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Autobiography of a Yogi. A Tale of Two Cities. Anne of Green Gables. The Picture of Dorian Gray. The Story of My Life. Acres of Diamonds. Ten Days in a Mad-House. More books by Lytton Strachey view all.
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Rereadings: Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey – a string quartet in four movements
Strachey's brilliant and delicate wit in puncturing the overblown images of the revered "celebrities" of the Victorian Era cannot be excelled. His reading of the distinctive, yet similar, personalities of Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale, General Gorden, and Thomas Arnold remains as a classic description of the personalities which defined their age. As the most uptight and upright Christians following the dictates of the Old Testament, they were still commanded by their own desires -- desires which remained unknown to them.
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Books added this week view all. Uncle Wiggily's Story Book. He truly admires her achievements at Scutari, the progress made by nursing under her supervision. Naturally once the word is pronounced, Strachey spares no effort to show how inadequate it is, but at least, even if the portrait ends on a supremely ironical note, there are paragraphs which truly honour her work.
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He laid bare the ineptitude and the faithlessness of the English Government. He poured out his satire upon officials and diplomatists.
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He drew caricatures, in the margin, of Sir Evelyn Baring, with sentences of shocked pomposity coming out of his mouth. He was the victim of hypocrites and humbugs. Strachey , — He does not observe his Eminent Victorians with as much detachment maybe as he observed the age itself but that is because as human beings they are more interesting than their age. Strachey did not just challenge the ethos of 19th-century biography prudery, reticence and restraint or the cult of the hero in the Carlylean sense of the word, he also questioned the form of biography.
Brevity was naturally compounded with omissions and on this ground, Strachey was highly criticized. He was reproached with no less than lies and distortion of historical facts.
Eminent Victorians : Lytton Strachey :
His probity as a historian and the care with which he researched his subjects were contested, this was one of the most scandalous aspects of his biographies. The Preface was a real provocation to historians:. The History of the Victorian Age will never be written: we know too much about it. For ignorance is the first requisite of the historian—ignorance which simplifies and clarifies, which selects and omits, with a placid perfection unattainable by the highest art. Uninterpreted truth is as useless as buried gold, and art is the great interpreter. It alone can unify a vast multitude of facts into a significant whole, clarifying, accentuating, suppressing and lighting up the dark places of the imagination.
Halperin His very personal approach to his subject assured the destruction of pure historiography It is precisely because his texts are excessive, sometimes not historically accurate but more likely psychologically accurate that they were outrageous to his detractors. Truth was an ethic as well as an aesthetic prerequisite, but this meant that he judged his characters from the standpoint of a man of letters, not that of a historian. That is also the reason why they are still fun to read. His exaggerations conveyed by an incisive style, his outrageous treatment of history and of his characters ensured their fame more surely than their historical accuracy.
A little fiction mixed with fact can be made to transmit personality very effectively. And Strachey although he never wrote fiction in the form of novels, used all the artifices of literary writing in his biographies. Style in indeed as necessary to biography as to any other form of fictional discourse. Metaphor was therefore a crucial weapon in his fight against those two fat volumes of Victorian biographies.
We have already seen how numerous and outrageous animal metaphors could be. The language of battle is present from the Preface to the end of the book: it inscribes violence at the core of the text, therefore constantly bringing our attention to those things most outrageous to Strachey namely war and imperialism. In metaphor, Strachey combines richness of meaning and brevity of style. Besides the divisions in such Victorian Institutions as the church, public health, education and the military that Strachey confronts are resolved in the text thanks to the unifying effect of metaphors.
They operate stylistically to unite the public and the private, the masculine and the feminine, the sacred and the profane. It pervades the text from the title to the last paragraph. It is used both at the expense of the characters themselves to emphasise their lack of insight and to belittle them. It criticises the imperfect ideas and theories of mankind, not by substituting for them other ideas and other theories less imperfect, but by placing the facts of life, in mute comment, alongside the theories. In Eminent Victorians , irony is verbal, situational, as much as dramatic and Strachey does not spare anyone.
It allies itself off and on to humour, wit and very occasionally to sarcasm. It remains that he showed that outrage and subtlety are after all compatible and if his demonstration lacks art, his merit as a pioneer remains: outrage and art may well be inimical but Eminent Victorians is a flamboyant proof that they are necessary to each other. Cockshut , A. Dorothy George, M. Knoepflmacher , U. Scott-James, R. Srinivasa Iyengar , K. Leonard Woolf, London: Hogarth, , — The exhibitions rocked the London art establishment and had a great impact on the work of young British artists, including those of the Bloomsbury circle.
Strachey was more interested in the effect produced by Post-Impressionists than in the pictures themselves and deplored the negation of all literary appeal, the esthetic torturing of the human figure to achieve ideological significance. But he was fascinated by the ripples of irritation among the spectators. As he suffered from piles, he theatrically inflated his air cushion before answering the questions of the military representative. In spite of spending all her life in medical concerns, she never seems to have got a scientific grasp of things.
She was a terrible woman—though powerful. And certainly a wonderful book might have been made of her, from the cynical point of view. Of course the Victorian Age is fairly reeking all over. What a crew they were! Eminent Victorians was wrongly seen as a purely iconoclastic book: it offers a more contrasted and nuanced viewpoint. The greatest irony of all is that Strachey has sometimes been said to use Victorian weapons to overthrow Victorianism.
Taddeo shows that Strachey found success by re-working a literary tradition perfected by an Eminent Victorian, Sir Leslie Stephen. What had he to look back upon? How could he have forgotten that? Was it not possible that. She is the editor of Englishness Revisited Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, , a collection of articles about the protean concept of Englishness. The Age of Outrage.