Eminent Victorians and History



Swindon. I can’t believe it! What will history say? Burgoyne. History, sir, will tell lies, as usual…
The Devil’s Disciple

 In an essay called “English Prose between 1918 and 1939” (1944), E. M. Forster takes some trouble to describe Lytton Strachey’s method as an historian. He worked from within,says Forster, and so brought his characters psychologically alive. By managing to get inside his subjects he was able to bring whole societies to life, and in so doing he revolutionized the art of biography. According to Forster, Strachey was implacable in his pursuit of truth.
But which truth and whose? Forster acknowledges that Strachey was uninterested in politics—no doubt a serious flaw in an historian; and he admits that Strachey must have gotten some of his biographical subjects wrong—most likely, General Gordon.
As usual, Forster himself is wrong; for if Strachey ever got anyone right, it was General Gordon. Certainly there is little else that he got right in Eminent Victorians. As Leon Edel has remarked of Strachey, “One may expect that the reverse of what he says is usually the truth”; his most characteristic vein is that of “malice and subterfuge.” Strachey’s motive in Eminent Victorians was to mock, to startle, to debunk—and to make himself famous. All of these things the book managed to do. But it did not manage to become history. Strachey got only a second in the historical tripos at Cambridge. He had wanted to be a history don but was considered by his examiners not good enough. He got even with them by making a farce of historiography. The readers of Eminent Victorians (1918), emerging wearily from a war brought about largely, so they thought, by the bungling and blundering of their fathers and grandfathers, were perfectly content, as Edel says, “to overlook [Strachey’s] mannerisms, his inaccuracies, his wantonly imagined details. . . . It was too easy to laugh at the past. And it was too easy to take shortcuts with documents.” The result was “skillfulcollage and pastiche” — but not, certainly, history.
It has been suspected for many years that Strachey was not a dependable historian. The questions worth asking and answering now are—what exactly did he do to the historical record, and why did he do it?
Strachey’s disinterest in the facts of political history was a reflection of one of Bloomsbury’s most obvious traits. (One night at dinner Vanessa Bell turned to the gentleman seated next to her, a friend of J. M. Keynes, and asked him if he were interested in politics. The gentleman’s name was Asquith, and he was Prime Minister of England. ) Surely Virginia Woolf is right when she says (in her essay “The Art of Biography”) that Strachey succeeded when he treated biography as a craft and failed when he treated it as an art. Biography, says Mrs. Woolf, “imposes conditions, and those conditions are that it must be based upon fact. And by fact in biography we mean facts that can be verified by other people beside the artist. If he invents facts as an artist invents them—facts that no one else can verify—and tries to combine them with facts of the other sort, they destroy each other.” The biographer, she says—reaching a conclusion very different from Strachey’s— is not an artist; at least, he shouldn’t be.
Strachey’s method as biographer, to use Mrs. Woolf’s terms, is that of an artist rather than that of a craftsman. Bloomsbury’s ideas about “significant form” govern his approach to history. His work is less objective than “autonomous,” a work of art with its own internal coherence and logic but with only some relation to what lies outside it—in this case, historical truth. Just as Roger Fry believed that paintings need express only themselves—need not, above all, be representational—so Strachey’s biographies are less representational, less reproductions of exterior reality, than artistic creations, like novels, true only to themselves and to what the artist sees. Strachey’s own philosophy of historiography (set forth in an essay in The Spectator in 1909) allows the historian to be—indeed, declares that he must be—an artist. Art, Strachey says here, is the great interpreter; through the artist’s personal revelation only may bare facts be transformed into readable history. History, he says, is less a science than a branch of literature; good history writing is as personal as poetry and requires literary method.
All this talk about art is palaver. Strachey wrote about history as art, but he wrote history as polemics. His very personal approach to his subjects assured the destruction of “pure” historiography. He did not believe in placing historical facts before the reader and letting him form his own conclusions. His method rather was to select his presentable facts in order to force the reader to reach the same conclusions he himself had reached before he began to write. He usually had in his head the plan of a book, including what he was going to say, long before he began reading and research on his topic. He took more interest in his characters than in their milieux and unfairly, I think, applied to them and to older customs and beliefs the modern standards of a less reverent age. In his books the events of past history often seem little more than a series of farcical imbecilities, trivial eccentricities, bigotries, and crimes resulting from a human nature consistently imperfect. In Strachey’s tendency to focus too much on personality and too little on the outside forces shaping personality, we can once again see the influences of Bloomsbury’s theories of form. For if Bloomsbury was anything, it was antihistorical. Strachey’s biographies are chiefly interesting as an expression of his age’s perception of others—whether the English Renaissance, as in Elizabeth and Essex, or the 19th century, as in Queen Victoria and Eminent Victorians.
Both Leonard and Virginia Woolf perceived the extent to which their generation was writing against preceding generations. Of his circle of friends at Cambridge (Strachey was one), Leonard Woolf wrote: “We were part of a negative movement of destruction against the past.” In “How It Strikes A Contemporary,” Mrs. Woolf said:
We are sharply cut off from our predecessors. A shift in the scale—the war, the sudden slip of masses held in position for ages—has shaken the fabric from top to bottom, alienated us from the past and made us perhaps too vividly conscious of the present. Every day we find ourselves doing, saying, or thinking things that would have been impossible to our fathers. . . . No age can have been more rich than ours in writers determined to give expression to the differences which separate them from the past and not to the resemblances which connect them with it.
 “Je n’impose rien; je ne propose rien: j’expose,” says Strachey in the preface to Eminent Victorians. Like almost everything else in the book, this is pure fabrication. Strachey got some of his facts right (principally in the account of General Gordon), but most of the rest of the time he distorts or simply changes what he knows to be the truth. Certainly he understands Cardinal Manning’s cruelty, cunning rigidity, megalomania, and hardheartedness. Equally well does he understand Florence Nightingale’s passion for medical reform, her hatred of bureaucracy and bungling, her genius for organization. In both of these studies he perceives the ways in which simple human affection and warmth have been obliterated by the cold ambition of aspiring natures. But he wants us to laugh at Victorian earnestness and devotion to duty, and in order to get us to do this he revises and flattens many of the facts of the lives of both. The account of Dr. Arnold is fabrication from first to last. The story of Gordon is brilliantly incisive—though even here Strachey was unable to resist some distortion of history.

Eminent Victorians is an attack upon Victorianism—more than anything else upon fanatical evangelicalism, which Strachey and many of his contemporaries felt had been chiefly responsible for making the Great War possible. It is for this reason that Eminent Victorians begins with a study of a famous Victorian cleric—even though the equally famous schoolmaster, Dr. Arnold, was born 13 years earlier than the Cardinal and died half a century earlier.
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