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The Age of Outrage
Aesthetics of Outrage

Eminent Victorians: Outrageous Strachey? The Indecent Exposure of Victorian Characters and Mores

« Strachey et ses Éminents victoriens : un outrage aux mœurs, aux héros et à la biographie d’une époque ? »
Floriane Reviron-Piégay


Eminent Victorians, publié en 1918, eut l’effet d’une bombe sur la scène littéraire et intellectuelle, faisant éclater les certitudes et la morale victoriennes. Ce fut un succès instantané auprès de la jeune génération naturellement portée à la rébellion contre des précurseurs honnis.
À travers quatre figures emblématiques de l’époque, Strachey visait non seulement les valeurs victoriennes mais aussi la conception victorienne du héros et en particulier celle du héros biographique. Eminent Victorians fut pour lui le moyen d’exprimer sa propension naturelle à l’outrage et à l’excès, tout en dénonçant ceux de ses prédécesseurs, paradoxe qui informe toute l’œuvre, partagée entre iconoclasme et révérence, caricature et acuité psychologique, dégoût et admiration. La relation de Strachey avec les Victoriens est infiniment plus nuancée et subtile qu’il n’y paraît. Cette ambivalence est présente dès la préface programmatique qui permet à Strachey de mettre en place une stratégie toute militaire pour révolutionner la biographie littéraire. Ainsi loin d’être une simple entreprise de démolition, Eminent Victorians posa les fondations à la fois théoriques et pratiques d’une approche nouvelle de la biographie comme genre hybride, entre faits et fiction, histoire et littérature, transgressant toutes les limites du genre comme de la décence pour l’époque ce qui la définit comme œuvre de l’outrage par excellence.

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1The publication of Eminent Victorians on the 9th of May 1918 brought Lytton Strachey the fame he expected, welcomed as it was with almost universal praise and raising just the necessary amount of scandal for the book to be an instant success: ‘Eminent Victorians burst like a bomb-shell on English letters: Lytton Strachey awoke and found himself famous’ (Srinivasa Iyengar 52). Srinivasa Iyengar’s formula is an apt summary of the immediate effect of the book on its writer and on the literary scene. Outrage is a very unstable concept, a highly subjective one also because it depends on social representations, cultural and historical factors and on the existence of a legal frame (Beaumatin 123). What scandalises one person will not necessarily move another one. It is either an act or a speech act but anyway an instinctive reaction of violence in the face of decisions or facts which seem unbearable to the outraged. In this particular case, if ‘to outrage’ means to go beyond bonds, to act extravagantly or without self-restraint, to commit excesses, one sees clearly how it may apply both to Strachey’s essays and to the Victorians themselves, therefore introducing a paradoxical mirror-effect between the two. Strachey’s essays themselves were outrageous in that they went beyond the limits imposed by Victorian decency, restraint and decorum. They violently shook the pedestals on which these eminent Victorians had been put, Strachey’s book was considered as no less than a crime of lèse-majesté by some critics. But his essays were written as an outraged reaction to the Victorians’ outrageousness, that is, their own propensity to excess regarding certain values. Not only was Strachey himself naturally inclined to outrage, rebellion against norms and conventions, but he was borne on a current of rebellion which animated the whole war generation of young artists, and notably the Bloomsbury Group. We shall see that the period was indeed conducive to doing away with outdated values, constraints and formal modes of representation. Strachey’s choice of these four Victorians in particular was no coincidence and was consistent with his intention to revolutionise biography. Strachey’s outrage was indeed also a formal one: it was not enough to denounce the faults of an age, he also meant to reform a genre. This revolt found its expression in a refined but no less violent way; the tools used by Strachey took several guises, the mildest of which was humour, the most perfected and also the most violent being staunch irony. His Eminent Victorians radically changed the relationship between biographer and biographee just as much as it changed the link between facts and fiction, history and biography.

  • 1 Roger Fry’s two exhibitions Manet and the Post-Impressionists in 1910 and the Second Post-Impressio (...)
  • 2 Strachey was exempted on the grounds of health and conscience after a very long and straining proce (...)
  • 3 David Garnett thought that Eminent Victorians was designed to undermine the foundations on which th (...)
  • 4 Outspoken indecency was a cardinal Bloomsbury virtue. In her Memoir entitled ‘Old Bloomsbury’ Virgi (...)

