Giles Lytton Strachey

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Giles Lytton Strachey

Giles Lytton Strachey (1880-1932) was an English biographer and critic known for his satire of the Victorian Era.

Lytton Strachey was born in London on March 1, 1880. He was the eleventh of thirteen children of an upper-middle-class family. His father, Sir Richard Strachey, was a colonial Indian civil servant and civil engineer and a British army general; he was a typical Victorian explorer/ scientist. Sir Richard's second wife, Lytton's mother, was the daughter of Sir J. P. Grant of Rothiemurchus and was keen on French literature; she influenced Lytton's precocious literary talent. Even though Lytton's family members on both sides were well-connected and prosperous, the large parental home in unfashionable Bayswater was "suffocating" to him. He was a spoiled child, of frail health, and always withdrawn. Even so, he had an iron will and sat in cultural judgment of the world his parents inhabited: the Victorian era.

For primary education Strachey went to uncongenial upper-class boarding schools in Derbyshire and to Leamington College. He left the "petticoat world of Victorian schoolrooms" for Liverpool University in 1897, where Professor Walter Raleigh, his tutor in history and literature, was the main object of Lytton's hero worship. He began a new six-year phase of his life at Cambridge: the world suddenly opened up in 1899.

It was at Trinity College, and later at King's College, that he met most of his intellectual friends, among them the philosopher G. E. Moore (1873-1958), the economist John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946), the novelist E. M. Forster (1879-1970), the critic and publisher Leonard Woolf (1880-1969), and the art critic Clive Bell (1881-1964). As Cambridge undergraduates they were privileged to join a society called "The Apostles", an elite, exotic group devoted to the arts and an ambivalent way of life in which traditional wisdom and customary middle-class morals were discarded, especially where sex was concerned. The Apostles were personally affected by the philosophy of G. E. Moore. Lytton Strachey saw in Moore's doctrines the importance of aesthetic experience and the gospel of personal friendship. These were the attributes of the "good life." But "friendship" meant, for Strachey, homosexual love. He turned a blind eye to Moore's inherent puritanism. Strachey and Maynard Keynes were often furiously in love with the same male students, and often Keynes won the upper hand.

After partly failing in Cambridge (with a second-class degree and no fellowship at Trinity), Strachey went to London to endure 13 years of penny-pinching frustration as a weekly reviewer for the Spectator, edited by his pedigreed cousin. He fell in with the Bloomsbury Group, the same sort of society in London as the Cambridge Apostles (their leading members were the same). One of the leading "Bloomsberries" was the "stream of consciousness" novelist Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), the sister of Vanessa Bell. Lytton had previously proposed marriage to Virginia (which he did not mean), but she had turned him down. Of all the Bloomsberries, Strachey took precedence (for instance, the Bloomsbury Group began to decline after his own death in 1932).

In 1912 Strachey published his first book, on French literary history, Landmarks in French Literature, designed to awaken English readers to the charms of Racine and French classics. Two years later, World War I broke out. The war was a direct challenge, as Lytton saw it, to Bloomsbury pacifist principles. He managed to be a "conscientious objector" to the war. To the standard question; "If a German soldier tried to rape your sister, what would you do?" Strachey slyly replied; "I would try to interpose my own body." The war was of no consequence to Lytton's endless "partying" in country houses, nor to his writing schedule. He published his major book, Eminent Victorians, in 1918.

"Eminent" in the book's title was satirical. The themes, common to the four biographical sketches of the volume, were the sacred icons of Victorian sentiment: patriotic fervor and Christian messianic zeal, the ideal of the "public" school, and humanitarianism, as opposed to what Strachey thought were the perils of upper-class education, self-interested do-goodism, and, above all, the sins of Victorian imperialism. The four objects of Strachey's satire were Cardinal H. E. Manning, formerly a prominent Anglican member of the Oxford Movement, converted to Catholicism in 1851; Florence Nightingale, the "Lady with the Lamp," a founder of nursing and active with the wounded in the Crimean War; Thomas Arnold of Rugby School; and General C. G. "Chinese" Gordon, the pious hero killed by Mahdi raiders in the siege of Khartoum in 1885.

Strachey's book of polemical essays caused a popular sensation. Almost instantly the postwar era plunged into "anti-Victorianism." The war-weary generation wanted to hear this wholesale assault on past idols. But in his next book, Queen Victoria (1921), Strachey was seduced by his subject. "Mordant irony" was replaced by grudging respect for the queen, even though Strachey felt himself amused by her antics. Seven years later he produced Elizabeth and Essex (1928), a book full of vulgarized Freudianism that tampered with actual Tudor history. Strachey was not a historical revisionist; for that he would have to have been a scholar. He was rather an artist with words.

