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Thursday, 1 September 2022

Lytton Strachey

New month old post (originally posted 20th June, 2016)

As a young, unreconstructed, heterosexual male from a northern working-class monoculture, it was a most unlikely book to be reading: Michael Holroyd’s biography of Lytton Strachey (1880-1932), an effete, gangling homosexual with a big nose, unkempt beard and light, reedy voice. I got it by forgetting to cancel the default selection from the book club I was in.

I cautiously dipped into its 1144 pages, wondering what on earth it was, and was quickly drawn in by the preface, an account of Holroyd’s researching and writing of the book.

Lytton’s archive was so extensive it took Holroyd five years to work through it, a period he describes as “… a way of life and an education.” As he ploughed through the plethora correspondence with its detailed accounts of faulty digestion, illness, apathy and self-loathing, he began to experience the same ailments himself, wondering whether they could be posthumously contagious. He resolved that his next subject must be someone of extraordinary vitality.

Even so, Holroyd’s life as a writer and researcher seemed hugely preferable to mine as a trainee accountant. There had to be more edifying things than an accountancy correspondence course. Constructing control accounts and trial balances was anything but an education.

If Holroyd’s account of writing the biography drew me in, his 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 of originality gone to seed.” One uncle who had lived in India continued to organise his life by Calcutta time, breakfasting and sleeping at odd times of day.

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” Lytton’s one-time headmaster 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 early chapters, I became immersed in Lytton’s school and university days, identifying with his shyness and awkwardness in company, the feeling of somehow not fitting in, and his difficulty in making friends. But when he got to Cambridge University he began to thrive. He was elected to the Conversazione Society, otherwise known as the Apostles, a highly secretive group which met in members’ rooms on Saturday evenings to eat sardines on toast and discuss intellectual topics.*

Through the Apostles, Lytton became friends with leading writers and intellectuals of the day, such as Bertrand Russell, G. E. Moore, Rupert Brooke, John Maynard Keynes and leading members of the now-famous Bloomsbury Group of writers, artists and intellectuals which included writers Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster, and the post-impressionist painters Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant.

Many rated Lytton as one of the cleverest people they had encountered, but immediate success 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 home writing reviews for 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 produce a book, a history of French literature, but it brought neither the wealth nor the success he sought.

I still envied him. I would have been happy 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. My not-so-exclusive group of mates who met in the Royal Park Hotel to drink five pints and tell sexist and racist jokes did not have quite the same intellectual mystique.

Lytton’s life at this time seemed no more purposeful than mine, with a similar pattern of futility and wasted energies. But it must 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. He was no slave to the thirty-seven hour week and three weeks’ annual holiday.

One of the most startling revelations in Holroyd’s book was its frank treatment of bi- and homosexuality. There was irony in Lytton’s 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: “I should try to come between them.”

Nevertheless, some women were attracted to Lytton, and Lytton to some women. At one point he proposed to Virginia Stephen (later Woolf), who 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 (known by her surname only). Their story begins when she crept stealthily upon Lytton’s sleeping form intending to cut off his beard in revenge for an attempted kiss. 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. They set up home together and were often simultaneously besotted with the same person, usually male.

Look how much she loved him:

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.

The book reflected the attitudes of Lytton’s Bloomsbury circle, in many ways foreshadowing how we live now, especially the displacement of public duty and conformity by private hedonism and individuality. It also revolutionised the art of biography, showing off Lytton’s virtuosity as a writer: his repertoire of irony, overstatement, bathos and indiscretion, his fascination with the personal and private.

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

For me, both Strachey and Holroyd were a revelation. Despite being worlds away from my own time, place and social class, they helped strip away the veils of convention and conformity that school, church, state and society had thrown over us. The parade of larger-than-life 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 had launched themselves into an upward trajectory by their twenties; that we can all have doubts and be demoralised, yet still come good. 

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. But the times they were a-changin’. There were opportunities in abundance. For me, it was not so much Bob Dylan or John Lennon that brought this message home, but a rare biography of Lytton Strachey.
 

Footnotes:

This was the 1973 edition of the Holroyds biography published by Book Club Associates. 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 the Bloomsbury Group.

* The Cambridge Apostles are 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. Despite the secrecy, one has to wonder whether they might easily be identified by their supermarket trolleys overstocked with excessive quantities of tinned fish and toasting bread on Saturdays. They need to address this security weakness urgently.

