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Eminent Victorians (1918)

by Lytton Strachey

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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1,755329,660 (3.76)72
Eminent Victorians marked an epoch in the art of biography; it also helped to crack the old myths of high Victorianism and to usher in a new spirit by which chauvinism, hypocrisy and the stiff upper lip were debunked. In it Strachey cleverly exposes the self-seeking ambitions of Cardinal Manning and the manipulative, neurotic Florence Nightingale; and in his essays on Dr Arnold and General Gordon his quarries are not only his subjects but also the public-school system and the whole structure of nineteenth-century liberal values.… (more)
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English (31)  Spanish (1)  All languages (32)
Showing 1-5 of 31 (next | show all)
So many great biobraphies owe their lineage to Lytton Strachey's classic Eminent Victorians, the original de-bunking biography. ( )
  MylesKesten | Jan 23, 2024 |
Strachey was a masterful prose stylist, and everything you've heard about this fascinating portrait of four representative figures of Victorian England broke new ground in biographical method. Strachey moved away from mammoth hagiographies to quick--but thorough--critical essays on his subjects, Highly recommended.
  Mark_Feltskog | Dec 23, 2023 |
I picked this up at a Little Free Library because I knew the author name in a vague sense and Victorians are definitely in my wheelhouse. I wasn't quite sure what to expect and I'm still not sure now I have finished it. It started with the quite long and fairly involved biography of the totally unknown to me Cardinal Manning, a British Roman Catholic, with much on the Oxford Movement. Each bio got a little shorter but they did all seem to knit together in a strange way. I learned much more about the Victorian period and people I knew little to nothing about and it gave me things to look at and learn about going forward. So, it was a good read in that way. Lytton Strachey has a fairly barbed wit but I enjoyed it.
  amyem58 | Oct 9, 2023 |
A brilliantly iconoclastic book in which a long-haired gay aesthete detonates the great and good of imperial England and the obsequious tradition of Victorian biography/hagiography along with them. The ‘ascetic’ Cardinal Manning is portrayed as a worldly and calculating careerist; Thomas Arnold as an educator who elevated religious indoctrination and ‘character-building’ above actual education; and General Gordon as a reckless, drunken and ultimately self-destructive adventurer. Interestingly, as she is the only female in the quartet, Strachey is rather more sympathetic towards Florence Nightingale and clearly on her side in her battles with the male dunderheads of the War Office.

Strachey may have been less than industrious with the research (he did no primary research), sometimes loftily indifferent to mere facts and a dab hand at embroidery in the interests of getting a laugh, but he wrote like an avenging angel and Eminent Victorians is eminently readable. Whatever its strengths and weaknesses as history, it’s straight from the top drawer as a work of literature. Above all, it’s very funny and teeming with great one-liners, sarcastic quips elevated to the level of art and lethal verbal hand-grenades disguised as elegant epigrams.

Strachey was writing against the backdrop of the appalling slaughter of the First World War (he was declared medically unfit but was an outspoken conscientious objector nonetheless) which was, arguably, the logical culmination of all that Victorian deference and veneration of ‘great men.’ Behind the sardonic humour this is a deeply felt work and through layers of irony Strachey wrote from the heart.

In his preface, reacting against the turgid two volume biographies of the time, he asserts that brevity should be the essence of biography. Despite Strachey’s reputation as the founder of modern biography this is one piece of advice many subsequent biographers have chosen to ignore. The idea persists that a definitive biography is possible and, it seems, the longer the biography the more ‘definitive’ it is. The two biographies of recent times I have enjoyed most are relatively concise by the blockbusting standards still prevalent in the genre - Ma’am Darling (99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret) and One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time. Both are by satirist Craig Brown and possess distinctly Stracheyan qualities of playfulness, formal invention and subversive wit. Like Strachey, Brown is concerned not with imparting new information about his subjects but providing a fresh perspective on a familiar story. He has said that his approach to biography is to leave out the boring bits; Lytton Strachey would undoubtedly have approved. ( )
  gpower61 | Jul 4, 2023 |
Eminent Victorians is a seminal work of biography that elevated the genre to the status of fine art. The biographical project was liberated by Strachey's humour, iconoclasm, and narrative flair, which replaced veneration with cynicism. For a decade, his images of Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale, Thomas Arnold, and General Gordon transformed people's conceptions of Victorians.
When Lytton Strachey's biographical articles on four "great Victorians" were published in 1918, they sent a shockwave through Victorian England. It was the beginning of the modern biography, elevating the genre to the status of high literary art. Strachey used his iconoclastic wit and cynicism to approach his themes rather than devotion. ( )
  jwhenderson | Feb 23, 2022 |
Showing 1-5 of 31 (next | show all)
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Strachey, Lyttonprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Holroyd, MichaelIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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To H.T.J.N.
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The history of the Victorian Age will never be written: we know too much about it.
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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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Eminent Victorians marked an epoch in the art of biography; it also helped to crack the old myths of high Victorianism and to usher in a new spirit by which chauvinism, hypocrisy and the stiff upper lip were debunked. In it Strachey cleverly exposes the self-seeking ambitions of Cardinal Manning and the manipulative, neurotic Florence Nightingale; and in his essays on Dr Arnold and General Gordon his quarries are not only his subjects but also the public-school system and the whole structure of nineteenth-century liberal values.

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