His biographical creed was to paint a picture of the person from the author's viewpoint—never mind the scholarly inhibitions, never mind the search to find "the truth" of any human situation so far as is possible. He had a "laughing admiration" for the satirists of the 18th century, like Voltaire (1694-1778). He saw religion as Voltaire saw it, as a "ludicrous anachronism." Careers in public service were mainly full of political intrigue. But human relationships were the nexus of life itself. Strachey eschewed the standard "two fat volumes" of Victorian biographies (he saw these tomes as "hagiographies": treatment of the illustrious dead). He favored for himself brief biographies, the art of which rested on the subject's motive and personality as he saw it.

Strachey was fairly tall and excessively thin, with a disguising rust beard and a shrill voice. He wore bookworm spectacles. He had an air of sick, melancholic sadness; he sagged. With true friends he was quick of mind, caustic, and conspicuously, bitingly witty. In addition, he was overtly, ardently homosexual. The conspiracy of public silence by which the Apostles, Bloomsbury Group, and other circles in England kept hidden from the world their sexual proclivities is yet to be studied. Strachey's painstaking biographer, Michael Holroyd, revealed the Strachey letters, laying it all out in two volumes in 1967 and 1968 ("two fat volumes," as Strachey would have said). The Bloomsberries would "jump from sex to sex in making love."

The decline of Strachey's reputation came soon after his death. The humbug of the "eminent" Victorians was an easy target for Strachey to satirize, but it led critics to accuse him of caricature. It is hard for the satirist not to treat the world and its problems as pure comedy. There was an element of theater, of almost pantomime, in Strachey's treatment of the Victorians. One critic in 1931 isolated one word, "preposterous," which Strachey used over and over again, about his stick-figure characters. Leonard Woolf (1960) was on target, when he described the critic as "a strange character."

Irony is one thing; but it conceals too much from the author himself. Strachey was one of the literary influences that partly destroyed the ghost of the Victorian era in the 1920s.

Strachey died of cancer on January 21, 1932, surrounded by his friends, at Ham Spray House, Hungerford. Carrington committed suicide immediately after his death.

Further Reading

As mentioned in the text, the definitive biography of Strachey is Michael Holroyd, Lytton Strachey: A Critical Biography (2 vols., 1967, 1968). Authors who discuss Strachey in magazines include Edwin Muir, Nation and Athenaeum (April 25, 1925); John Raymond, New Statesman and Nation (April 16, 1955); Scott James, BC/Longmans (1955); Gertrude Himmelfarb, New Republic (May 28, 1968); and Noel Annan, New York Review of Books (June 6, 1968). See also David Cecil, DNB, (Dictionary of National Biography; London, 1931-1940). An interesting account of Strachey and other members of the Bloomsbury group is provided by John Keith Johnstone, in The Bloomsbury Group; a study of E.M. Forster, Lytton Strachey, Virginia Woolf, and Their Circle (Noonday Press, 1954). □

Strachey, Lytton

views updated May 18 2018


STRACHEY, LYTTON (1880–1932), English writer, member of the Bloomsbury Group.

Giles Lytton Strachey was the eleventh of thirteen children born to Sir Richard Strachey, engineer and Indian colonial servant, and Jane Grant, essayist and suffragist. Lytton Strachey was named after his godfather, the first earl of Lytton, viceroy of India. The large discrepancy in his parents' ages (thirty years) resulted in Lytton being much closer to his mother than his father. Lady Strachey also inspired Lytton's early interest in literature. Diagnosed a neurasthenic as a teen, Strachey suffered from poor health his entire life, yet managed to have a prolific career as a writer. He was schooled at Leamington College, Liverpool University College, and Trinity College, Cambridge. Strachey's intelligence, lanky frame, and high-pitched voice attracted the attention of his peers at Cambridge who elected him to the secret society of Apostles in 1902, joining classmates John Maynard Keynes and Leonard Woolf. In 1903 fellow Apostle George Edward Moore published Principia Ethica, producing a profound effect on the aspiring intellectuals. Principia identified love and friendship as "the highest of human goods" and became a rationalizing factor in loosening the repression of homosexual tendencies among the Apostles. A teenager at the time of Oscar Wilde's trials for homosexuality, the young Strachey had struggled with what he called his "unnatural" desires, but at Cambridge he experienced a liberating moment in his sexual development. Surrounded by those he regarded as fellow "Greek souls," Strachey became a vocal advocate of the physical and spiritual superiority of all-male love.

