Friday, 30 September 2011

Lytton Strachey

It takes Basil Willey in Nineteenth Century Studies to put us right about Lytton Strachey’s scalpel job on Thomas Arnold in his Eminent Victorians. He does not deny that it is exquisitely done with the contrast of high minded quandry and banal fact that leads to bathos. Arnold’s earnest wresting with evil is followed by:
His legs, perhaps, were shorter than they should have been; but the sturdy athletic frame especially when it was swathed (as it usually was) in the flowing robe of a Doctor of Divinity, was full of imposing vigour; and his head, set decisively upon the collar, stock and bands of ecclesiastical tradition, clearly belonged to a person of eminence.

Strachey’s chum Virginia Woolf once described James Joyce as underbred. We must therefore accept that she might have considered Lytton overbred or in any case some sort of genetic cul-de-sac that it would be unsafe to breed from should he have been so inclined. The character of St. John Hirst in The Voyage Out is said to be modelled on him. “There’s Hirst...........And he’s as ugly as sin”

Strachey’s way with Thomas Carlyle in a shorter piece collected in Portraits in Literature is similarly deflationary, prophetic fire reduced to a fart in a biscuit tin.

He had higher views: surely he would be remembered as a prophet. And no doubt he had many of the qualifications for that profession - a loud voice, a bold face and a bad temper. But unfortunately there was one essential characteristic that he lacked - he was not dishonoured in his own country. Instead of being put into a pit and covered with opprobrium, he made a comfortable income , was supplied by Mrs. Carlyle with everything that he wanted, and was the favourite guest at Lady Ashburton’s fashionable parties. Prophecies, in such circumstances, however voluminous and disagreeable they may be, are apt to have something wrong with them. And in any case, who remembers prophets? Isaiah and Jeremiah, no doubt have gained a certain reputation; but then Isaiah and Jeremiah have had the extraordinary good fortune to be translated into English by a committee of English Bishops.

The loss to English literature of Jane Welsh is blamed on the Sage of Chelsea. No, Lytton, no, this must be the easiest sum ever presented to the felicific calculus. The misery of two people was obviated by them marrying each other.
Finally one must judge Strachey to be an unreliable critic though a wonderful stylist with an accurate but not deadly sting. His major works are available on the Gutenberg Project.

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