2The beginning of the 20th century was an age ripe with the ferments of political, esthetic and literary revolution. In England and Europe, artists sought new ways of expressing this need and of furthering a revolution and renaissance in the arts1 (Holroyd 271). ‘In or about 1910, human character changed’ (Woolf 1966, 320): the often quoted sentence is an apt reminder that the whole of society needed change; the art and literature of the times flourished with outraged expressions against the tyranny of decorum, earnestness and decency and against the war. Strachey was a conscientious objector and took part in the campaign against conscription.2 After assessing the impact of the war on the diplomatic, social, economic and artistic situation he arrived at pacifist conclusions and preferred to campaign writing Eminent Victorians, a clear indictment of militarism and obscurantism.3 His outspoken rejection of the war went hand in hand with his hatred of prudery: he was a man of free speech, discussing sex and love freely with the Bloomsbury set4 but nevertheless aware of the restrictions his homosexuality imposed on him in society. Strachey probed the question of the relationship between the artistic and the indecent in an essay, entitled ‘Art and Indecency’, probably delivered to one of the Cambridge Societies to which he belonged, some time before 1908. In a style reminiscent of George Moore’s rhetorics in Principia Ethica, he begins his demonstration with the assertion that the prudes who regard indecency with ‘horror, detestation and anger’ have done a great deal, ‘they seem never to have recovered from the loss which they sustained on the death of Queen Victoria’ (Strachey 1972, 84). He then examines the standpoint of the ‘Naturalists’ and of the ‘Bawdy’, coming to the conclusion that neither of their position is tenable.

Indecent feelings, indecent arts, when considered in isolation, are very liable to appear in an odious light. They strike the cool observer as out of place; they are inappropriate to his surroundings; they are shocking in fact; combined with the rest of his state of mind—the state of mind of the unemotional onlooker—they form a complex whole which is unpleasant and ugly, and he therefore condemns them as bad. But place these same indecencies in another complex whole—in a work of art—in which they are fitted to their surroundings, in which they are gradually led up to and elaborated, so that the observer, no longer cool, no longer unemotional, feels, sympathises and understands—then the case is altered: the dull and horrid image of a sensualist’s imagination becomes the vital element of some radiant creation. (Strachey 1972, 88–90)

  • 5 Strachey’s fundamental duplicity and ambivalence towards the Victorian Age was to reach its apex wh (...)

3What is clearly elaborated here is as much an ethical chart as an esthetic one, reminding us of the fundamental relativity of indecency. This introduces a hiatus in Strachey’s work: the attitude based on sympathy and understanding he recommends in ‘Art and Indecency’ is in contradiction with the detachment he advocates in his Preface to Eminent Victorians and adopts when it comes to judging the Victorian Age. In this regard he was precisely a ‘cold and youthful observer’ (Strachey 1933a, 187). He repeatedly denounced the Victorian Age’s lack of humour, its ‘self-complacency’ and its ‘self-contradiction’ (Strachey 1933b, 231) and found its earnestness, seriousness, solemnity and prudery properly outrageous. Its ‘incoherence, its pretentiousness, and its incurable lack of detachment’ were revolting to him (Strachey 1933a, 187) but on closer look, it appears that he was equally attracted to this ‘odd’, ‘peculiar’ and ‘singular’ age (Srinivasa Iyengar 130), which he admitted had an ‘odd-attractiveness’ (Strachey 1933a, 187).5

4The values he despised and wished to overthrow were not just those of the Victorians, they were also those of the Victorian Biography and his indictment of the Age went together with his desire to renovate the genre of biography, ‘one of the most delicate and humane branches of the arts of writing’ (Strachey 1918, 10), one in which it is perhaps impossible to observe the cool detachment he professed in his preface to Eminent Victorians. Hence a number of paradoxes or inconsistencies in this programmatic text and in the biographical essays themselves. Blaming Victorian biographies for their ‘lack of selection, detachment and design’, he went on to say that his purpose had been to ‘examine and elucidate certain fragments of the truth which took [his] fancy and lay to [his] hand’ (Strachey 1918, 9). Selection and omission are mentioned as a necessary step in the biographical process and so is a dispassionate, impartial attitude to lay bare the facts ‘without ulterior intentions’ (Strachey 1918, 10). These contradictions and the discrepancy between Strachey’s intentions as exposed in the Preface and what he really did with the portraits show that he was aware that the practice of biography requires the gift of reconciling opposites: detachment and view point, facts and fiction, truthfulness and invention. Strachey did not just expose this inherent antagonism, he constantly tried to subsume it.

  • 6 Letter to Lady Strachey on the 15th January 1914 (he had just read Cook’s Biography of Florence Nig (...)
  • 7 In his famous preface, Strachey explained his method in terms of military strategy: ‘the biographer (...)

