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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. I would have 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 it was, 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 1994 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.  

Book Review
I re-read the 1994 edition again in October, 2015, and wrote the following

Michael Holroyd: Lytton Strachey
Michael Holroyd
Lytton Strachey: The New Biography (5***)

A big book and not one to hurry. I have read it at least four times, twice in the 1973 version and twice in this 1994 edition. You become absorbed in the lives of the Bloomsbury Group during the period 1900-1930. Lytton Strachey was one of the most interesting members, in some ways quite inspirational.

Key to star ratings: 5*** wonderful and hope to read again, 5* wonderful, 4* enjoyed it a lot and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.

Previous book reviews 

Thursday, 2 June 2016

Road to the Isles

Backpacking from Rannoch to Fort William, Easter 1975

Rannoch Moor fires the imagination with mystery and romance: the myths and legends; the forgotten history; the departed people; the abandoned ruins; the strange Gaelic names.

Said to be one of the last remaining wildernesses in Europe, it is a bleak stretch of blanket bog, lochans and rocky outcrops to the West of Loch Rannoch in Scotland. The West Highland Railway crosses it on the way to Fort William and Mallaig, over peaty terrain so wet that the Victorian engineers had to float the track on a mattress of brushwood, earth and ashes to stop it sinking into the bog.

Rannoch Viaduct 1975

Other than by train, the only way to Rannoch Station is by thirty miles of narrow B road meandering along the northern shore of Loch Rannoch from Pitlochry or Aberfeldy. We had driven there the previous Easter to sit cheerfully swigging our pints outside the Moor of Rannoch Hotel in the warm April sunshine. We watched a goods train rumble slowly north across the Rannoch Viaduct.

But it was the enigmatic wording of the signpost that caught our attention:

Road to the Isles signpost at Rannoch


What a walk that must be!

The following year, Easter was a full two weeks earlier and the seasons over two weeks later. A letter from Major J. D. Rennie of the Moor of Rannoch Hotel, Rannoch Station, Perthshire, replying to our enquiry, said that, yes, we could leave our car at the hotel for a few days provided we left the keys so they could move it if necessary. However, he still seemed surprised when we turned up in the snow. We camped that night beside the nearby lochan. By morning the pan of water we had left outside had frozen solid. At least it was too cold and early in the year for the midges.

It would not be beyond endurance to walk the thirty miles from Rannoch to Fort William in a day, but for us it seemed ideal for a first attempt at backpacking. We loaded our aluminium framed rucksacks, left the car keys with the Major, and set off northwards beside the railway track. And apart from the railway track, there was little else to see for the first ten miles but vast, uninhabited empty moorland. Being Easter Sunday, there weren’t even any passing trains to disturb the isolation. Remote, beautiful, desolate! We saw no one else all day.

The land gradually rises to a summit just beyond Corrour, the next station on the line. It was shrouded in mist. The station, made popular by the film Trainspotting, is now busy with walkers and mountain bikers, and Corrour Station House is a popular restaurant and guest house, but in 1975 there was very little there. We passed without much pause heading for our first overnight camp at Loch Treig. For me, it could not come soon enough. My feet were a mess. Idiotic to attempt such a walk in new boots.

The next morning, bright sunshine reflecting from the loch and mountains bathed everything in a brilliant blue light. We set off west, away from the railway, along the southern shore of Loch Treig. The loch is dammed at the northern end, and two lost communities, Kinlochtreig and Creaguaineach, lie submerged beneath the waters close to where we were. As if drawn to them, my blistered feet refused to go far that day and we camped again about a mile and a half beyond the loch, near the Staoineag ruin beside the Abhainn Rath river we were following. There was wood to light a fire and, again, no one around to complain.

 Loch Treig

We covered about eight miles on day three, struggling with our heavy rucksacks across difficult ground. Continuing west, the river becomes angrier and whiter, the wide banks giving way to a steep sided valley sparsely lined with silver birch. Then, the river becomes still again, with banks of stony mudflats, and the country opens up into wide, browny heath and moorland. But as you approach the once fine house of Luibeilt, now a lonely ruin, you have to ford the river.

Near Luibeilt

We knew the technique. Trouser legs up, socks off, boots back on, wade across with caution, and most importantly, do not lose your footing. The river was not particularly high and should have been trouble free, but it wasn’t. At least I was not the to one slip and fall in, losing the capacity either to give or refuse permission to be photographed from both sides of the river, ignominiously paddling out.

While ‘we’ were drying out, two countryside rangers waded across, the only others we saw on the whole walk. As you would expect, they made it look easy. We chatted with them for the next few miles. They asked whether we had been staying at Luibeilt. It was listed by something called The Mountain Bothies Association as a place of overnight refuge. It sounded good for the future and I joined fairly soon after returning home.

The rangers sped ahead and disappeared into the distance as we approached the east-west watershed where the water flowing east towards Loch Treig along the Abhainn Rath becomes the water flowing west to Fort William down the Water of Nevis. Several valleys converge here and it was not immediately obvious which one to take, but a bit of map and compass work put us safely in the right direction. No G.P.S. mapping in those days. The slight uncertainty makes for much more fun.

Mountains above Glen Nevis

We camped again surrounded by the mountains of the Nevis valley: Aonach Beag, An Garbhanach, and Binnein Beag where deer came down the slopes in the night and made their way back up the next morning, avoiding the worst of the snow that sprinkled the tent.

Higher Glen Nevis

We were soon up and on our way again, descending through the steep gorge of Glen Nevis to the end of the road at the base of Ben Nevis, where the misspelt signpost indicated whence we came.*

Public footpath
to Carrour 15
and Rannoch 25

Public footpath sign to Corrour and Rannoch below Ben Nevis

But that was not the end. We still had to face another five gruelling miles along the narrow road to the Glen Nevis camp site.

We allowed ourselves the next day off, and early the day after that packed up and hiked into Fort William for the train back to the car. It was a little further to walk than now. The original Fort William station alongside Loch Linnhe, with its turreted entrance on the main street, was still in use. It closed and moved east to the present site two months later.

Route: Rannoch to Fort William

Rail Ticket: Fort William to Corrour 1988
I did that walk twice again with different friends, once in 1978 and again in 1988, both times by taking the train to Corrour from the new station at Fort William, thus omitting the wearisome Rannoch to Corrour stretch. Sensibly, we also left one of our cars at the end of the Nevis road making it just a fifteen-mile walk – a good day out. On both occasions we were the only ones to leave the train at the deserted Corrour halt, to the incomprehension of the other passengers who looked down (both physically and metaphorically) from the carriage windows with bemusement at our cagoules, walking boots and daysacks. 

I doubt it would be such a solitary walk now that most days the train deposits scores of walkers and mountain bikers at Corrour to follow numerous routes around the moor. The station is used by over twelve thousand passengers per year, an average of over thirty a day, but probably many times more in summer and fewer in winter. “Like a Wallace Arnold bus trip,” my dad would once have said. It is a privilege to be able to say I was there in quieter times, more than forty years ago, but it would be wonderful to go again while I still can.


* The same sign and post are still at Glen Nevis (or were until relatively recently). The sign is considerably weathered, but the spelling of Corrour has been corrected and further signs to Spean Bridge, Corrour Station and Kinlochleven affixed in both Scots Gaelic and English. 

On one of the later occasions there were signs of construction taking place at Luibeilt, but I see from more recent accounts that it is now a ruin without roof, woodwork or some walls.

I would not be so confident drinking water from mountain streams now. 

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