46 comments:

  1. Terrific post about Strachey. He was of plain appearance yet very desirable. Nature gives one way for gay men to be desirable, the other being talent at how they perform. His reply to the WWI interview is clever.

    I don't remember his book Eminent Victorians. His criticism of Nightingale does not surprise me, but even now the greater public still do think she was angel, rather like they do about the not so kind Mother Theresa.
    Goodness knows what is talked about at your posh private schools. How to dismantle the NHS? How to bust unions? How to cut social security payments? How not to pay the tax you should pay.

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    1. Thank you. When I say at the start I was "unreconstructed", then reading that book was perhaps an early stage in my reconstruction. It is a terrific read, showing him as talented, witty and human. But their open attitudes at that time probably did not extend to their working-class servants. I find it difficult to understand why so many of the wealthy classes seem to be intolerant of social disadvantage other than through elitism. It's not necessarily a political thing because there are many on the right who do have a social conscience.

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  2. Yes, a rich vein of reading the Bloomsbury Group and one of my favourites Strachey and his relationships. I have read my way through many of the Group. May I suggest for a slightly different slant on things that you read a biography of Ottoline Morrell and perhaps D H Lawrence next.

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    1. About 35 years ago I began to read everything Bloomsbury I could find and became fascinated by all of them. However, I don't remember reading much specifically about Ottoline Morrell who Lytton often visited at Garsington. Maybe I'll seek something out.

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    2. *Burning Man* Frances Wilson's biography of Lawrence is terrific, Rachel.
      Ten years ago I could not have imagined a woman writing on Lawrence with the exception of Susan Sontag: he was universally loathed even in many university faculties.
      Just today I purchased a paperback novel about Lawrence, *Tenderness* by Alison MacLeod.
      Poor Lawrence, he was hounded out of Britain and belonged nowhere as Frances Wilson writes.
      Anthony Burgess has a watchable documentary on YouTube, The Rage of D.H. Lawrence.
      Touching to see the kind lady who runs the Lawrence museum in Eastwood.
      Haggerty

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  3. That is a beautiful portrait. There's an affectionate portrayal of him in the film 'Carrington'. She, at the end, couldn't live without him. I haven't watched it for a few years - you've made me want to dig it out.

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    1. Yes, she shot herself and, still conscious, took hours to die. Holroyd does not shy away from describing these events. I thought the Carrington film was a fair portrayal of their lives. I believe the portrait belonged to Frances Partridge until her death in 2004 and is now at the National Portrait Gallery. I'd love to see it.

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    2. I first saw the film in 1995, in Leicester Square, on the same day that we had seen the Carrington retrospective at the Barbican. I'm sure that portrait was in the exhibition (on loan?), but would have to check the exhibition catalogue, and I'm not sure where it is!! I know I have seen the portrait in the flesh, and it is tender and beautiful.I love the scene in the film where Carrington is painting this picture - perhaps they borrowed the original?

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  4. First I ever saw Holroyd mentioned as other than Margaret Drabble's husband!

    That eccentricity you discuss though, was only permitted to the upper class. Working class people would have been put in psychiatric care in a hospital. It wasn't hard at that time, to be committed. At the least they would have been constantly ridiculed.

    I remember how people with nonstandard behavior, anything not straight and rigid (!) were treated at school and in the street. This was fifties working class north Yorkshire. And how therapy was stigmatized.

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    1. Yet I would say Holroyd is by far the more accomplished.
      I fully remember how badly openly gay or eccentric people were treated, especially in northern England but probably elsewhere too. And the rest of us were conditioned to join in. Thankfully, society has come a long way since then, although some or even many elderly people haven't changed their attitudes.

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    2. I especially liked Lytton's brother James Strachey and his wife Alix. They were psychoanalysts who Holroyd says had psychoanalysed their tenants into such a state of insensibility they knew little other than the amount of their rent and when it was due. Alix was a brilliant cricket player and an expert on cowboys. James had translated Freud's works into English with cross-references and annotations of such brilliance that a German publisher was considering translating the 24 volumes back into German. I could go on and on about the clever and eccentric people in the book. It made me admire non-conformity.

