Lytton Strachey Redux : Is yet a third version of the writer’s biography really necessary? : LYTTON STRACHEY: The New Biography, <i> By Michael Holroyd (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $35; 780 pp., color and black and white photos)</i>
It must be an unusual situation when the biography of a biographer, and its history, vies in interest with the subject himself. But such is the case with Michael Holroyd’s biography of Lytton Strachey, now reissued in a third version 27 years after the publication in Britain of the first part of the first version.
Looking back to an earlier landmark in biography, we are interested in both Boswell and Johnson, but Johnson is still regarded as the more important; Johnson is more significant than his own biographical subject Richard Savage; the 17th-Century writer of brief lives, John Aubrey, is more intriguing than many of his subjects. So it is not unprecedented that Lytton Strachey has become, comparatively, increasingly less well- known than his biographer, who has also written definitive lives of Augustus John and George Bernard Shaw, and thanks to them has become increasingly better known.
With the publication of Strachey’s masterpiece of biography, “Eminent Victorians,” in May, 1918, shortly before the end of the first World War, he became the most famous member of the Bloomsbury group. At that time Virginia Woolf had published only one novel, “The Voyage Out,” in 1915; John Maynard Keynes had not yet published “The Economic Consequences of the Peace”; E. M. Forster was an established author but had not yet written “A Passage to India.” Now, the situation is reversed, and Strachey’s standing, as a writer, which was most important to him, may well be the lowest on the list. And although Holroyd has preserved Strachey’s reputation as a most memorable person, he has de-emphasized his role as a writer and innovator of post-Victorian attitudes. He has done so in an intriguing and ironic way that his subject might have appreciated, butperhaps not exactly as he might have wished.
“Eminent Victorians,” which Strachey had been working on before the war as “Victorian Silhouettes,” was given an increased and embittered power by the first World War. Its four sketches of Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale, Thomas Arnold and General Charles George Gordon were meant as antidotes to the huge, hagiographic biographies that were characteristic of the Victorian Age. Strachey’s studies also became in effect indictments of the public world, the emphasis on appearances, that had helped cause the Armageddon of the war itself.
The book was a first salvo of the skepticism that would mark the 1920s. That was the public Strachey for all the world to see. Bloomsbury in its private guise always believed in honesty in personal relations, which in practice frequently meant homosexual relations. But its members were not public crusaders in the sexual sphere; they did not agitate against the Labouchere amendment, which had made homosexual activities between males illegal. Forster anticipated a “better world” when his homosexual novel, “Maurice,” might eventually be published, and Strachey wrote some racy material for private circulation.
Thanks to Holroyd’s fine craftsmanship and indefatigable researches, his life of Lytton Strachey has become a major force in establishing the tradition of telling the full story, not only about Strachey but about others as well, be they homo-, bi-, or heterosexual. As Holroyd states, his was the first major post-Wolfenden biography. In Britain the Wolfenden Report on homosexuality and prostitution was released in 1957, but not until 1967 was homosexuality decriminalized. It was unlikely but possible that if that had not happened, Duncan Grant and Roger Senhouse, then still alive, could have been prosecuted (unless a statute of limitations intervened) for having been Strachey’s lovers. Even so they had some ambivalent feelings over being “outed” though they had never pretended to be other than what they were. Keynes’ homosexuality, as detailed in the book, was news to many. In a review, Nigel Nicolson was unenthusiastic about the book’s frankness, then a few years later he revealed all in his “Portrait of a Marriage” about his parents: Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West.
I suspect that Strachey would not have been displeased. He had enjoyed acting somewhat outrageously during his own lifetime. But he might have had mixed feelings about Holroyd doing so at such length and now in three versions. The original life was published in the United States in 1968 at 1,229 pages in two volumes. In 1971 the life was revised, this time divided into a biography and a literary study. The present volume has excised the 250,000 words of the literary study, although some attention is paid to the written work. Holroyd has rewritten his original text, cutting 100,000 words but adding the same number to this newest version. The author describes this procedure, and the story of the book, particularly his relation to Strachey’s brother, James, the translator of Freud, in a fascinating preface.
In good part because of the trail-blazing nature of the first version (an openness that was on its way given the nature of the 1960s) and the greater detail and incorporation of the cascade of writing by and about Bloomsbury over the last quarter of the century, the latest version is much less startling. And the comparative disappearance of literary criticism in the text means that what to my mind is the chief purpose of a biography of a writer--an illumination of the writings, in Strachey’s case, except for “Eminent Victorians,” now largely neglected--is hardly present. We are told a compelling life story, but it is not immediately obvious that we need to be told it at such great length and in a third version, useful though it is to have at hand.
There also seems to be a certain sadness in the tale, not only because of Strachey’s comparatively early death in 1932 at the age of 51. The premise of Bloomsbury’s belief about private life was that honesty about one’s feelings would certainly make for a better and perhaps even a happier life. Strachey enjoyed his fame and his fortune but as with other Bloomsbury figures he seemed to have a propensity for finding himself in difficult menages a trois. From 1915 until his death in 1932, he was in what was in effect a sexless marriage with the painter and bisexual Dora Carrington (whose life is about to be a “major motion picture” with Emma Thompson as Carrington and Jonathan Pryce as Strachey) despite her having given him her virginity in a rare heterosexual act on his part. Strachey lived with her and her husband, Ralph Partridge, whom he adored but who was relentlessly heterosexual. (Almost immediately after Strachey’s death, Carrington killed herself.) In my view, too much of the later part of this study is devoted to the sexual minuet, but in a minor key, involving Carrington, Partridge, Frances Marshall, Gerald Brenan and Mark Gertler, most of whom have had their own biographies and who in this context are attendant lords and ladies who threaten to take over the court.
Strachey’s great achievement was to demonstrate that biography need not be fawning or indeed respectable, although he had a certain odd affection for his subjects, even more apparent in his later works, his studies of Victoria herself and of Elizabeth and Essex. I don’t think that he would have approved of what Joyce Carol Oates has happily called “pathographies,” even though he led the way in that direction. Holroyd many years ago made a quantum leap forward, with great skill, to the new frankness. Now, which I guess is cause for rejoicing, there is nothing that cannot be told.
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