5The exact reasons why Strachey finally selected Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale, Dr Arnold and General Gordon are not entirely clear. The only fact that is attested to is that he did not admire them,6 and that, in itself, was a breakthrough in biography. Up to then, most biographies had either been written by grievous widows or friends, eager to pay homage to the deceased. In short, most Victorian biographers were hagiographers ‘dominated by the idea of Goodness’. ‘Noble, upright, chaste, severe; it is thus that the Victorian worthies are presented to us’ (Woolf 1967a, 231). Strachey was determined to do away with that type of biography once and for all. This new enmity between biographer and biographee demanded a new method of investigation, intimacy being given as problematical right from the start. It would be tempting to believe that Strachey’s bias against his biographees necessarily led him to caricature them and belittle them. But if Strachey’s hostility towards his subjects led him to devise his biographical approach as a military strategy,7 we shall see that in reality he was more subtle than that. One should bear in mind that outrage is ambivalent, both aiming at desecrating, insulting and shocking, as a consequence of which it also rehabilitates and restores its target’s sacredness and aura. Strachey’s biographies are an irreverent homage, a paradoxical and oxymoronic enterprise and this bears direct consequences on the characterisation of his eminent Victorians. The preface also reveals Strachey’s ambivalent attitude to his biographees. He considers them as ‘characteristic specimen[s]’ but on the other hand they should be ‘examined with careful curiosity’ and he reminds us that ‘human beings are too important to be treated as mere symptoms from the past’ (Strachey 1918, 9–10). In the end he constantly hovers between portrait and caricature.

6That some of the portraits should amount to caricatures is not surprising after all. The choice of ‘an ecclesiastic, an educational authority, a woman of action, and a man of adventure’ (Strachey 1918, 9) allowed Strachey to target the Victorian flaws he detested most. Through them he aimed at rebelling against Evangelicalism, Education, Humanitarianism and Imperialism. Each portrait starts with a cursory definition of the character, which the biography will then illustrate, the portraits of Cardinal Manning and of Dr. Arnold being the best illustrations of Strachey’s biases and of the way they reduce the portrait in scope. Dr. Arnold’s portrait is the shortest of the four, and Cardinal Manning’s, although the longest, is close to caricature. It starts thus: ‘Undoubtedly, what is most obviously striking in the history of Manning’s career is the persistent strength of his innate characteristics’ (Strachey 1918, 15). The tone is set: Strachey implies that the character of Manning did not evolve and he is therefore free to illustrate this idea that ‘the powerful spirit of the man worked on undismayed through all the changes’ (Strachey 1918, 15). It is perhaps because Manning incarnated religious earnestness, one of the values he contested most, that his portrait is so entirely unflattering. Strachey chose to draw the portrait of another Prelate who acts as a foil to Manning: Cardinal Newman being depicted in a much more favourable light, the opposition between Manning and Newman veers towards caricature. The metaphor used to show their antagonism reinforces this idea: describing Newman as a dove and Manning as an eagle is a gross simplification of the complex relationship between them. Newman’s portrait is over sentimental, just as Manning’s is over loaded: the double portrait is reminiscent of the German Reformation medals or tokens introducing the theme of the reversible head or ‘physionomie à double visage’ (Dorothy George 4) which circulated in 16th-century Europe (in particular France, England and Holland) and had a prolonged influence on graphic satire: on the obverse was a profile of the Pope which when inverted became the Devil, the reverse showed the Cardinal-fool, similarly conjoined. Strachey’s medal could have borne Manning and Pope Pius IX on the obverse and Cardinal Newman on the reverse. Another favourite device for the double personality was the body or head vertically divided into contrasted halves and this was used also to make one person out of two usually in sinister cooperation. Florence Nightingale, a Janus-like character par excellence, suffers exactly that kind of caricature: two expressions cohabit in the first paragraphs of her biography: ‘The Lady with the lamp’, and ‘A Demon’ (Strachey 1918, 111). Strachey’s purpose is clear, as he wants to show that the two tendencies inhabit the same personality in inverse proportion to the myth created while she was alive. He shows how the latter will finally overcome the former in a deadly struggle which will leave The Lady completely debilitated at the end of her life. He also resorts to the artifice of metaphors and although he seems to imply that calling her ‘the Bird’ (Strachey 1918, 122) was a heavy joke on the part of the Colonels who did so, he nevertheless uses a bird metaphor to express her mother’s distress: ‘The poor lady was wrong; it was not a swan that they had hatched, it was an eagle’ (Strachey 1918, 115). He goes on to portray her as a tigress. The men she antagonised are not treated any better, in particular Lord Panmure, described as a bison in an extended metaphor (Strachey 1918, 141). But the presence of animal metaphors or the contrast with other characters are by no means an index of the degree of caricature in the text: in ‘The End of General Gordon’, Gladstone is in turn a snake, a lion or a salamander and the variety of images used to depict him precludes caricature. Conversely Dr Arnold is not depicted as an animal, he is not given any foil, but his portrait is nevertheless the closest to caricature and one of the least empathic. The portrait opens on a seemingly innocuous remark made as if in passing: ‘It is true that, as a schoolboy, a certain pompousness in the style of his letters home suggested to the more clear-sighted among his relatives the possibility that young Thomas might grow up into a prig.’ (Strachey 1918, 163) The rest of the portrait will not cease to show how clear-sighted indeed this relative was. Strachey enforces stereotypes and preconceived ideas in his charge against Arnold, notably the idea that a small man is necessarily more primitive than a tall one. ‘His outward appearance was the index of his inward character . . . his legs, perhaps were shorter than they should have been’ (Strachey 1918, 165). The oft quoted formula has been denounced by many as sheer invention or as an aesthetic device, it remains that its efficiency in conveying Strachey’s contempt is implacable. And thus Arnold is portrayed without any nuance, the text is replete with repetitions of words which in themselves are an indictment of Rugby and the system of public schools: ‘earnestness’, ‘general principles’. Arnold is indeed treated as a characteristic specimen, not as a human being.