In 1905 Strachey completed his work at Cambridge with a thesis on the English colonial administrator Warren Hastings (1732–1818) but failed to receive a Trinity fellowship. He returned to his parents' home in Lancaster Gate and supported himself as a journalist—contributing book and drama reviews to The Spectator magazine, the Nation, and the Athenaeum—and published two collections of verse and an important work of literary criticism, Landmarks in French Literature (1912). He also spent his Thursday evenings in the decade before World War I at the Gordon Square home of Virginia and Vanessa Stephen. They joined such other members of what became known as the Bloomsbury Group as Keynes, Clive Bell, Roger Fry, and Leonard Woolf for drinks and conversations about philosophy, art, religion, and politics. Strachey first broached the taboo subject of sex by pointing at a stain on Vanessa's dress and asking, "Semen?" Years later, Virginia Woolf reminisced that Strachey, as the leader of the "Bloomsberries," tore down the barriers of sexual reticence that had plagued their parents' generation. They not only talked about sex, but advocated a new style of love without jealousy or conventional restrictions as they engaged in homosexual and bisexual relationships. The group expanded in number, and by the 1920s the fame of its individual members as writers, artists, and intellectuals sealed its reputation as a cultural circle.

During World War I, Strachey was a conscientious objector, but his impact on the larger public would be felt most strongly in 1918 with the publication of his best-selling work, Eminent Victorians. Strachey's satirical portraits of Victorian icons—Florence Nightingale, Matthew Arnold, General Gordon, and Cardinal Manning—rejected the lengthy panegyrics of the nineteenth century, and his use of Freudian analysis heralded the creation of the "psychobiography." His following works included Queen Victoria (1921), which was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, Elizabeth and Essex (1928), and Portraits in Miniature (1931).

On the surface, Strachey appeared defiant of convention, but in his diary he wrote repeatedly of his loneliness and unhappiness with his looks. Although unsuccessful in forming lasting attachments with other men (his lovers included his cousin, the artist Duncan Grant, and Colette's translator, Roger Senhouse), he did inspire lifelong devotion from one person. In 1915 Strachey met the young art student Dora Carrington and, despite her subsequent marriage to Ralph Partridge and Strachey's love affairs, the couple shared a home for the next seventeen years. After his death in 1932 from cancer, Carrington committed suicide, noting in her diary that she was unable to live without Strachey.

Although heralded in 1918 as a revolutionary biographer, Strachey temporarily faded into obscurity in the years following his death, and his work, along with that of the other "Bloomsberries," was attacked by Cambridge critics I. A. Richards (1893–1979) and F. R. Leavis (1895–1978) as elitist and apolitical. Bloomsbury itself became a widely used term connoting an insular, snobbish aestheticism. Strachey also endured intense criticism while still alive from contemporaries like Rupert Brooke and D. H. Lawrence, who regarded his homosexuality as a corrupting influence among the younger generations at Cambridge. His sexuality, more than his writings, has continued to be a topic of scholarly debate. Feminist scholars rediscovered Bloomsbury in the 1960s and especially applauded Strachey and Virginia Woolf as advocates of androgyny and sexual freedom. Some scholars, however, have questioned Strachey's feminist sympathies and have portrayed his relationship with Dora Carrington as that of patriarch and household drudge. Michael Holroyd's two-volume biography of Strachey in 1968 (revised in 1995) offers a complex picture of a literary and sexual rebel still struggling with Victorian mores and legal codes as well as his own insecurities. Since the 1990s Queer theorists have championed Strachey—with his effeminate style of dress, high voice, and penchant for Wildean satire—as a camp artist. Although Strachey once joked that politics were as exciting as a game of bridge, he supported his mother's and sisters' efforts for women's suffrage, protested World War I, and opposed censorship. He did prefer, however, what he called the "subtle attack" to undermine Victorian strictures on religious, artistic, social, and sexual matters. The term Stracheyesque continues to evoke a particular style of writing and behavior that is transgressive, ironic, and always amusing.

See alsoHomosexuality and Lesbianism; Wilde, Oscar.


Holroyd, Michael. Lytton Strachey: A Critical Biography. 2 vols. London, 1967–1968. Rev. ed., 1 vol., 1995.

Holroyd, Michael, ed. Lytton Strachey by Himself: A Self-Portrait. London, 1971.

Rosenbaum, S. P., ed. The Bloomsbury Group: A Collection of Memoirs, Commentary, and Criticism. Toronto, 1975.

Taddeo, Julie Anne. Lytton Strachey and the Search for Modern Sexual Identity: The Last Eminent Victorian. New York, 2002.

Julie Anne Taddeo

Strachey, (Giles) Lytton

views updated Jun 08 2018

Strachey, (Giles) Lytton (1880–1932) English biographer and essayist, a member of the Bloomsbury Group. His works include Eminent Victorians (1918), Queen Victoria (1921), and Elizabeth and Essex (1928). He is often credited with adding the psychological dimension to modern biography.

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