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Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey

Eminent Victorians (1918)

by Lytton Strachey

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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Showing 1-5 of 24 (next | show all)
I read Lytton Strachey years ago and felt this book had been overhyped, but rereading it in my late sixties, I found myself admiring his use of telling facts to open up the iconic facades of his four subjects and reveal something true about each as a human being rather than as an archetype or Victorian exemplar. ( )
  nmele | Jan 16, 2018 |
Strachey was beloved by Virginia Woolf, plus it's about Victorians--two great tastes! I expect this book to be like eating peanut butter swirled into chocolate. om nom nom.
  wealhtheowwylfing | Feb 29, 2016 |
This was my ebook-on-my-phone reading, which is why it took me so long to finish it. I enjoyed the section on Florence Nightingale the most and I happened to be reading the section on Cardinal Manning at a time when some of the themes covered in it came up in another context, which was nice and illuminating.

I'm not sure if this was the best book to be read one or three screens' worth at a time, but it was OK. ( )
  queen_ypolita | Feb 14, 2016 |
I read this book many years ago, maybe in college, and enjoyed it. It was a quick, easy read. I was familiar with the subjects, admittedly, least so with Cardinal Manning. It felt brisk and light-hearted. Years later, I read a review which stated that Strachey began the modern tendency to tear down and mock public figures, and gave this book as the start of the decline of public morals. I was a bit surprised at how much animosity the author had towards this slim little volume. So, when I saw it on the "Recommended" shelf at my local library, I picked it up to see if I had missed anything.

I had. After years of reading serious, scholarly biographies, the agenda in this work jumped off the pages. Strachey was a very angry man, and he channelled his anger into a passive aggressive tour de force. I ended up going back to the library for more detailed biographies of all four figures, just to get some context. (Since Strachey was writing sketches, about 50 pages or so, there was very little context.) Each of the serious biographies I read explicitly addressed Strachey's portrait, usually arguing very strongly that he misinterpreted things, ignored extenuating circumstances, etc. All of these works were published much more recently than Eminent Victorians, and it says something about the power of Strachey's writing that his versions of people has survived, even as his work is read less and less frequently.

Strachey published this in 1918, just after the end of WWI. He was part of the generation that saw their world ripped apart by the war, and they were all bitter and traumatized. He attacked these public heroes of the Victorian age as a way of drawing attention to the disaster that followed from their examples, their policies, their worldview. He had a definite agenda - to put an end to the entire corrupt, incompetent, murderous system. His light tone, and sly, snarky authorial voice were intended to make the whole thing so ludicrous that it would collapse of its own weight.

I don't know that he succeeded in that. Contra the earlier review I read, I don't think he personally started the fabled "decline in public morals." This is a fun book, and interesting book in the history of ideas, and is more interesting, the more you know about the subjects, the author, and the circumstances of its writing and publication. ( )
5 vote teckelvik | Dec 2, 2014 |
Four British personages, Florence Nightingale, George Gordon, Thomas Arnold and Cardinal Manning are skewered by the wit of Strachey. He holds them - among others - responsible for a legacy that had embroiled England (slightly before and through WWI) in controversial positions. The Victorian era government is held up to ridicule. Nightingale is portrayed as an obsessive, demanding and intolerant woman. Gordon is an egotistical general who was hardly as competent as his public image, Cardinal Manning is seen as a jealous rival of Cardinal Newman a convert to Catholicism, and Arnold was responsible for the wholly inadequate educational system that stressed sports ahead of science and discipline before common sense. In all, it is a book of enlightenment on the Victorian era often depicted in a romantic, heroic way. A good read. ( )
  JVioland | Jul 14, 2014 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Strachey, Lyttonprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Holroyd, MichaelIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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The history of the Victorian Age will never be written: we know too much about it.
Human beings are too important to be treated as mere symptoms of the past.
The art of biography seems to have fallen on evil times in England…..Those two fat volumes, with which it is our custom to commemorate the dead — who does not know them, with their ill-digested masses of material, their slipshod style, their tone of tedious panegyric, their lamentable lack of selection, of detachment, of design? They are as familiar as the cortege of the undertaker, and wear the same air of slow, funereal barbarism.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0140183507, Paperback)

The four biographical essays that make up Eminent Victorians created something of a stir when they were first published in the spring of 1918, bringing their author instant fame. In his flamboyant collection, Lytton Strachey chose to stray far from the traditional mode of biography: "Those two fat volumes, with which it is our custom to commemorate the dead--who does not know them, with their ill-digested masses of material, their slipshod style, their tone of tedious panegyric, their lamentable lack of selection, of detachment, of design?" Instead he provided impressionistic but acute (and, some said, skewed) portraits. Rarely does Strachey explore the details of a subject's daily or family life unless they point directly to an issue of character. In short, he pioneered a deeply sardonic and often scathingly funny biographical style.

None of Strachey's Victorians emerge unscathed. In his hands, Florence Nightingale is not a gentle archangel descended from heaven to minister sweetly to wounded soldiers, but rather an exacting, dictatorial, and judgmental crusader. Her "pen, in the virulence of its volubility, would rush ... to the denunciation of an incompetent surgeon or the ridicule of a self-sufficient nurse. Her sarcasm searched the ranks of the officials with the deadly and unsparing precision of a machine-gun. Her nicknames were terrible. She respected no one." Dr. Thomas Arnold, the man appointed to revamp the very private British public school system, fares little better: in Strachey's acid ink, he became "the founder of the worship of athletics and the worship of good form." In this same vain, military hero General Gordon is portrayed as a temperamental, irascible hermit, occasionally drunk and often found in the company of young boys--a man who tended to forget and forgo the tenets found in the Bible he kept with him always. And the powerful and popular Cardinal Manning, who came within a hair's breadth of succeeding Pope Pius IX, belonged, Strachey writes, "to that class of eminent ecclesiastics ... who have been distinguished less for saintliness and learning than for practical ability."

As he offered up indelible sketches of his less-than-fab four, Strachey was intent on critiquing established mores. This effortlessly superior wit knew full well that deep convictions and good deeds often go hand in hand with hypocrisy, arrogance, and egomania. His task was to pique those who pretended they did not. --Jordana Moskowitz

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 17:59:40 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

Lytton Strachey's biographical essays on four 'eminent Victorians' dropped a depth-charge on Victorian England when the book was published in 1918. This edition is fully annotated and draws on the full-range of Strachey's manuscript materials and literary remains.… (more)

» see all 2 descriptions

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