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  5. Virginia Woolf use have her holidays in West Cork and stay in Glengarriff near us.

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    1. Strachey liked the Lake District and lots of walking in the mountains, but they always took their work along with them and found inspiration in the countryside. An enviable way of life.

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  6. Even to me, an unreconstructed homosexual male from elitist London, 1144 pages about Lytton Strachey sounds like a lot! But you make the book sound fascinating. I particularly liked "the flower of originality gone to seed," and I'm now curious about "Eminent Victorians." I wonder if it's still in print?

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    1. I'm fairly sure there are editions of Eminent Victorians still in print. I didn't enjoy it as much as this biography, though.
      Holroyd's 1995 "New Biography" is also available but the 1970s edition is harder to come by. As for 1144 pages, I simply became immersed in it for a few weeks and was sad to reach the end. I've read it several times since and found something new each time.

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  7. Great review! And beautifully written too. I went on a Bloomsbury binge in the 90s and read/watched everything I could get my hands on about them. So I read this bio too, plus "Eminent Victorians." And saw the movie "Carrington." There's no eccentrics like English eccentrics!

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    1. Thank you. I aspired to be one.
      It sounds like we were both captivated by Bloomsbury. It also fascinated me that at that time Frances Partridge was still alive. I remember seeing a book made up from her photograph albums, and reflecting on the sad life she had losing her son at an early age.

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    2. There were dramatic and operatic groups, sports and other interest groups in my town, but they tended to be outside my social circles and I would have been too shy to join them anyway. I did use the library a lot, though.

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  8. A brilliant review on Strachey but actually what makes me sad is you comparing your life to his. Knocking 'Northernness' as if it is a barren landscape without intellectual and artistic talent is not on......Rich, effete intellectuals may have been happy in their groups and make interesting reading for the rest of us but they were not grounded in the world around them.

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    1. A fair point, but I still liked them, even though they would probably have treated us like dirt. The comparison is a result of the book being an eye-opener for me because to some extent I identified with Strachey and began to realise it was possible my life could be different from how it was then. It was one of the influences that led me to go to university in my mid-twenties. I describe 'Northernness' as it then was for me. Our horizons were limited, and even when I started training as an accountant, I didn't fully realise for example that some houses we more expensive than others.

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  9. Lytton Strachey. You have taught me more about him than I ever knew before. I am afraid that The Bloomsbury Group has always struck me as an anachronistic cul-de-sac for privileged intellectuals and not a movement that ever had much relevance for the vast majority of British people. But for you this book gave you a leg up, opened your eyes and that cannot be a bad thing.

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    1. I would argue that Strachey's Eminent Victorians and other Bloomsbury books were important in revealing social injustice. A lot of people have been fascinated by them - perhaps they would like to have been Bloomsburys themselves.

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  10. A shame you did not write the review for credit. An O level, I think. On the other hand, what's wrong with a trial balance? A delightful exercise in achieving accuracy.

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    1. Accountancy taught me a lot too, especially about how the world works, but I didn't realise it at the time.
      We had to produce trial balances and control accounts correct to the penny, and had to keep looking until they were.

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  11. Doesn't sound like something I would read and certainly not at 1144 pages.

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    1. I loved it, but yes it's not everyone's cup of tea.

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  12. I enjoyed learning about Lytton Strachey and Holroyd from your review, and about yourself along the way.

    As for "elite" secret societies etc., I have always wondered how come there have always been some members of the human species considering themselves "better" than others. No matter whether it is the suburban family believing themselves to be superior to the inner-city poor, or one skin tone over the other, or one religious belief, or one "elite" group of students over the rest - it just does not make sense.

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    1. Many would say that they run Britain at the moment. I guess I was lucky in growing up in fairly equal circles, but it meant I didn't always spot others who took unfair advantages.

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  13. Librarian, your final paragraph was spot on. The idea of 'elite', of the perceived superiority of one group of people is really destroying my country right now. One funny observation asks why are white supremacists always the least supreme people we've got.

    I've enjoyed reading the comments here as well. Your commenters are are not reluctant to bring their own thoughts to the table. I think the classism of those days would have bothered me a great deal. The description of James and Alix Strachey is especially repugnant to me. People who used their education to prey on others. What a waste of an education. I was married to an elitist once upon a time. I never met his standards and it was the bleakest, most awful 12 years of my life.