7Yet, Strachey’s intention to make his biographees alive and to give them psychological depth was also clearly expressed in the Preface to Eminent Victorians:

The explorer of the past, if he is wise, will adopt a subtler strategy: he will shoot a sudden, revealing searchlight into obscure recesses, hitherto undivined. He will row out over that great ocean of material and lower down into it, here and there, a little bucket, which will bring up to the light of day some characteristic specimen from those depths to be examined carefully. (Strachey 1918, 9)

  • 8 A. O. J Cockshut mentions Southey’s Nelson and Lockhart’s Burns and Scott (Cockshut 24–25).

8This time there is no hiatus between the intention and the essays themselves. Strachey keeps his promises and explores the psyche of some of the characters with what was considered as outrageous indecency: his four Eminent Victorians are stripped of their eminence to be laid bare in their humanity. The flawed hero is not an invention of Strachey’s. A few Victorian biographers adopted this idea to portray their biographee8 but roughly speaking the cult of the hero was very much a defining feature of Victorian biography most conspicuously between 1840 and 1875, the period when biographical decency, prudence and restraint reached their apex. David Gadd has argued that Strachey’s ‘Eminent Victorians was literally epoch-making’ in that regard (Gadd 129). Eminent Victorians contains the incipient idea that sexual experiences or the lack of them have consequences on the unconscious mind.

9In Manning’s portrait, the drive towards religious idealism, saintliness and ascetic denial is in conflict with the drive towards secular materialism and worldly success. And so by selecting external circumstances from Manning’s childhood (the sexual purity of his father, the fact that Manning hated indelicate talk . . .) Strachey is able to explain the basis for Manning’s life pattern: his superstitious preoccupation with the supernatural, fears of hell and damnation. Strachey suggests that the repression of manhood, in Manning and in Newman, was sublimated into religious fanaticism. This must have sounded really outrageous to the upholders of Victorian propriety and nicety. If the Prelates (the Pope included) could mingle together astuteness and holiness without any difficulty, this meant that the human psyche was far more intricate and complex than shown up to then. Beneath the surface of character were some unpleasant but real psychological facts, sex was a significant motive for behaviour, even in the realm of religion.

  • 9 For additional information on this subject, see Martin Kallich 138.

10In his analysis of Florence Nightingale Strachey again attempts to penetrate through conventional surface details to the essential person beneath. He infers that her attraction to nursing and healing has its origin in morbid and unhealthy behavior during early childhood. Strachey shows that at Scutari she could fulfill her overwhelming sense of mission: she could exert her authority and look the angel of mercy she no doubt was to the soldiers. After Scutari though, her restlessness did not decrease and her energies needed an outlet: she therefore set to revolutionise not just the way hospitals were managed but the whole War Department. Florence Nightingale is pictured less and less as the Lady with the Lamp, more and more as a demoniacal woman led by an obsessive frenzy of activity. Strachey contrasts the myth and the reality, ‘her desire for work could now scarcely be distinguished from mania’ (Strachey 1918, 144). The secret truth he means to reveal about Florence Nightingale is that the unconscious, compulsive, near-maniacal force of her desire for self-sacrifice also warped her character so profoundly that, almost driven beyond reason, she ruthlessly sacrificed others to her ego. In the latter half of her life she literally exhausted the men around her to death, notably her friend Sir Sidney Herbert the War Minister, who, Strachey implies, died of overwork, because of her.9

11In the study of Dr Arnold, he makes no attempt to probe into the secret recesses of his subject’s mind as if to imply that Arnold’s was neither a complex nor a dual personality, hence the caricature effect described earlier on.

12General Gordon’s portrait is fortunately more convincing and more elaborate: Strachey returns to his method of probing the unconscious for records of a personality in conflict with itself and the result is the best portrayal of the four. Gordon’s reputation was that of a Christian hero, a godly man. Strachey rejects this crude stereotype and pictures Gordon as an eccentric adventurer: ‘the man was a maniac, a frenzied enthusiast’ (Strachey 1918, 241). It was clear, he says, that a disturbing influence had found its way into Gordon’s mind. ‘Who knows what was passing in the obscure depths of that terrifying spirit?’ (Strachey 1918, 238) Of course Strachey pretends he knows and goes on to show that the man is torn between his flesh (his worldly energy, arrogant pride and ambition) and his spirit (religious humility and saintly asceticism). This diagnosis may explain Gordon’s anxiety, his neurotic confusion and instability. In this case, Strachey does not exploit the idea that sexuality can be a dynamic force determining the direction of his subject’s personality, despite the fact that women are conspicuously absent from Gordon’s life. ‘He was particularly fond of boys’, he says at some point (Strachey 1918, 197), but does not expatiate maybe because alleging Gordon’s homosexuality would have led him too far astray.

