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by Lytton Strachey
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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
First published in 1918, these brilliant, short biographies open our eyes to the failings and accomplishments of four exceptional Victorians. Strachey's eloquence, as well as his finished prose style, make these a welcome adjunct to nineteenth-century studies in audio form. Nadia May reads clearly and well. However, she also has a strict and rather daunting British schoolmarm's voice, chilly enough to make one nervous about shutting off the tape without permission. One also hopes that it is not asking too much to have books written by male authors read by men, and books by women read by women. This practice brings one closer to the text. A.D.H. (c)AudioFile, Portland, Maine
Cardinal Manning * Florence Nightingale * Thomas Arnold * General Gordon Lytton Strachey's biographical essays on four 'eminent Victorians' dropped a depth-charge on Victorian England when the book was published in 1918. It ushered in the modern biography and raised the genre to the level of high literary art. Lytton Strachey approached his subjects with scepticism rather than reverence, and his iconoclastic wit and engaging narratives thrilled as well as shocked his contemporaries. Debunking Church, Public School and Empire, his portraits of Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale, Dr Arnold of Rugby, and General Gordon of Khartoum changed perceptions of the Victorians for a generation. This edition is unique in being fully annotated and in drawing on the full range of Strachey's manuscript materials and literary remains.
When it was published in 1918, EMINENT VICTORIANS became one of the first books to take apart the heroes of an earlier era. Its irreverent essays on Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale, Dr. Arnold and General Gordon found an eager audience in the post-WW I generation.
The Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature
Collection of short biographical sketches by Lytton Strachey, published in 1918. Strachey's portraits of Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale, Thomas Arnold, and General Charles "Chinese" Gordon revolutionized English biography. Until Strachey, biographers had kept an awestruck distance from their subjects; anything short of adulation was regarded as disrespect. Strachey, however, announced that he would write lives with "a brevity which excludes everything that is redundant and nothing that is significant," whether flattering to the subject or not. His intensely personal sketches scandalized stuffier readers but delighted many literati. Strachey's impressionistic portraits occasionally led to inaccuracy, since he selected the facts he liked and had little use for politics or religion. By portraying his "Eminent Victorians" as multifaceted, flawed human beings rather than idols, and by informing public knowledge with private information, Strachey ushered in a new era of biography.
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About the Author
John Sutherland is the author of s Heathcliff a Murderer? and three other literary puzzle books in OWC. He has edited numerous OWC Victorian classics, is a regular reviewer for the LRB, TLS, and Guardian, and writes a weekly column for the Guardian. He also appears regularly on the radio and television and was literary adviser for the recent Andrew Davies-scripted BBC adaptation of Trollope's The Way We Live Now. His biography of Stephen Spender is forthcoming.
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