Lytton Strachey

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Vanessa Bell, "Lytton Strachey" (1911). London, Anthony d'Offay Gallery (available through Yale University's Digital Resources Collection).
by Sam Alexander

Lytton Strachey (1880-1932) was a historian, literary critic, and Bloomsbury wit whose ironic prose style and sense of rupture with the Victorian past helped to define English literary modernism.

Giles Lytton Strachey was born on March 1, 1880, at Stowey House, Clapham Common, to General Richard Strachey, a former colonial administrator who had spent much of his life in India, and his wife Jane, a passionate woman whose love of conversation and knowledge of French literature were important influences on the young Lytton. In 1884, the family moved to 69 Lancaster Gate, in Central London, where they lived for much of Strachey’s childhood. The conversation at Lancaster Gate was famously lively and intelligent, but Strachey found the atmosphere oppressive. He later remembered life there as a combination of the bourgeois Victorian world of his parents, the decaying “aristocratic tradition” of their ancestors, and the “intellectualism and eccentricity” that formed a unique part of the “Strachey character.”[1]

Lady Strachey directed Lytton’s unconventional education, which included four years at Parkstone School (1889-1893) and two at Leamington (1894-1896), a semi-public school where he remembered being bullied for his spindly physique and experiencing homosexual desire for the first time.[2] In 1897, Strachey entered Liverpool University College, where Sir Walter Raleigh (the husband of one of his cousins) was the King Alfred Professor of English Literature. Finally, from 1899 to 1905 he attended Trinity College at Cambridge, where he met future Bloomsburians Clive Bell, E.M. Forster, Thoby Stephen, and Leonard Woolf. In 1902, he was elected to the Apostles, the secret Cambridge Conversazione Society through which he met G.E. Moore and Bertrand Russell. With Moore’s emphasis on aesthetic experience and personal relations as intellectual support, Strachey promoted the homosexuality that thrived among the Apostles as part of a subversive personal creed.

In the five years after leaving Cambridge, Strachey lived with his family, first at Lancaster Gate, then at their new home in Hampstead. It was in this period that he grew close to Virginia Stephen (later Virginia Woolf) and her sister Vanessa, proving a valuable support for the family after the death of their brother Thoby. In 1908, Strachey even proposed to Virginia, who would later portray him as St. John Hirst in The Voyage Out (1915). She declined the offer, and it was a relieved Strachey who suggested that she marry Leonard Woolf.[3] In 1910, Strachey was commissioned to write Landmarks in French Literature (1912), a clear and concise introduction to French literary history. It was also in this year that he met Henry Lamb (the object of one of Strachey’s frequent infatuations) and Lady Ottoline Morrell, the patroness of D.H. Lawrence and many other modernist writers. Lamb and Morrell introduced him to a bohemian world beyond Bloomsbury.[4]

World War I began soon after Strachey’s return from a tour of France and Italy, and his resistance to the war effort is legendary. Although he expressed it in characteristically flamboyant terms (according to one story he said, “I am the civilization for which you are fighting”), Strachey was actually quite serious in his opposition.[5] Before he was judged medically unfit for military service, he applied for an exemption on the basis of his belief “that the whole system by which it is sought to settle international disputes by force is profoundly evil; and that, so far as I am concerned, I should be doing wrong to take any active part in it.”[6]

The war was an important influence on Eminent Victorians (1918), the work for which Strachey is best known. The book presents brief life histories of four Victorian icons: Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale, Dr. Thomas Arnold, and General Gordon. Strachey had been impressed by the “strange power of ridicule” that he found in the prose of Dostoevesky, and in Eminent Victorians his tone is mischievously satirical as he exposes the generational hypocrisies that he felt had led to the war.[7] Chief among these, for Strachey, is the pious Christianity shared by all four of his subjects, and the book has been read (by Freud, among others) as an extended argument against religion.[8] The book conveyed the sense of a necessary rupture with the past that was shared by Strachey’s modernist friends and contemporaries.