    PS: You can still buy 'Eminent Victorians' and 'Lytton Strachey' through Better World Books. I just bought both of them for less than $10 for the pair.

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    1. Thank you, Debby. Glad to be on the same wavelength (and even if we were not, neither of us would be superior!).

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    2. I replied to Meike before reading Debby's comment which captures my thoughts directly. As regards James and Alix Strachey, the Lytton archive was in an outbuilding at their house, and they basically left Holroyd to get on with his work unsupervised. I was amused by his descriptions of them, e.g. they kept biscuits in numbered tins and each day left out a "No. 2 biscuit" for him. Apart from having tenants, I'm not sure they were especially elitist or preyed on others, just self-absorbed, brilliant and eccentric.

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  14. I think Holroyd was drinking 4 or 5 bottles of wine a day when he wrote that. It may explain his lack of vitality.

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    1. Anyone spending 5 years alone with Strachey's jumbles papers in an outhouse would run out of vitality, even you Tom.

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  15. Dear Tasker, thank you for this really enlightening essay on Lytton Strachey! I knew a bit about him - but learned now much more.
    Though I will not spend my remaining time to read 1144 pages about him :-)
    And thank you to remind us of Dora Carrington - and her beautiful pictures. And evidently an interesting woman.
    I can imagine that such a varied life fascinated you - and us. Thanks!

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    1. I think it helped open my blinkered eyes that "other" people were people too. Too many of us wanted to be in with the in-crowd at that time.

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  16. And I'm glad you made me think about Lady Ottoline Morrell again - she took some photos of L.S.

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  17. Strachey was creepy in my estimation, and he was wrong about Cardinal Manning, who along with Liberals did a great deal to alleviate the misfortunes of the poor.
    Lady Ottoline interested me as she does Britta; Sandra Darroch's biography of Ottoline begins with a gavotte, and sheds light on her society.
    Leon Edel, biographer of Henry James, wrote a study of Bloomsbury, A House of Lions.
    Bloomsbury itself I enjoy and once considered buying a flat near Bloomsbury Park.
    Decent pubs and second-hand bookshops.
    You can pick up Holroyd's 3 volume biography of GBS these days.
    * Ten Reasons Why Bloomsbury is the Coolest Place in London.
    * Fitzrovia or Bloomsbury ? London Message Board. Trip Adviser.
    Haggerty

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    1. I don't have your critical abilities, John. Perhaps I liked reading about Strachey because of his creepiness. I would have said it's better to be creepy than conventional.
      Holroyd surely learnt a lot from Strachey about biography. I'd like to read his GBS someday.

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    2. You are the Viennese coffee house, I am only the barista.
      I read books as my espresso machine hisses & steams.
      On my Book Table ...
      *Object-Oriented Ontology A New Theory of Everything*
      Graham Harman
      *A Mathematician's Manifesto for Rethinking Gender*
      Eugenia Cheng
      *Axiomatic* MariaTumarkin
      *Broken Heartlands* Sebastian Payne
      *Ruin and Renewal* Paul Betts
      *Churchill and Son* Josh Ireland
      *Sylvia Pankhurst* Rachel Holmes
      *Why I Write Poetry* Edited Ian Humphries
      *The Prime Ministers* Iain Dale.
      *D Day* Anthony Beevor* 75th Anniversary Edition
      *A Stinging Delight* David Storey
      *On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous* Ocean Vuong
      *Hyperion* Dan Simmons
      *Genesis - The Story of How Everything Began*
      Guido Tonelli
      *This Is Your Mind On Plants* Michael Pollan
      *The Knowledge Machine* Michael Strevens
      *The Road to Conscious Machines - The Story of A.I.*
      Michael Wooldridge.
      I intend to reread *The Last Samurai* by Helen DeWitt.
      I hope I live long enough to see Turin's Test affirmed.
      Haggerty

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    3. A multi-faceted mind.
      You have passed the "Turin" test.

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    4. I am the Dumb Ox as Thomas Aquinas called himself.
      A remark Morris West liked to quote, and West's IQ was high.
      JH

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  18. I still have my copy which I bought decades ago. I'm a Bloomsbury fan.

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    1. I read a lot of Bloomsbury books and still think this one of the best.

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