Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey

Unlike the other biographies we’ve looked at this year (Roper’s Life of More, Cavendish’s Life of Cardinal Wolsey, and Boswell’s Life of Johnson), Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians is a work marked by distance seen through the fresh eyes of a new generation. Roper, Cavendish and Boswell were all writing of their contemporaries, and of contemporaries for whom they cared deeply. Strachey’s examination of four major figures from the Victorian era is quite different.

Writing in 1918, knowing the depredations of WWI, and with the skepticism the war inspired in a whole generation of authors, Strachey looked with a critical eye upon the figures many English had lionized (and still lionized in Strachey’s day) as among the best of England, during the Golden Era they imagined took place under Queen Victoria.

In this volume, Strachey wrote short biographies of four figures: Cardinal Henry Manning, Miss Florence Nightingale, Dr. Thomas Arnold and General Charles Gordon. In the case of Manning, he saw a man whose actions belied the great reputation he had among Anglo-Catholics. In the case of Florence Nightingale, he saw a tireless reformer who almost single-handedly reformed medical practice in British army hospitals, but whose zeal was too often tough on those around her. In the case of Dr. Arnold, he saw a man who was able to change the tone of English Public Schools, but who was unable and unwilling to move the education in them past the Latin and Greek classics that had long been the basis of Public School education. And in the case of Gen. Gordon, he saw a man of contrary aspects in one person, a man of great personal piety, but also a man with a great ego, convinced of his own destiny, a conviction that led to his death at Khartoum and the fame that came with that end.

Manning was one of the great Anglican churchmen who made up the Oxford Movement and who, after some time as a clergyman in the Anglican Church converted to Roman Catholicism. During much of his life, he stood in the shadow of Cardinal John Henry Newman, the leading scholar of the Oxford Movement (we looked at Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua in January, a shadow to which he is once again relegated. Unlike Newman, Manning had greater influence in Rome, where it was felt that Newman was too intellectual. Manning was a close ally of Pope Pius IX (Pio Nino), who called the First Vatican Council in 1868, at which council the matter of papal infallibility was discussed. Strachey sees Manning as motivated by jealousy of Newman, taking steps to ensure that Newman’s advancement in the Church was delayed and his initiatives blocked. While not doubting Manning’s sincerity, or ability, Strachey saw this jealousy and politicking unbecoming in a churchman. He does admit that Manning saw his drive for advancement as problematic, quoting him: “I do feel pleasure … in honour, precedence, elevation, the society of great people, and all this is shameful and mean.”

In the case of Florence Nightingale, the founding mother of modern nursing, who worked tirelessly for more professional behavior on the part of nurses and doctors in the military hospitals, and for greater hygiene in those establishments, Strachey sees someone whose story is much more nuanced than the hagiographic image the Victorians and later generations had of her as a medical angel. In telling her story, Strachey often contrasts her own vigor and strict sense of professional ethics with those of the doctors and politicians with whom she had to deal. Given Victorian mores, it was impossible for her to make her views known and acted upon without the help of a sympathetic man. While finding that sexism abhorrent, Strachey also notes that, in her zeal for reform, she managed to drive her chief ally, Sidney Herbert, into an early grave.

In Thomas Arnold, another reformer, Strachey emphasizes opportunity missed. Dr. Arnold is most famous as the headmaster of Rugby school, lionized as such in Thomas Hughes’ novel, Tom Brown’s Schooldays. His accomplishment was truly tremendous. The British Public School at the turn of the 19th c. was nothing as we imagine it today. The masters ran the schools in a tyrannical manner, and the boys exhibited a wildness that seemed to justify that tyranny. Dr. Arnold normalized a system, whereby the elder boys in the school served as models and correctors of the younger boys, and the headmaster, removed from much contact with the lower grades, worked with the school leaders to set and maintain a high tone in behavior and morals. In almost single-handedly transforming English public school governance, Arnold is a figure to be admired, but Strachey is quite emphatic that Arnold failed to see the greater revolution in education he might have led. The course of studies at Arnold’s school remained quite conservative, relying almost entirely on the Greek and Roman classics and the Bible, which meant that the young men who would become Britain’s leaders in the late 19th c. would remain ignorant in many areas – this is the same failing that American Henry Adams found in his own schooling in Massachusetts at the same time, as discussed in The Education of Henry Adams.

Charles Gordon, the last subject in this collection, offered a strange dichotomy. Here was a man of strong Christian faith, who could often be seen reading or studying the Bible, but he was also a man whose big ego and conviction of personal destiny put him at odds with his superiors and ended in his death at Khartoum. In writing about Gordon’s life, Strachey is quick to point out that Gordon was a much more principled and intelligent man than many of the men in government commanding him; Strachey concludes the narrative of Gordon’s life by noting that the superior whom Gordon despised, won a knighthood. But he is also quick to point out that Gordon was very difficult to work with, and that his own uncompromising attitude may have contributed to the worsening situation in Sudan that led to his death at Khartoum. Strachey finds it strangely ironic that public opinion got Gordon his position in Sudan, and gave him the sense that he could ignore policy decisions by the government, and that, after his death, the same public opinion lionized the heroic Gordon who died at Khartoum. It is clear that Strachey feels that much of the suffering in the Sudan might have been avoided, and that Gordon might not have died at Khartoum, had this perfect storm of public adulation and personal ego not created the image of Gordon the hero, whose tragic death helped solidify that image.

About the Author

Bernard Norcott-Mahany, a library technical assistant at the Lucile H. Bluford Branch, is our resident connoisseur of classic literature. He is also the leader of the Black Classics and In the Heat of the Night book groups.

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