Sunday, March 1, 2020

Strachey's new biography

Lytton Strachey, a key member of the Bloomsbury Group credited with re-inventing biography, was born 140 years ago today. Though not a committed diarist he left behind various diary manuscripts, many from his youth, and one from very near the end of his life. Nor was he particularly interested in diaries as a literary form (unlike his friend Virginia Woolf). And yet, the four subjects of his most ground-breaking biographical work - Eminent Victorians - were not only diarists, but interesting diarists with something to say about their own inner lives.

Strachey was born into a large family in south London on 1 March 1880 to an army officer, Lieutenant General Sir Richard Strachey, and his second wife. He was educated at Leamington College, Liverpool University and Trinity College. At Cambridge, he met Leonard Woolf and Clive Bell who would become life-long friends, as well as George Mallory, John Maynard Keynes, and Bertrand Russell. Subsequently, he lived in London where he joined up with a group of artists, writers and intellectuals - later famously known as the Bloomsbury Group. He earned a living from literary journalism, writing many reviews for The Spectator, the New Quarterly, and The Edinburgh Review. In 1912, he published his first book, Landmarks in French Literature, which was well received critically. During the war, he applied for recognition as a conscientious objector, but was granted exemption from military service on health grounds.

Strachey’s first great success - and ultimately be his most famous achievement - was Eminent Victorians published in 1918, a collection of four short biographies of Victorian heroes. For this, he employed literary devices in a new and fresh style, complete unlike traditional biography, which brought him much attention, and financial rewards. Three years later, he produced another similar biographical work, Queen Victoria. By this time he was living mostly in Tidmarsh, Berkshire, with his artist friend Dora Carrington. Only three more books followed (with several further works published posthumously). Though Strachey had homosexual relationships with various Bloomsbury friends, details of his sexuality were not widely known, at least not until the publication of Michael Holroyd’s biography in the late 1960s - subsequently updated to Lytton Strachey - The New Biography - see Googlebooks. Strachey died in 1932. Further biographical information is available online at Wikipedia, Spartacus Educational, or Encyclopaedia Britannica,

Fragments of various diaries kept by Strachey were edited by Holroyd and published by Heinemann in 1971 as Lytton Strachey by Himself: A self-portrait. Some pages from the book can be previewed at Googlebooks. According to Holroyd, Strachey was only an intermittent keeper of diaries, and ‘by today’s standards’, he wrote, ‘none of them are sensational’. Most of the diary material dates to Strachey’s childhood and youth, however, the last chapter contains a two-week diary he kept in France a few months before his death. 

Here are several extracts from Strachey’s diaries as edited by Holroyd.

31 July 1890
‘Mama, Pernie, Marjorie Jembeau and I went to the kitchen garden and had three strawberrys each. Directly after dinner Uncle Bartle and Aunt Ethel went away. In the morning Pat and I rode on the pony. In the afternoon Mama and I went to Loch An Eilan we were caught in a shower and had to go in to Mrs Grant. As we were going back we went into Mrs Mitchel. After that we met all the others and Marjorie went back with us we called on the Miss Martineaus and went round their garden then we had cricket with the Fosters.’

7 August 1890
‘We played at Rober Band. In the afternoon we all went to the station in the carriage and Oliver and I bought whistles. We met Maggie there who walked back with Pernie we meet Nurse and Jembeau, who came back with us. Maggie and Naomi came and Uncle Charlie photographed us.’

23 December 1892
‘Shortly after Mama had left, as Dorothy and I were walking on the deck, we heard yells from the shore; we went to see what was the matter and found that it was a female in apparent histerics. Soon after we saw her boxes being taken off the ship. A little time after we had started there was rather a comotion on board, as the ship was blocked on all sides and could not pass. At last however we managed to get through all right into the lock - we soon were out speeding towards the Channel. We had dinner at half past six and sat at a side table. I sat at the corner nearest the port and Dorothy next me (on my right), next her sat a young man called Parry. At the end of the table was a young man called d’Alton he went in for being funny, he is very short and small, dark, with a very curly moustachio which he twirled with pride, he sings and plays well. Parry told Dodo all his private history, viz: that his parents had died and that he and his brother thought this was a good opportunity of taking a two years trip round the world. It was bitterly cold all day and we all huddled round the fire, one gent told anecdotes to pass away the time. Dodo wrote a letter to Mama and then we both went to bed, as we were going there 1 felt as if we were in the channel - which we were!’

4 January 1893
‘Uncle Charlie got a pass to go up the rock. They are very particular as to who you take, so we thought we would have to invent a story as Meadows was coming too. Uncle Charlie said it ought to be Pat & I the two sons and Dodo & Meadows our wives! At about three we started it was a lovely day and very hot. After we had gone a little way the path was blocked by barbed wire. And it was with great difficulty that the fair sex got over it. This difficulty once got over, we continued our journey satisfactorily it was very hot work getting up but at last we reached the summit I picked some narcissus on the way, it was lovely. There is a little house in the Signal Station, it is not the highest point on the Rocks. Ropes go down from the Signal Station into the town and up these by means of machinery come baskets with orders and provisions and sometimes soldiers! Once it got stuck with a soldier inside and they had to send up oil to him to oil the wheels! And at last he got down all right! A beautiful view from the Signal Station of both sides of the rock. On the Mediterranean side there is a little fishing village that looks very nice. It is a steep precipice down to the shore. One can also see the neutral ground and the queen of Spain’s Chair (a mountain where the queen of Spain reviewed the siege and said she wouldn’t leave it till Gibraltar fell). There was an excellent telescope up there it was simply splendid and you could see their dogs in a Spanish Town several miles away! We trudged back and Dodo got tired of going down hill! At last we reached the bottom and got into a cab and drove home. I enjoyed myself very much but was tired.’

