Thursday, August 14, 2008

Eminent Victorians

Considering the years I've spent studying British lit, particularly nineteenth-century fiction and poetry, and my interest in Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group, I'm not sure how I neglected reading Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians for so long. The book was such a sensation when it first appeared because it transformed the writing of biographies -- dispensing with the reverent practice of beatifying the subject and leaving out anything that might be considered improper, critical, or scandalous.

As his subjects, Strachey takes on Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale, Thomas Arnold (father of poet Matthew and director of the Rugby School), and General George Gordon. The four profiles are loosely connected through some other "minor characters" -- the poet Arthur Clough, Arthur Gladstone, Cardinal Newman, and of course, Queen Victoria.

The crystalline quality of the prose makes you want to read it aloud -- and even more -- it makes you wish you could hear Lytton Strachey himself reading it aloud, as he probably did to Leonard and Virginia. He brings these dusty old Victorian icons (dusty even by the time that he was writing it) to vivid life. In fleshing out their failings and triumphs, conceits and absurdities, he created a style of biography that makes these historical figures completely relevant to their modern successors -- the celebrated clergyman, the do-gooder, the academic, the military hero. He brilliantly cuts out characters with the swift, sure strokes of a master swordsman -- and he's just as deadly. Here he dispatches the unfortunate Arthur Clough:

Perhaps it was not surprising that a young man brought up in such an atmosphere should have fallen a prey, at Oxford, to the frenzies of religious controversy; that he should have been driven almost out of his wits by the ratiocinations of W.G. Ward; that he should have lost his faith; that he should have spent the rest of his existence lamenting that loss, both in prose and verse; and that he should have eventually succumbed, conscientiously doing up brown paper parcels for Florence Nightingale.

Strachey reminds me of how little removed we are from what we may deem the hoary past. The English were bogged down in Egypt, stuck in an occupation that was going nowhere between corrupt ruling pashas with their hands in the till and Islamic fundamentalist rebels who wanted to get rid of them all:

Their government had intervened unwillingly; the occupation of the country was a merely temporary measure; their army was to be withdrawn so soon as a tolerable administration had been set up. But a tolerable administration seemed a long time in coming, and remained.

That's a quote from EV, not the latest book by Ron Suskind, in case you were wondering. And so the English had to call on General George "Chinese" Gordon, who has a lot in common with another George (no, not that one or even that one), another general, in fact -- George S. Patton. Both won fame in early exploits, cut dashing figures, suffered ignominy, and then were brought back by pure desperation to save the day -- Patton in France and Germany, Gordon in Egypt and the Sudan. Both were arguably a little off their rockers and they both met bad ends; although dying in an automobile crash is a good deal less bad than having one's head cut off and placed in the fork of a tree to be abused by stone-throwers and circling hawks.

Well, they were too late, but at least the English did finally send a relief mission to Khartoum, in a vain attempt to extract the encircled and defiant General Gordon. Prime Minister Gladstone reluctantly gave way before the powerful politician, Lord Hartington, whose popularity Strachey attempts to explain. See if this reminds you of anyone (although I'm thinking of an entire body of someones):

...They loved him for being dull. It was the greatest comfort -- with Lord Hartington they could always be absolutely certain that he would never in any circmstances, be either brilliant or subtle, or surprising, or impassioned, or profound. As they sat, listening to his speeches in which considerations of stolid plainness succeeded one another with complete flatness, they felt, involved and supported by the colossal tedium, that their confidence was finally assured.

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