13This exploration of the hidden motives brought about a new definition of the hero, more humane, more incarnated than the Victorian hero, less ‘heroic’ and more fallible. The biographees err and fail, and they are all the more poignant for that. And so, paradoxically for all his biases against his heroes, Strachey’s portraits are sketched with considerable empathy. Strachey was certainly a debunker, not necessarily in the most hackneyed sense of the word (that is, one who removes a person from his pedestal), but rather in the etymological sense of the word of the one who removes the nonsense or false sentiment from something. Far from being just a desecration of heroes, his portraits could be seen as an unwitting (if not reluctant) homage. In his outrage, Strachey indeed stripped the plaster saints naked, but in the process they gained immortality. Eminent Victorians was perhaps wrongly seen as a purely iconoclastic book: it offers a more contrasted and nuanced viewpoint. It is essentially in Florence Nightingale’s and in Gordon’s portraits that we feel Strachey’s contradictory feelings towards his subjects. Not surprisingly, it is when these two characters rebel against their times, against their Victorian contemporaries and the defects of their age that we feel Strachey’s proximity to them. Florence Nightingale was a true rebel in her time, a feminist who militated among her class to choose her own destiny when her only prospect was ‘to marry an eligible gentleman after a fitting number of dances and dinner parties’ (Strachey 1918, 111). She also rebelled against the innate organisation of the hospital at Scutari; she despised and regularly challenged the medical authorities and could be irreverent at times (as when she called the incompetent doctor in charge of Scutari ‘Knight of the Crimean Burial Ground’ once he had been rewarded with a KCB). Never is Strachey more amused and amusing than when he describes how sarcastic she could be (Strachey 1918, 127). Her outraged reaction against the incompetence of the officials fills Strachey with delight. Not only does he admire her for ‘her art of circumventing the pernicious influences of official etiquette’ (122) but also for her own qualities. He truly admires her achievements at Scutari, the progress made by nursing under her supervision. In a way he never forgets his aim: the label ‘lady with the lamp’ is inadequate also because it is too reductive: Florence Nightingale was not just an angel of mercy, she was a remarkable woman: he mentions her superhuman equanimity, her sympathy, her untiring efforts (125), in a word she was heroic. 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. Similarly, General Gordon’s insubordination is so ingrained that it leads him to his death. Strachey praises his caustic and satirical humour, his unconventional language, his defying the obvious wishes of his superiors and threatening Gladstone with ‘indelible disgrace’ (Strachey 1918, 238). Strachey puts his own words in Gordon’s mouth and the effect is necessarily one of humorous empathy as when alone and forgotten in the garrison town of Khartoum, the General sends endless telegrams to Sir Evelyn Baring in Cairo:

He laid bare the ineptitude and the faithlessness of the English Government. He poured out his satire upon officials and diplomatists. 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 1918, 251–252)

  • 10 This exploration of the hidden motives brought about a new definition of the hero, more humane, mor (...)

14The use of free indirect speech is symptomatic of a kind of ventriloquism: Gordon is temporarily saved by his own outrageousness, he is a perpetual trespasser, roving and roaming the world without any purpose other than his own fame, which will be his loss.10 The final irony is that although a rebel, Strachey concludes on the idea that he was a self-conceited-fool, convinced that God meant him to be a hero.

15Strachey’s indecency is not of the lewd or the ribald type then. He is outrageous because he is literally ob/scene; showing what is on the other scene or behind the scene and convinces us that it should be exposed. 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.

  • 11 In ‘Manning’: ‘What had he to look forward to? . . . What had he to look back upon?’ (Strachey 1918 (...)

16Revolutionising Victorian biography was a vast enterprise. 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. Unlike Victorians who felt bound to include as much as they possibly could and produced ‘ill-digested masses of material’, Strachey effected a merciless selection: his duty was he tells us ‘to preserve a becoming brevity—a brevity which excludes everything that is redundant and nothing that is significant’ (Strachey 1918, 10). As Virginia Woolf would comment later on, ‘the diminution of size was only the outward token of an inward change’ (Woolf 1967a, 231). Strachey’s biographies are supported by a few extracts from diaries and correspondences but sources are mainly kept to the bibliography at the end. The voices of the characters themselves are heard but as we have already said, sifted through Strachey’s perception of them: we are conscious of subterfuge and license but the method is efficient in conveying the character’s emotions. Strachey’s use of free indirect speech is conspicuous notably in the guise of questions with which he sprinkles his lives.11 This is a direct attempt to conduct his readers into his characters rather than have them look at them from the outside, therefore creating a form of intimacy which was precluded in Victorian 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. 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. (Strachey 1918, 9)

17This was in keeping with his philosophy of historiography set forth in an essay in The Spectator in 1909 in which he allowed the historian to be, indeed declared that he must be an artist:

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 435)

  • 12 Arranging, withholding, understanding, emphasizing, giving in short, every life or every career th (...)

