A Very Queer Gentleman

Lytton Strachey, Vol. 1, The Unknown Years 1880-1910, Vol. 2, The Years of Achievement, 1910-1932

by Michael Holroyd
Holt, Rinehart & Winston, Vol. 1, 474, Vol. 2, 754 pp., $29.95 the set

Lytton Strachey
Lytton Strachey; drawing by David Levine

Lytton Strachey is a deceptive figure. Portraits and photographs depict him as a withdrawn, pallid creature, hiding behind a beard and peering out at an alien world, etiolated, passive, blank. The reality was different. He possessed a will of iron, a character so strong and so entirely self-confident of his capacity to sit in judgment upon society that he was able to impose his vision of what the world was like upon a generation younger than his with hardly a gesture toward the prejudices and received views of his times. He might have been describing himself when he wrote of Florence Nightingale that her parents had hatched not a swan but an eagle.

Only in childhood was he dutiful and submissive. He never felt the need to revolt against his family because they were cultivated and intelligent. His father, a retired general who had seen service in India, was also an explorer, scientist, and Fellow of the Royal Society; his mother, though like most girls of her class a bit erratic in her learning, was a passionate admirer of French culture. Their enormous family of thirteen children lived in a vast and hideous house in unfashionable Bayswater. But the claustrophobic atmosphere of this house—its lack of rooms and waste of space, a symbol of his own perennial ill-health and withered hopes—made Lytton realize that this style of life would not do. His attempts to fit in, first at one boarding school of suffocating religiosity to which his agnostic parents sent him, and next at another of swingeing philistinism, seem also to have convinced him that it was the world about him that should adapt and not he to the world. Then came the revelation. After a brief spell studying literature under Walter Raleigh at Liverpool, he went up to Cambridge and there found not only the circle of friends who were to become the nucleus of the Bloomsbury group, but also the young philosopher G. E. Moore.

The story of how Moore liberated them all has often been told. What Moore actually said is hardly ever correctly analyzed by biographers, and Strachey’s biographer is no exception. This does not matter much: it is more to the point what his followers then made of it. Even here there is no precise agreement, and Leonard Woolf has corrected Keynes’s account of the message that Moore conveyed. It was both a method and a message. The method consisted in expressing incredulity—you raised your eyebrows—that an opponent could make a statement when it must be clear to all that his statement was meaningless and hence benighted. The message was one of intense purity and unworldliness. The summum bonum was the cultivation of good states of mind and these were most likely to be achieved in communion with friends and the contemplation of beauty. Moore’s message was taken by his disciples as a gospel of friendship. But…

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