1 February 1893
‘We got up at half past six, as we were supposed to arrive at Malta early in the morning. It was visible when we first came on deck and 1 could just see Valette with my spectacles. At about 8 a.m. we entered the harbour. And passed two men-of-war (turret ships) Malta looked handsome from the sea, but still I think I’d rather (be] in Gib as they say Malta is not so nice inside. Presently crowds of little boats made their appearance and swarmed round the ship’s side. The boats are called dissas, I don’t know how spelt but pronounced like that. We did not go on shore it was delicious on deck with the sun pouring down on us. At 11.30 we started, our band played marches etc., and was answered by the band in one of the men of war, then we played Auld Lang Syne and finished up with Blue Bonnets over the Border as we steamed away from Malta. It really was delightful to see the hankerchiefs waving, to feel the sun blazing, and to hear the band playing. There was a slight swell after dinner which got worse towards tea time. Felt rather ill at tea went to sleep on deck afterwards, woke up feeling rather cold, Uncle Charlie got my coat and rapped me up with Pat in a shawl, who was feeling rather bad, he could not come down to dinner as he felt too ill. Came up on deck after dinner, feeling all right. Pat had recovered also.’

14 September 1831
‘Paris. Hotel Foyot. Yes, here I am back again - this time at Foyot’s once more, as I felt I could hardly stand being on the other side of the river. It was sad leaving Nancy, which was at its brightest and best at midday when I departed. Farewell! Farewell! - To the spacious Place and all the gilding - to the arches - to the Pépinière. Farewell to the Grand - under whose roof, I discovered Marie Antoinette lodged on her way from Vienna to Paris to marry the Dauphin - Farewell to the Cafe Stanislas, and its low square room, so bright and so full of business-like hospitality, with Madame enthroned aloft, as severe and dominating as Ibsen. And farewell to the Cafe of the Trio, screeching still no doubt at this very moment, while the Italianate garçon expatiates forever upon his irremediably dilapidated loves. It is cold here, though not altogether sunless. I’ve been all over the place buying tickets and trying feebly to rescue my lost shirts from the Berkeley. Dinner here - a good plain one. The waiters as ever. I suppose, by dint of keeping the windows tightly shut, I shall sleep in this noisy blue room. It seems rather absurd to be sitting at 10 o’clock, alone, with nothing but a solitary bed before me, in the middle of this frantic town. But I simply don’t know where I could go or what I could do. I don’t understand Montparnasse. I’ve no idea how or in what direction I could be improper. No! Solitude and sleep! That’s all I’m fit for at the moment. Farewell, Nancy, farewell!’

By way of a postscript, here are a few paragraphs I wrote about Strachey and his re-invention of biography for my essay The Role of Diaries in the Development of Literary Biography (published in A Companion to Literary Biography, Wiley, 2018)

‘While the art of literary biography had been languishing through the nineteenth century, the art of keeping a diary, I would suggest, had risen to great heights: writers and other artists had been experimenting with, and had expanded the boundaries of, life writing as far as it might go in revealing the self. There are two separate drivers of why this increasingly bountiful supply of diaries might have eventually contributed to a regeneration of biography itself: first, it began to provide writers with significant and important source material that could open up the inner lives of their subjects as had rarely been possible before; and, second, if the subject’s own work was already offering fruitful self-analysis, then the biographer was being challenged to offer something new, different on the ‘life.’

Considering the contrast between what information individuals were beginning to reveal about themselves in diaries, and what biographers were managing in their tomes, it is no wonder that Lytton Strachey (1918), in his ground-breaking Eminent Victorians, was able to claim: “The art of biography seems to have fallen on evil times in England.”

There is no evidence in Holroyd’s biography that [Strachey] was especially interested in diaries as a literary form, or as an important catalyst or source for Eminent Victorians. Nevertheless, all four of his subjects [in that book] kept diaries at some point in their lives, and, more importantly, all the diaries appear to have been written with elements of this developing trend toward revealing the inner life. Of Cardinal Henry Edward Manning, Strachey writes: “He kept a diary, in which he recorded his delinquencies, and they were many.” With illness his diary grew more elaborate than ever, Strachey says, and he returns to the diary, occasionally to dip into, what he calls, his secret thoughts. Arthur Ponsonby, a few years later, would rate Manning’s diaries highly, concluding that they show him “to be an ordinary human being, struggling sometimes successfully and sometimes unsuccessfully with the temptations and weaknesses which all flesh is heir to.” Strachey’s next subject, Florence Nightingale, took out her diary, we are told, and “poured into it the agitations of her soul”; and of Thomas Arnold we learn his diary was “a private memorandum of his intimate communing with the Almighty.” Although Strachey himself barely refers to the diaries of General Gordon, his fourth subject, they were certainly available to him - and the editor of Gordon’s diaries (Hake 1885) notes how “each succeeding page brings you to a closer intimacy.”

Eminent Victorians was widely praised for its wit and irreverence (Bernard Russell, laughing out loud in his prison cell, “devoured it with great delight” calling it “brilliant, delicious, exquisitely civilised”, Griffin 2001), and for energetically deflating Victorian pretensions. I would argue, thus, that both ‘drivers’ mentioned above underpinned Strachey’s achievement. First, the intimate self-knowledge revealed in his subjects’ diaries may well have provided the ammunition to shoot them down. And, second, the novelty of keeping the biographies short, and elucidating “certain fragments of the truth which took my fancy and lay to my hand” - i.e. with wit and irreverence - demonstrates the impulse to novelty.’

No comments: