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Monday, 20 June 2016

Lytton Strachey

Michael Holroyd: Lytton Strachey
It was a most unlikely book for me to be reading, the life story of an effete, gangling, weirdo, homosexual biographer with a big nose, unkempt beard and light, reedy voice. Had I known beforehand I would never have looked at it and thus missed out on a formative literary experience and improbable source of inspiration.

I acquired Michael Holroyd’s biography of Lytton Strachey (1880-1932) by negligence.* It was the book of the month from the postal club I was in, one of those that sends their selection automatically unless you tell them you don’t want it. It arrived due to my inattention.

I opened its 1144 printed pages wondering what on earth I had got, and was immediately drawn in by the Preface: an account of the time Holroyd spent researching and writing the book. He did much of this work at the home of Lytton’s brother, James Strachey, who was every bit as odd as Lytton. James and his wife Alix were psychoanalysts. It was said they had rented the attics of their house to various tenants and psychoanalysed them into such state of insensibility they no longer knew anything other than the amount of their rent and when it was due. Alix Strachey had once been a brilliant cricket player and was now an authority on cowboys. James Strachey had translated the whole of Freud’s work into English, producing a cross-referenced and annotated work of such glittering scholarship that a German publishing house was considering translating its twenty-four volumes back into German. For me, this kind of eccentricity is hard to pass by.

Lytton’s papers were stored in an outbuilding, the ‘studio wilderness’. They were in such abundance it took Holroyd five years to work through them. He describes this period as “not simply the composition of a large book, but a way of life and an education.” As he ploughed through the plethora of Lytton’s early correspondence with its detailed accounts of faulty digestion, illness, apathy and self-loathing, he began to experience many of the same ailments himself and wondered whether they could be posthumously contagious. If so, he resolved that the subject of his next biography must be someone of extraordinary vitality.

Holroyd was working from sources largely untouched for decades. He became a foremost expert in the colourful lives and characters of the now-famous Bloomsbury Group, which included the writers Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster, the economist John Maynard Keynes, and the post-impressionist painters Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. His life as a writer and researcher seemed hugely preferable to mine. My days as a trainee accountant were spent constructing tedious control accounts and trial balances. It was anything but an education. There had to be things more edifying than an accountancy correspondence course.

If Holroyd’s account of writing the biography drew me in, his early descriptions of the Strachey family had me hooked. There were numerous uncles, cousins and other visitors, many either distinguished, completely potty, or both. Holroyd describes them as “the flower, perhaps, of originality gone to seed.” One Strachey uncle had lived in India for five years, and subsequently organised his life to Calcutta time, breakfasting in the afternoon and living by candlelight – at least that is what the biography says, but isn’t Calcutta time some four hours ahead of London time? Was he twelve hours adrift? Shouldn’t he have had his breakfast around four o’clock in the morning?

Other oddballs walk on and off stage throughout the book. One of my favourites could have been invented by the comedian Ronnie Barker. He was “dr. cecil reddie”, the headmaster of Abbotsholme School in Derbyshire where Lytton spent the 1893-94 school year, and a leading member of “the league for the abolition of capital-letters.” In retirement he corresponded with “lytton” from his address at “welwyn-garden-city, hertfordshire.”

Having chuckled my way through the first few chapters, I became immersed in Lytton’s school and university days. I identified with his shyness and awkwardness in company, the feeling of somehow not fitting in, his difficulty in making friends. But when he got to Cambridge he began to thrive. He was elected to the Cambridge Conversazione Society, otherwise known as the Cambridge Apostles, a highly secretive group which met in members’ rooms on Saturday evenings to eat sardines on toast and discuss intellectual topics.

The Society is rumoured still to be active. Members consider themselves the elite of the elite. Membership is by invitation only and potential recruits are unaware they are being considered. But despite the secrecy, one has to wonder whether Apostles might be identifiable by their supermarket trolleys overstocked with excessive quantities of tinned fish and toasting bread on Saturdays. They need to address this security weakness urgently.

Through the Apostles, Lytton became friends with leading writers and intellectuals of the day, such as Bertrand Russell, G. E. Moore, Rupert Brooke and John Maynard Keynes. Many of them thought Lytton one of the cleverest people they had encountered, but the immediate success he might have expected eluded him. His history degree was Second Class, his application to the Civil Service unsuccessful, and he was twice rejected for a University Fellowship. He found himself back at home in London writing reviews for the Spectator and other periodicals, and generally drifting. Churning out articles left little of his scant energy for the great work he hoped to write. Eventually, at the age of thirty-one, he did manage to produce a book, a history of French literature, but it failed to bring him either the wealth or the success he sought.

I would have been happy enough to get into any university, let alone Cambridge, and it would have been the sauce on the sardines to be invited to join a secret club as well. My not-so-exclusive group of mates who met on Saturday evenings in the Royal Park Hotel to drink five pints and tell sexist and racist jokes did not have quite the same intellectual mystique. Even so, Lytton’s life at this time seemed no more purposeful than mine, with a similar pattern of futility and wasted energies. But wouldn’t it have been nice, when feeling a bit fed up as Lytton often did, to be able to take oneself off to relatives in the Cairngorms, or to friends in Sussex or Paris? I was slave to a thirty-eight hour week with just three weeks’ annual holiday.

One of the most startling revelations of Holroyd’s book was its frank treatment of bi- and homosexuality. At its time of publication, the diversity of Bloomsbury predilections was not widely known. The exposure of John Maynard Keynes as one of Lytton’s lovers was received with considerable resentment. When President Nixon declared “We are all Keynesians now”, the world sniggered at the thought he might be referring to something other than economics.

Lytton’s proclivities also gave irony to his alleged response to the First World War military tribunal that assessed his claim to be a conscientious objector. When asked: “What would you do if you saw a German soldier attempting to rape your sister?” he is said to have answered ambiguously: “I should try to come between them.”

Neverthess, some women were attracted to Lytton, and Lytton to some women. At one point he proposed to Virginia Stephen (later Woolf), who initially accepted him, although both rapidly decided it not to be a good idea. Then, in 1915, he was captivated by an androgynous young painter, (Dora) Carrington (she was known by her surname only). Their story begins when she crept stealthily upon his sleeping form intending to cut off his beard in revenge for an attempted kiss, and Lytton suddenly opened his eyes and gazed at her. Holroyd takes up the tale: “... it was a moment of curious intimacy, and she, who hypnotized so many others, was suddenly hypnotized herself.” From that moment they became virtually inseparable. Her sumptuous portrait of Lytton is a sure statement of love. They eventually set up home together and were often simultaneously besotted with the same, usually male person. Carrington killed herself two months after Lytton’s death in 1932. Their story is told in the 1995 film ‘Carrington’.

Dora Carrington: Lytton Strachey
Lytton Strachey by Dora Carrington (1916)

In 1918, Lytton’s fortunes changed. His book, ‘Eminent Victorians’, caught the mood of a war-shocked nation, cynical and distrustful of the rigid Victorian morality that had led to the conflict. The title is of course ironic. It dismantles the reputations of four legendary Victorians. To summarise Holroyd: Cardinal Manning’s nineteenth-century evangelicism is exposed as the vanity of fortunate ambition; Florence Nightingale is removed from her pedestal as the legendary ‘Lady of the Lamp’ and revealed as an uncaring neurotic; Dr. Thomas Arnold is no longer an influential teacher but an adherent to a debased public school system; and General Gordon, the ‘hero’ of Khartoum, is shown to have been driven by the kind of misplaced messianic religiosity all too familiar to those returning from the trenches.

‘Eminent Victorians’ reflected the attitudes of Lytton’s Bloomsbury circle of friends. In many ways they anticipated the way we live now. Their way of life foreshadowed wider changes to society, in particular the displacement of public duty and conformity by private hedonism and individuality. But the success of ‘Eminent Victorians’ was not due only to timeliness. It revolutionised the art of biography. It showed off Lytton’s virtuosity as a writer: his repertoire of irony, overstatement, bathos and indiscretion, his fascination with the private and personal. For the remainder of his life his income was at today’s prices in excess of £100,000 per year.

Holroyd’s reputation, too, was shaped by his biography of Strachey, establishing him as part of England’s contemporary literary elite.

For me the book was something of a revelation: both Strachey and Holroyd. Despite its subject matter being worlds away from my own time, place and social class, it stripped away the veils of convention and conformity that school, church, state and society had thrown over us. The parade of headstrong eccentrics showed it was not unacceptable to be different; that you did not have to follow convention or do what others expected; that not everyone has launched themselves into an upward career trajectory by their twenties; that we can all have doubts and be demoralised, yet still come good. You just have to make your own decisions rather than have them made for you.

The pop-culture philosophers had been trying to tell us much the same thing. Northern working class England in the fifties and sixties was as rigidly Victorian as the mores rejected by Bloomsbury. People worked long hours, had few holidays and were poor. Authority went unquestioned and unchallenged. Strachey and his elitist friends were no champions of the servant classes, but by the nineteen sixties the times they were a-changin’. Opportunities were there for all. For me it was not Bob Dylan or John Lennon that brought the message home, but a rare biography of Lytton Strachey. 


* It was the 1973 edition published by Book Club Associates, which was based on previously published parts. The biography was revised in 1995 to incorporate material that had become available since the earlier editions, but I still prefer the detail of the 1973 version. There is now an enormous amount of other material about Lytton Strachey, Dora Carrington and other members of the Bloomsbury Group. 

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