The masterful narrative techniques used in Eminent Victorians, which include striking metaphors, inverted clichés, experimentation with free indirect discourse and deft management of minor characters, make it a literary as much as a historical classic. In his Preface, Strachey echoes the modernist assumption that the author can present character only in fragmentary form, and he expresses this idea in a metaphor that recalls Joseph Conrad’s Marlow novels with their attention to chiaroscuro: “If he is wise, [the biographer] will attack his subject in unexpected places … he will shoot a sudden, revealing searchlight into obscure recesses, hitherto undivined.”[9] This understanding of the biographer as an imaginative interpreter casts doubt on Strachey’s more orthodox statement on the next page that “it is his business to lay bare the facts of the case."[10] Taken together, the statements almost seem designed to provoke a reaction like Marlow’s as he describes the trial of Lord Jim: “Facts! They demanded facts from him, as if facts could explain anything!”[11]

Strachey’s second biographical work, Queen Victoria (1921) is a more traditional Life, though still playfully ironic at points. In Elizabeth and Essex (1928), he dramatizes the life of a subject from an earlier historical period, using his prodigious imagination to compensate for the comparative lack of information about Elizabeth. Strachey's exploration of Elizabeth's love affairs, which has been read through the prism of his own sex life, also shows Freud’s influence on his understanding of sexuality (his brother James was the general editor for the still definitive Standard Edition of Freud’s works).[12] Strachey also leaves behind a collection of biographical essays entitled Portraits in Miniature (1931) and many critical essays on literature, some of which (including a long, unfinished article on Othello written near the end of his life) are collected in the posthumous Characters and Commentaries published by James Strachey in 1933.

Strachey’s personal life was characterized by the same irreverence and unconventionality that mark his prose. In 1917, he moved into a house at Tidmarsh with the painter Dora Carrington. A year later, he met and fell in love with Ralph Partridge, a distinguished veteran of the war, and Partridge married Carrington in 1921 in order to maintain the love triangle with Strachey. Strachey's peculiar relationship with Carrington lasted (with many mutually excused infidelities) for the rest of their lives, and has become familiar to a broader audience through Michael Holroyd’s biography of Strachey and Christopher Hampton’s 1995 film, Carrington. The long-awaited publication of Strachey’s letters in 2005 also brought to light the sexual relationship with Roger Senhouse that occupied his final years. Strachey and Senhouse carried out a number of experiments with sado-masochism, including the bizarre mock-crucifixion described in one of Strachey's letters. This revelation corrected the traditional view that Strachey’s sex life was confined largely to the realm of fantasy.[13]

Strachey died of stomach cancer on January 21, 1932. While his work has not received the attention devoted to the literary figures of his generation, it remains essential for modernist criticism. Two recent monographs point to a possible revival of interest in Strachey,[14] and more are needed to illuminate this historian who was able to distill in his writings the essence of literary modernism.

  1. Lytton Strachey by Himself : A Self-Portrait, ed. Michael Holroyd (London: Vintage, 1994), p. 25.
  2. Ibid., p. 83.
  3. Michael Holroyd, Lytton Strachey: A Critical Biography (London: Chatto and Windus, 1994), pp. 199-200.
  4. Lytton Strachey by Himself, p. 121.
  5. Pericles Lewis, The Cambridge Introduction to Modernism (Cambridge UP, 2007), p. 113. Lewis quotes from Samuel Hynes’s A War Imagined.
  6. Lytton Strachey by Himself, p. 138.
  7. For more on the influence of Dostoevsky, see Paul Levy’s introduction to Eminent Victorians: the Definitive Edition (New York: Continuum, 2002), p. xxix.
  8. Holroyd, Lytton Strachey, p. 405.
  9. Strachey, Eminent Victorians (Continuum, 2002), p. 3.
  10. Ibid., p. 4. Perry Meisel discusses this discrepancy in his Myth of the Modern (New Haven: Yale UP, 1987), pp. 192-199.
  11. Conrad, Lord Jim (London: Penguin Books, 1989), p. 63.
  12. Freud wrote to Strachey, "As a historian ... you show that you are steeped in the spirit of psychoanalysis" (Holroyd, Lytton Strachey, p. 615).
  13. The Letters of Lytton Strachey, ed. Paul Levy (London: Viking Press, 2005). Selections from the correspondence are available online from the London Telegraph:
  14. Barry Spurr, Literary-Critical Analysis of the Complete Prose Works of Lytton Strachey (Lewiston, NY : E. Mellen Press, 1995) and Zsuzsa Rawlinson, The Sphinx of Bloomsbury: the Literary Essays and Biographies of Lytton Strachey (Budapest : Akademiai Kiado, 2006).
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