18Strachey wrote about History as art, but he also wrote history as polemics. 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.12 It is true that Strachey crossed the forbidden frontier between biography and fiction, but after all were not Victorian biographies equally deceptive in the prim camouflage of their subjects’ private lives? In Strachey’s mind, biography as an art and biography as truth were equally bound up. 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. ‘He wished History to be anything but conventionally stuffy and dignified. Rather it ought to be intimate, personal, candid, truthful, rebellious and of course naughty’ (Kallich 26). 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. Strachey exhibits that ‘freedom from pose, from sentimentality, from illusion’ (Woolf 1967a, 233) which will be the hallmark of the New Biography: one can use many of the devices of fiction in dealing with real life. 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. It provides interest and pleasure for the reader and the writer and relieves them of what Nadel calls the ‘literalness’ of life (Nadel 147). This is particularly true of metaphor which permits the shifting of language in the biography from what Park Honan calls ‘naming’ with its emphasis on facts, documents and chronology, to the abstract idea of ‘relationship’ based on interpretation and analysis (Honan 115). Paul Ricœur argues that a metaphor is the rhetorical process by which ‘discourse unleashes the power that certain fictions possess to redescribe reality’ (Ricœur 7). Strachey always sought the clearest and most direct metaphor for his subjects ‘let us have the pure essentials—a vivid image, on a page or two, without explanation, transitions, commentaries or padding’ he declared in his essay on John Aubrey (Strachey 1931, 29). His models were Fontenelle and Condorcet, mentioned in the Preface for their ‘incomparable éloges, compressing into a few shining pages the manifold existences of men’ (Strachey 1918, 10). 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. Military metaphors are also teeming in the text: ‘hostile’, the front rank’, ‘struggles’. 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. Additionally we can find another set of metaphors in the text that can be identified as ‘Titanic’: the Fates, chaos, demi-gods and prophets are used by Strachey to enhance his characters’ stature before he undermines them with irony. The atheist takes pleasure in showing that although they believe in their destiny, his characters’ beliefs are vain. 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 . . .

  • 13 An example of anaphora may be found in the portrait of Gordon: ‘Was it not at least possible that . (...)

19The text is replete with many other stylistic devices, the most obvious one being irony. It pervades the text from the title to the last paragraph. It is one of the most inherent and insolent characteristics of Strachey’s style: ‘Irony being the play of invisible of felt opposites, it proved the perfect instrument for portraying ambivalence in greatness’ (Edel 78). 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. Strachey’s aim we must remember was perhaps to shock but it was also to amuse. He was animated by the spirit of ‘merriment and irreverence’ which Virginia Woolf praised in Harold Nicolson’s Some People (Woolf 1967a, 232). Hence a style which in itself is outrageous because it relies on excess: to denounce his characters’ frenzy of activity, their restlessness Strachey uses a great variety of rhetorical devices like repetitions (anaphoras in particular)13, but also hyperboles, climaxes and anticlimaxes.

  • 14 Virginia Woolf’s and Lytton Strachey’s theories about biography were first elaborated in their corr (...)

20Virginia Woolf thought Lytton Strachey failed as an artist: he was a craftsman, ‘his work is not a work of art, but something betwixt and between’ (Woolf 1967b, 227).14 That is precisely the reason why Strachey’s work is a good example of outrageousness: it is an impure form, therefore monstrous in that it flaunts its rebelliousness. Victorianism was the avowed target of Strachey’s iconoclastic enterprise because it was too rigid a world for his liking: the fixed and arbitrary separation of public and private, sacred and profane, masculine and feminine which it manifested being the origin of most Victorian evils, Strachey’s hallmark was to be the constant blending of boundaries and the demonstration that such distinctions should be abolished. Strachey’s art was transgressive par excellence: he darted here and there, borrowed from history, fiction, drama: the result is indeed ‘a queer amalgamation of dream and reality’ (Woolf 1967a, 235), of truth of fact and truth of fiction, a hybrid and not totally convincing work. 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.

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Beaumatin, Eric, Le trait privé/public en matière d’injures et de délits connexes: Remarques linguistiques sur une distinction du droit français, Outrages, insultes, blasphèmes et injures, eds. Eric Desmons & Marie-Anne Paveau, Paris: L’Harmattan, 2008, 71–109.

Boas, Guy, ‘Lytton Strachey’, The English Association Pamphlet 93 (Nov. 1935): 1–21.

Cockshut, A. O. J., Truth to Life: The Art of Biography in the Nineteenth Century, London: Collins, 1974.

Dorothy George, M., English Political Caricature to 1792: A Study of Opinion and Propaganda, Oxford: Clarendon, 1959.

Edel, Leon, Writing Lives: ‘Principia Biographia’, London: Norton, 1984.

Gadd, David, The Loving Friends: A Portrait of Bloomsbury, London: Hogarth, 1974.

Garnett, David, The Flowers of the Forest, London: Chatto & Windus, 1955.

Halperin, John, ‘Eminent Victorians and History’, Virginia Quarterly Review 56.1 (winter 1980): 433–454.

Holroyd, Michael, Lytton Strachey: The New Biography (1994), London: Vintage, 1995.

Honan, Park, ‘The Theory of Biography’, Novel 13 (1979): 109–120.

Hutcheon, Linda, ‘Revolt and the Ideal in Bloomsbury’, English Studies in Canada 5.1 (1979): 78–93.

Kallich, Martin, The Psychological Milieu of Lytton Strachey, New York: Bookman, 1961.

Knoepflmacher, U. C., ‘The Subject of Biography: The Victorianism of Eminent Victorians’, Victorians Institute Journal 18 (1990): 1–16.

Kronenberger, Louis, ‘Lytton Strachey’, The Bookman 71.4 (July 1930): 375–380.

Merle, Gabriel, Lytton Strachey: Biographie et critique d’un critique et biographe, Paris: Honoré Champion, 1980.

Moore, George, Principia Ethica, London: Cambridge UP, 1903.

Reviron, Floriane, Orlando de Virginia Woolf (1928): une réponse à Eminent Victorians?, La Biographie littéraire en Angleterre (xviie-xxe siècles), configurations, reconfigurations du soi artistique, ed. Frédéric Regard, Saint-Étienne: PU Saint-Étienne, 1999, 117–140.

Ricœur, Paul, The Rule of Metaphor, trans. Robert Czerny, Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1977.

Nadel, Ira Bruce, ‘Strachey’s “Subtler Strategy”: Metaphor in Eminent Victorians’, Prose Studies 4.2 (1981): 146–152.

Sanders, Charles Richard, Lytton Strachey: His Mind and Art, New Haven: Yale UP, 1957.

Scott-James, R. A. Lytton Strachey, Writers and their work 65, London: Longmans, Green and co, 1955.

Strachey, Lytton, Eminent Victorians (1918), Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986.

Strachey, Lytton, Portraits in Miniature, London: Chatto &Windus, 1931.

Strachey, Lytton, ‘A Victorian Critic’, Characters and Commentaries, London: Chatto & Windus, 1933a, 187–194.

Strachey, Lytton, ‘A Statesman: Lord Morley’, Characters and Commentaries, London: Chatto & Windus, 1933b, 227–231.

Strachey, Lytton, ‘Art and Indecency’, The Really Interesting Question and other Papers, ed. Paul LEVY, London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1972.

Strachey, Lytton, The Letters of Lytton Strachey, ed. Paul LEVY, London: Viking, 2005.

Srinivasa Iyengar, K. R., Lytton Strachey: A Critical Study, London: Chatto & Windus, 1939.

Taddeo, Julie Anne, Lytton Strachey and the Search for Modern Sexual Identity: The Last ‘Eminent Victorian’, Binghampton NY: Harrington Park Press, 2002.

Woolf, Virginia, ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’, The Collected Essays of Virginia Woolf, vol. 1, ed. Leonard Woolf, London: Hogarth, 1966, 319–337.

Woolf, Virginia, ‘The New Biography’, The Collected Essays of Virginia Woolf, vol. 4, London: Hogarth, 1967a, 229–235.

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Woolf, Virginia, ‘Old Bloomsbury’, Moments of Being, ed. Jeanne Schulkind, Sussex: The University Press, 1976, 159–179.

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1 Roger Fry’s two exhibitions Manet and the Post-Impressionists in 1910 and the Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition two years later, brought work by contemporary European artists to England. 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. Ezra Pound’s 1913 Imagist manifesto, his 1914 cooperation with Windham Lewis, the creation of the Rebel Art Centre and of the magazine Blast were part of this movement in favour of formally experimental methods.

2 Strachey was exempted on the grounds of health and conscience after a very long and straining process which brought him before the Tribunal in March 1916. The event remains famous as a symbolical expression of Strachey’s contempt of court. As he suffered from piles, he theatrically inflated his air cushion before answering the questions of the military representative. When the latter asked him what he would do if he saw a German soldier attempting to rape his sister, he answered ambiguously: ‘I should try and come between them’ (Holroyd 349).

3 David Garnett thought that Eminent Victorians was designed to undermine the foundations on which the age that brought the war about had been built (Garnett 153).

