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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 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 Portraits and photographs depict him as a withdrawn, pallid creature, hiding behind a beard and peering out at an alien world, etiolated, passive, blank.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 what does friendship mean? If we say that it implies love, how does love relate to sex? This question was of the utmost importance to Strachey because he was homosexual.

THE CULT of homosexuality at the beginning of this century was a European phenomenon. Whether in Berlin or Vienna, in the Paris of Proust or Gide, in Oscar Wilde’s London, the same upper-class fashion in homosexuality could be observed, the same predilection for choir-boys or footmen, or for the rougher stuff of guardsmen, sailors, and low-life characters, and the same longing for mixing sex with danger—the danger being supplied by the fear that at any time one’s career might be ruined by being “rented” (i.e., blackmailed) by a male prostitute. No scholarly study has been made of the cult, and it needs to be made: Phyllis Grosskurth’s brilliant biography of John Addington Symonds presents examples of the kind of material and considerations which would have to be examined. The status and image of women is an obvious factor. Another is the relationship of the upper to the lower classes, e.g., the search by the sophisticated for “simple” emotions and “direct” companionship, and the ability to ditch the boy without much fuss.

But in England the cult of homosexuality was specially reinforced in the upper classes by their education. From the age of eight to eighteen they were incarcerated in boarding school for thirtyfive weeks in the year, and after that many of them went to Oxford or Cambridge where life in college was hardly less monastic than it had been at their public schools. In Strachey’s day dons had only recently been permitted to marry and continue to hold their fellowships; and most of the young dons could not afford to support a wife in middleclass style. Undergraduates were solemnly warned of the guileful way in which they might be entrapped by the tobacconist’s daughter, and every college was a bachelor community. Such communities provide elaborate justifications for their ethos, and in this case the justification came from the classics.

The classics were the staple diet of English education and in the mid-nineteenth century Jowett had tried to turn Plato into a Father of the Church; but by the end of the century the morality of the ancient Greeks was being used by the post-Paterian generation as a counterblast to Christianity. When the King’s don, Lowes Dickinson, wrote in 1896 The Greek View of Life, he included a lyrical chapter on the tradition of passionate friendship between men, “which supplied to the Greek that element of romance which plays so large a part in modern life; and it is to this, and not to the relations between men and women, that we must look for the highest reaches of emotional experience.” Men and women in love beget and bear children; but men in love with men beget wisdom. Dickinson’s disciple, E. M. Forster, embroidered a theme on this passage in The Longest Journey:

Nature has no use for us; she has cut her stuff differently. Dutiful sons, loving husbands, responsible fathers—these are what she wants, and if we are friends it must be in our spare time. Abram and Sarai were sorrowful, yet their seed became as sand of the seas…. But a few verses of poetry is all that survives of David and Jonathan.

It was in this atmosphere of fevered but restrained crushes that Strachey came of age. But why, if the Theban band were active lovers, should not Cambridge undergraduates be? Moreover, was it not part of the sickening hypocrisy of Edwardian life that not only did the great British public howl for Wilde to be disgraced and shunned, but even those who praised homosexual relationships never dreamt of laying a finger upon the object of their desire or exacted more than a chaste kiss? Strachey took the cult of homosexuality which had been growing since the mid-nineteenth century and turned it into a symbol of revolt. It gained pace during the period between the two wars and affected the style of life, arts, and social attitudes in England. It flourished in Oxford and Cambridge, and a procession of famous practitioners made their debut there—King’s was the temple of the cult, and the high table of Trinity used to be divided into “good Trinity” and “bad Trinity,” i.e., the passive non-practicing and the rapacious pursuers. Suddenly in the early 1950s the cult ceased to have any importance or influence, and new generations of undergraduates found other ways of expressing deviance and disporting themselves.

HOMOSEXUAL INTRIGUES gave Strachey the chance to live life as he saw it. He saw it as a drama of psychological conflict and in his own case the drama was a comedy and not a tragedy. Keynes was his confederate in the chase, and their affairs remind one not of Socratic friendship so much as the intense plotting in Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Would Keynes or Strachey win the affections of a freshman in Clare? Keynes won. Surely after having taken Swithinbank from Strachey, Keynes could not now take Duncan Grant from him? He could and did. At one point Strachey denounced Keynes in the Apostles as being lascivious without lust, and pilloried that streak of insensitivity which all Keynes’s friends observed; but the friendship between them never wavered.

Strachey needed friends. His life appeared to be a failure. He had failed to get a First in the Tripos, failed to get a Trinity Fellowship, failed to make a mark in London where he lived disconsolately in the suffocating family house in Bayswater penning articles and reviews for the Spectator and other weeklies. These articles and even his little book on French literature gave no indication of his power as a writer. He was perpetually ill, penniless, supported in the end by a subscription from friends, and his letters reveal his apathy, low spirits, and self-distrust. Despairing of his unromantic appearance he proposed out of the blue to Virginia Woolf, was appalled when she accepted him, and lay prostrate with relief when she too came to her senses and realized that marriage between them would have been grotesque. (They were devoted admirers, but their correspondence brought out the worst in them. Each was aware that the other had talons, and a curious conspiracy arose between them to make mischief and vent their cruelty and malice against anyone who have onto the horizon.) Then his life changed.

If Moore liberated Strachey from the Victorian intelligentsia, Lady Ottoline Morrell liberated him from Bloomsbury. In its early days Bloomsbury was a matriarchy ruled over by Vanessa Bell. Strachey remained attached to it all his life and was its principal animator. But just as Keynes was later to look for relief in marriage with the enchanting ballerina, Lydia Lopokova, Strachey, much to Bloomsbury’s disgust became for a short time infatuated with Lady Ottoline. “She is a strange, tragic figure. (And such mysteries.)” He had already tiptoed into Bohemia, being bewildered by the chaos of Augustus John’s life and repelled by Henry Lamb’s ruthlessness. Now he was to be enveloped in the aristocratic embrace.

Both these circles taught him how complicated human beings really are so that he was less taken aback than he might have been by the enigmatic girl who changed his way of life. This was a former student of the Slade School known to everyone by her surname Carrington, and at that time pursued by a Lawrentian, daemonic figure, the painter Mark Gertler. Gertler’s rage and despair, his horror and incredulity, his torture and jealousy, knew no bounds when he at last came to learn that her refusal to become his mistress was now absolute because she had fallen in love with the teetering, tittering Strachey.

From then on Lytton lived in country cottages with Carrington. She forever in retreat from admirers found in him a man the least likely to pursue her. He found in her someone of extraordinary originality of character who accepted, and subconsciously found relief in, the limitations of his love for her. The complications began after the war when Strachey fell in love with a handsome demobilized officer, Ralph Partridge, and he with Carrington. This ménage à trois extended when Partridge’s best friend, Gerald Brenan, also fell in love with Carrington, and Partridge with Frances Marshall, and Lytton with a succession of enchanting young men. Fearful explosions rent the air, and at times it seemed as if the ship must founder with all hands. But no; bucket in hand, with his tact, sensibility, and the devotion which underlay his satire, Strachey would put out the fires, and he would be seen when the smoke subsided, maneuvering his ship toward calmer waters, so that his own comfort and way of life could be preserved. When he died in 1932 Carrington determined to take her own life. Foiled the first time, she succeeded the second and left behind a quotation from Wotton written in her bizarre handwriting: “He first deceased, she for a little tried,/To live without him, liked it NOT and died.”

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