Lytton Strachey

Eminent Victorians

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Eminent Victorians Summary

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Eminent Victorians (1918) is a collection of four short biographies by Lytton Strachey. The biographies of these famous Victorians are hardly exhaustive but focus on only the most important aspects of each life. Using Freudian psychology to examine each subject’s neuroses, Strachey writes about Cardinal Henry Edward Manning, Florence Nightingale, Dr. Thomas Arnold, and General Charles Gordon. An excellent full-text version of this book can be found for free download through Project Gutenberg.

The first biography is about Cardinal Manning, which Strachey writes against the Oxford movement, a time of upheaval in the Church of England. The Church of England had become complacent. A group of young men decided to “rescue” the Church from the trappings of Protestantism and secularism, sparking off the Oxford movement back to the rigors of a more traditional form of Christianity. Manning, then a young rector, was persuaded by these arguments. He later repudiated these beliefs and the friends attached to them when it became evident that the only way to return to the roots of the Church was a return to Catholicism, a notion that sparked a backlash among Church authorities, ultimately killing the movement. By then, Manning was thirty-eight years old and a rising star in the Church. He studied a myriad of saints and the writings of Aquinas and Augustine, and even chose to recuperate from an illness in Rome, but nothing stopped the disquiet and religious doubts that plagued him. Eventually, Manning converted to Catholicism. In the resulting brouhaha, the Catholic Cardinal in England died, and Manning was appointed his replacement as Archbishop; he became a Cardinal in 1875. After Pope Pius IX died, his name arose as a possible contender for the position, but he rejected the opportunity and Leo XIII was elected instead. Manning died in 1892 at the age of eighty-four.

In Florence Nightingale’s biography, Strachey dispels the notion that she was a saintly woman who floated from bed to bed in hospitals, healing the sick. Instead, Strachey writes: “A Demon possessed her,” insisting that the real Nightingale was brilliant but disagreeable. How much we can trust his word here is negligible, as even in 1915 (the time he wrote Nightingale’s biography), a ruthless, driven woman of intelligence might well appear to Strachey as monstrous. She also insisted on pursuing a profession in nursing at a time when such an occupation for a woman of gentle birth would have been scandalous and unthinkable. Strachey focuses primarily on her time as a nurse in the Crimean War (1853-56) and her later attempts to reform the War Office. She arrived at the warfront hospitals in 1854 and found the situation to be hell on earth—understaffed, underprovisioned, dirty, and lacking in almost every conceivable way. When she arrived, she brought supplies and money, and it quickly became obvious that she was a good steward of the resources, whereas certain men would divert money meant for war provisions and medical care into building a new church. She instituted reform in the Scutari hospitals: better food for the wounded, cleaner conditions, clothing requisitions, improvements in laundry service, and she found out that the supplies were often forgotten on ships and re-crossed the sea multiple times before being delivered. After the war, she returned to England in ill health, but lived for another half-century, becoming involved with hospital reforms and the War Office.

Dr. Arnold’s biography is about reforming the education system. Arnold became the headmaster of Rugby when he was only thirty-three years old. He aimed to instill three values into his students: religious sentiment and instruction, gentlemanly behavior, and intellectual rigor, which suited parents well because they saw little use for the classics. Even so, his students studied Greek and Latin, some arithmetic, and literature. Science was left out entirely, and every Sunday, he delivered a sermon in church that generally made an impression on everyone in attendance. He instituted a prefectorial system based on Old Testament theocracies: the Sixth Form boys were given power over the younger boys, including chastisement, while they themselves were immune from being chastised. He also believed in and worked toward the integration of Church and State, something that never came to fruition. Dr. Arnold died on his forty-seventh birthday, possibly of heart trouble like his own father.

The final biography is about General Gordon. As a young man, he distinguished himself in Crimea, later having much ado with the Chinese government. However, the vast majority of his time and energy was spent in Africa, especially in Sudan. He attempted to “civilize” central Africa, but mostly encountered insects, tropical diseases, the ire of the natives, the stubbornness of slave traders, and the indifference of those under and above his command. Strachey paints Gordon as “a little off his head” (239), with no sense of tact or diplomacy, and a ferocious temper that could quickly swing from humor to rage, and from exuberance to the blackest of moods. His final adventure was an abject failure, ending in a siege at Khartoum when religious fundamentalists nearly overthrew the Egyptian occupation. The English were reluctant to get involved, and Gordon was incapable of retreat. By the time relief forces arrived, it was already too late. Gordon died in combat when the palace was overrun.

Overall, Eminent Victorians revolutionized the biographical genre. Before this book, biographies often struck a tone of fawning admiration, emphasizing good things about the subject and neglecting or glossing over anything uncomplimentary. By contrast, Strachey is unafraid to show his subject in an unflattering light. However, readers should keep two things in mind about this book. First, good research generally means working with a mix of primary and secondary sources, but Strachey relies almost entirely on secondary sources, meaning that instead of investigating original documents for himself (primary), he mostly relies on what other people have already written about his subjects (secondary). As one Guardian review puts it, “Eminent Victorians would transform the art of biography, but it did not do so by force of content or integrity of method … His portraits of these nineteenth-century imperial icons are brilliant but unreliable, coruscating but partisan, and enthralling but frequently derivative.” Second, Strachey is sometimes lax about the veracity of his details. For example, although he claims Cardinal Manning was born in 1807 in the very first line of the book, the Encyclopedia Britannica and all other reputable sources say 1808.