Lytton Strachey's elegant, energetic character assassinations destroyed for ever the pretensions of the Victorian age to moral supremacy

Vanessa Bell, "Lytton Strachey" (1911).

It is important not to allow infatuation with the style to prejudice judgement about the substance. Eminent Victorians is written in irresistibly elegant prose. But its place in the pantheon of English literature depends on how much the author was justified in diminishing, perhaps even destroying, the reputations of four 19th-century paragons of virtue. It is therefore something of a paradox that Continuum's "definitive edition" of Strachey's "most famous and influential work" - published "to commemorate" the 70th anniversary of the author's death - should add to each of the essays an "afterword" which questions his intellectual integrity.

In the afterword that follows "Cardinal Manning", David Newsome describes that biographical essay as "the odd man out". Unlike the portraits of Florence Nightingale and Matthew Arnold and "The End of General Gordon", it was based on a previously published biography. The distinction is important to Newsome because the work on which Strachey relied was written by a man with a grudge against Manning. But the implication that the other three essays are all of a piece is wrong.

Strachey thought Dr Arnold of Rugby "a self-righteous blockhead" but he also acknowledged that the inspiration of the Victorian public schools system was a man of "unhasting, unresting diligence". Cardinal Manning, on the other hand, is unremittingly excoriated. Florence Nightingale is depicted as a woman who is in many ways admirable but, in many more, intolerable. But General Gordon is mercilessly ridiculed. Although they are all united by Strachey's wish to undermine both their reputations and the values of the society by which they were sanctified, each of them is assaulted in a different way. The only constant theme is Strachey's hatred of what Frances Partridge (the last survivor of Bloomsbury) calls, in her foreword, the hypocrisy of the age.

Michael Holroyd, Strachey's biographer, said that Eminent Victorians began "without a thesis but acquired a theme" because of the First World War. The original idea was to write 12 Victorian silhouettes - including Ellen Terry, the Duke of Devonshire, Charles Darwin, Benjamin Jowett and John Stuart Mill. Had Strachey's initial intention been fulfilled, the work could not have had the same effect. For the final choice enabled him to focus his fire on what he believed to be the inherent vices of Victorian England - the humbug and the hypocrisy that come from organised religion. These were qualities which, he believed, imbued the men who led Europe into the First World War, and they were certainly the attributes of 19th-century "morality" against which the world turned after 1918. That is the year in which Eminent Victorians was published. The timing made it an overnight sensation.

It was "The End of General Gordon" which made the most compelling case against the attitudes and attributes that Strachey so despised. The indictment is easily described. Colonel Hicks, a retired British officer at the head of an army of 10,000 locally recruited soldiers, was sent to the Sudan to put down a rebellion of religious fanatics. The expedition failed and Hicks was murdered. The British public, stimulated by the British press, demanded that something be done, but neither press nor public were sure of what the something should be. Gladstone was dangerously detached from what he regarded as a pointless colonial adventure. Someone suggested that Gordon go to the Sudan "and report on the situation". Gradually, the purpose of the mission changed. Gordon left London with instructions to supervise an evacuation.

Strachey suggests that some of the enthusiasts for the appointment anticipated that, once Gordon arrived in Khartoum, he would feel no obligation to carry out orders with which he disagreed. The inevitable sequence of events that would follow - attempts to reinforce rather than evacuate the garrison - would then result in a permanent British occupation of both the Sudan and Egypt. If that is so, the imperialists picked the right man to guarantee their hopes would be fulfilled. Gordon would not withdraw until he could not withdraw. Perhaps he did not share the expansionist ambitions of the men who cynically expected him to ignore the terms of his appointment. But he did begin to feel a Christian soldier's obligation to stay in the Sudan until the Mahdi, an upstart fanatic, was beaten.

In pursuit of that duty, he remained in the Sudan in the mistaken belief that Gladstone would send an invasion force to rescue him and destroy the Mahdi. But Gladstone would not yield until it was too late. Gordon was killed and the whole episode ended in muddle and mismanagement so humiliating that Gladstone's government fell. A decade later, the British government sent General Kitchener to the Sudan to re-establish the Old Country's reputation. So, wrote Strachey, "it all ended very happily in the glorious slaughter of 20,000 Arabs [at Omdurman] and a step in the peerage for Sir Evelyn Baring", then consul general in Cairo.

In his afterword, John Pollock complains that Strachey was handicapped in his study of Gordon because he was "a vigorous agnostic, little removed from atheism". He then insists that Strachey overstated the general's weakness for drink. "Brandy was the normal social and medical drink in hot countries in his day." But none of his refutations, great or small, denies the general thrust of Strachey's argument. Gordon did plot and plan to achieve an outcome to his Sudanese adventure which was categorically different from that set out in his orders. And he was motivated in his disobedience by his mystical Christianity.

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