is always with the instrument of interpretation rather than with its particular conclusions.
Like Arnold, General Gordon is always studying his Bible, and like Manning and Florence Nightingale, he is always to be seen scribbling in his diary in an attempt to purge his frustrations and to find in them some meaning or secret that will elucidate and compose the conflicting messages presented by his experience. Of course, the melodramatic visions of both Gordon and the Mahdi resemble nothing so much as Strachey's own melodramatic caricatures of these brother visionaries, and both kinds of melodrama proceed according to the same style of hermeneutic search. Like the exegetical Strachey, Gordon hunts "for prophetic texts" and tends to "dally with omens" (260), trying always "to discover what were the Bible's instructions, and to act accordingly" (258). "A day never passed," says Strachey, "on which he neglected the voice of eternal wisdom as it spoke through the words of Paul or Solomon, of Johan or Habakkuk. He opened his Bible, he read, and then he noted down his reflections upon scraps of paper" (261). Meanwhile, of course, all the Sudan hangs on the question of another interpretation, one that stands at another center of Gordon's story: "There were signs by which the true Mahdi might be recognised - unmistakable signs, if one could but read them aright" (273).
In this concluding portrait, it is the problem of Gladstone's character that provides Strachey with a summary account of the medium in which both characters and narrator come to take their existence in Eminent Victorians, the medium of ciphers and interpretation. Stalking the length of the book like a nimbus, Gladstone overarches the narrator, playing major roles in the first and last portraits and now bespeaking the pervasiveness of the book's hidden design at its close:
What, then, was the truth? In the physical universe there are no chimeras. But man is more various than nature; was Mr. Gladstone, perhaps, a chimera of the spirit? Did his very essence lie in the confusion of Incompatibles? His very essence? It eludes the hand that seems to grasp it . . . Speech was the fibre of his being; and, when he spoke, the ambiguity of ambiguity was revealed. The long, winding, intricate sentences, with their vast burden of subtle and complicated qualifications, befogged the mind like clouds, and like clouds, too, dropped thunderbolts. (308)
Eminent Victorians, then, is a self-accounting book since it is a text about texts, an interpretation of interpretations, a piece of writing about writing. From this point of view, its missionary anti-Victorianism is in many ways a vehicle for its meditation on the nature of signs and their decipherment. Language, according to Strachey, is not privileged to do more than interpret other pieces of language, sealed as it seems to be from the world fact that appears in its pages as a fancy of its own instead. Here the paradox of Strachey's intent becomes particularly acute, since his polemical stance is constantly subverted by his mode of expression.
The real referents of Strachey's argument recede from the text at the moment they come to life, as though the narrator's language tends to empty out its historicity in favor of a self-contained and endlessly reflexive play on its own status as a medium. Strachey's counterplot collapses the distance his manifest intentions wish to draw between the narrator's present and his subjects' past, turning this modernist history into an allegory of repetition in which all men - including Strachey himself - are the fools of interpretation. Even the certitude of a clear finale to the text is shattered, since the narrative offers a double ending to Gordon's story whose intentional ambiguity distinguishes itself radically from the clear terminations common to the usual discourse of "true history." Such a perspective skews our inherited notions about Strachey's text and its apparently fixed and limited place in literary history, allowing us to reinsert it in a more central line of high modernism along with patently reflexive works like Woolf's To the Lighthouse, Ford's The Good Soldier, or Conrad's Lord Jim.
That the book is a meditation specifically on the nature of (writing) history goes, of course, without saying. We have now only to take Strachey at his word to understand just how specific an identity he means to draw between himself and his subjects when he makes the famous claim in the Preface "that it is perhaps as difficult to write a good life as to live one" (viii). Strachey suggests that there is less difference than we like to assume between discourse and adventure, and what writing and acting, reading and scheming, are more similar than they are different. Hence part of Strachey's achievement in Eminent Victorians may well be to destroy our cherished distinctions between art and action by means of an interpretation of life that sees the world itself as a text or a complex of languages, and that exacts from all human endeavor the single and enduring feature of reading and interpreting signs. Strachey thereby calls into question the usual modernist faith in immediacy and the truth of one's impressions by inserting the mediating and distancing factor of interpretation between the subject and his objects of knowledge and desire. Such a strategy also explodes the difference between legend and reality that is the narrative's fictional starting point and its predominant working myth. That Strachey should destroy customary dichotomies under the pretence of asserting them makes of his famous irony a far weightier tool than we ever expected it to be.
Strachey's counterplot finally suggests that we should take the polemical dimension of modernism a little less seriously than we used to. Strachey's attempt to map out a new perception of the past (and, by implication, a new literary and historical period in the present) turns out to be made on the model of the objects and events from which it wants to distinguish itself - it claims a difference by means of a resemblance or repetition. Moreover, the book's hidden design allows to see that a similar kind of self-subverting structure informs many classic modern texts at the root of their conception, defusing their momentary claims to priority and fulfillment in the present by revealing the common temporal chains in which their meanings necessarily inhere. Recall, for example, the way both Ulysses and The Wastelandinsist on the rift between past and present by means of mythic identities that put into question the very rupture they are meant to repair. The same kind of ironic counterplot is at work in Lawrence's The Rainbow, too, in which the achievement of what Mailer will later call apocalyptic orgasm is enacted episode after episode, hence dissolving its claims to priority and satiety by its very recurrence. Above all, we are reminded of the way Virginia Woolf's faith in the moment is constantly corrected, not only by the pressures of literary tradition evident throughout her work, but also by the cognitive mechanisms that allow her characters their epiphanies by means of repetitions and remembrances that put into question whatever integrity the moment may seem to possess on its own.
As our own distance from the moderns begins to widen, then, such a perspective may allow us to place Strachey, Woolf, and the rest of their literary generation in the continuities of tradition rather than to leave modernism in its usual adversary relation to all that comes before it. Even more, Strachey's counterplot reveals the paradoxical nature of modernism as a project in its dependence on the very models from which it wants to be freed. The rift in question is not between modernity and the past, but within the will to modernity itself. Like Strachey's Gladstone, its "very essence" lies in the "incompatible." To invoke history and to deny it are its twin and irreconcilable imperatives.
New York University
1. Quoted in Michael Holroyd, Lytton Strachey: A Critical Biography, 2 vols. (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1968), 11, 331.
2.Virginia Woolf, "The Art of Biography," in Collected Essays, 4 vols. (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1967), IV, 223.
3. David Garnett, The Flowers of the Forest (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1956), p. 154.
4. J.K. Johnstone, The Bloomsbury Group (New York: Noonday, 1954), p. 267.
5. Garnett, pp. 153-154
6. Gabriel Gersh, "Lytton Strachey: Pathfinder in Biography," Modern Age, 11 (Fall 1967), 399. For a survey of historicist criticism of Strachey, see Donald H. Simpson, "Lytton Strachey & the Facts," Encounter, 42 (January 1974), 87-94.
7. All references and citations from Eminent Victorians are from the first American edition (New York: Putnam, 1918).
8. It is Connolly who pointed out the "Mandarin" quality of Strachey's prose, although he maintains it is meant to "lull . . ." the mandarin ear into "revolutionary" conclusions rather than to double mandarin procedures. See Enemies of Promise, rev. ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1948), p. 47.
Originally published in Structuralist Review: A Journal of Theory, Criticism, and Pedagogy,Vol. 1 No. 2, Winter 1978