4 Outspoken indecency was a cardinal Bloomsbury virtue. In her Memoir entitled ‘Old Bloomsbury’ Virginia Woolf recounts the early days of the Group (1904 to 1914) and remembers the pioneering role Strachey played as far as indecency was concerned (Woolf 1976, 173–174).

5 Strachey’s fundamental duplicity and ambivalence towards the Victorian Age was to reach its apex when he came to write the biography of the paragon of Victorian values, Queen Victoria herself, only a few years later (1921). Queen Victoria was almost unanimously regarded as Strachey’s best biography, The Times review of his career which appeared the day after his death stated that ‘the farther he went in the story of Queen Victoria’s life, the nearer he came to revealing not the conventional admiration for a Sovereign, but his personal feeling for a very able and interesting woman’ (Boas 11). For more information about the evolution of Strachey’s primary anti-Victorianism between Eminent Victorians and Queen Victoria see also Louis Kronenberger who aptly and amusingly thought that ‘Strachey came perilously close to falling in love, at times, with Queen Victoria’ (378).

6 Letter to Lady Strachey on the 15th January 1914 (he had just read Cook’s Biography of Florence Nightingale): ‘I have been reading Florence’s Nightingale’s life . . . She was a capable woman but rather disagreeable in various ways—a complete egotist, and also full of very tiresome religiosity, and I don’t think really intelligent. 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!’ (Strachey 2005, 233).

Letter to his mother on the 23rd of June 1915: ‘I am also engaged in a short life of Dr Arnold (of Rugby) which is a distinctly lugubrious business, though my hope is to produce something out of it which may be entertaining. He was a self-righteous blockhead, but unlike most of his kind, with enough energy and determination in him to do a good deal of damage, as our blessed Public Schools bear witness’ (Merle 522).

7 In his famous preface, Strachey explained his method in terms of military strategy: ‘the biographer should attack his subject in unexpected places . . . and fall upon the flank, or the rear’ (Strachey 1918, 10).

8 A. O. J Cockshut mentions Southey’s Nelson and Lockhart’s Burns and Scott (Cockshut 24–25).

9 For additional information on this subject, see Martin Kallich 138.

10 This exploration of the hidden motives brought about a new definition of the hero, more humane, more incarnated than the Victorian hero, less ‘heroic’ and more fallible. 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. Osbert Sitwell thought of Strachey as ‘a Victorian figure of Eminence’ (Taddeo 128) and Srinivasa Iyengar went as far as saying that Strachey was ‘a creature of tradition’ rather than of revolt (Srinivasa Iyengar 52). Knoepflmacher has very convincingly argued that ‘writers who like Strachey, Woolf, Beerbohm, and Nicolson, outgrow the Victorian age, who may even profess to be inimical to that age have acknowledged their ties by appropriating the Victorian mode of self-introspection and self-definition: personation through otherness’ (Knoepflmacher 1).

11 In ‘Manning’: ‘What had he to look forward to? . . . What had he to look back upon?’ (Strachey 1918, 73); or in ‘Gordon’: ‘Was not that the explanation? How could he have forgotten that?’ (Strachey 1918, 233).

12 Arranging, withholding, understanding, emphasizing, giving in short, every life or every career the effective structure of a work of art, always appearing to let the facts speak for themselves but always in reality speaking for them, Mr Strachey produces a fiction that supplants the fact’ (Kronenberger 376). See also John Halperin for a denunciation of the numerous inadequacies of Strachey’s portraits.

13 An example of anaphora may be found in the portrait of Gordon: ‘Was it not at least possible that . . . Was it not possible that . . .? Was it not possible that . . .?’ (Strachey 1918, 224).

14 Virginia Woolf’s and Lytton Strachey’s theories about biography were first elaborated in their correspondence and soon developed in the most stimulating essays and literary biographies. For more on the conversation between Woolf’s biographical work and Strachey’s see Reviron 122–133.

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Floriane Reviron-Piégay, « Eminent Victorians: Outrageous Strachey? The Indecent Exposure of Victorian Characters and Mores »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 45 | 2013, mis en ligne le 20 octobre 2013, consulté le 21 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Floriane Reviron-Piégay

Université Jean-Monnet—CELEC EA 3069
Floriane Reviron-Piégay lectures in 19th- and 20th- century English literature at the University of St Étienne, France. She has written a PhD about the ‘New Biography’, a study of Virginia Woolf’s and of Lytton Strachey’s revolution of Victorian biography. Since then she has written a number of articles about the Bloomsbury Group, about their relationships with the visual arts in particular, and about Virginia Woolf’s most confidential works (her diaries, memoirs and essays). She is working on the transition from the Victorian Age to Modernism and on the relationships between fiction, auto/biography and travel writing. She is the editor of Englishness Revisited (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009), a collection of articles about the protean concept of Englishness.

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