The Letters of Lytton Strachey
edited by Paul Levy
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 698 pp., $40.00
More than any others of his circle, Strachey survives as an image: tall, gaunt, bespectacled, and strikingly, one might say eminently, bearded. As a young man he wore a mustache that contributed to a general air of droopiness, but when he had mumps in 1911 he grew the reddish beard which he felt made him look like a French decadent poet, but which, continued through the broadly beardless 1920s, gave him the air of a Victorian sage. In almost every portrait of Strachey he is sitting down and reading a book, and clearly this is what he was usually doing. In Henry Lamb’s famous portrait of him, now in the Tate Gallery in London, he doesn’t have a book, and looks rather lost without one. He sits with his back to a vast window, through which the wintry trees of Hampstead Heath are seen, and two tiny figures in black going for a walk. A hat and umbrella wait on a nearby chair, but Lytton is in carpet slippers. His extraordinarily long hands clutch the arm of his cane chair, while his long legs stretch limply across the uncarpeted floor. Henry Lamb was the subject of a fruitless infatuation of Lytton’s, and this portrait, painted over several years, creates a memorable unease in the viewer. It seems to push insight to the point of criticism. We sense Strachey’s rigor, and his shyness (he doesn’t quite meet our eye); but in the great vitrine of the window he is more than lonely: he has become a specimen, invalidish, feminized, and faintly ridiculous.
Lamb knew Strachey’s readiness to take such a view of himself. In love he was usually drawn to men who would use him badly and deepen his sense of his own undesirability. Though there were spells of vigor, and he could cover the surprising mileages of Edwardian walking tours, he was often ill, and from early on sought the protection, the half-humorous indulgence, of a valetudinarian role: discovering Rabelais in 1917, he writes, “it is intoxicating to get a fresh enthusiasm when one’s over eighty”; he was thirty-six at the time. In letters he calls himself “wraith-like and incompetent…it is a damned nuisance to be pestered with such a body.” In his last years (which were only his late forties), he complains of “this eternal decrepitude, which makes me feel a hopeless imbecile.” Écrasé—crushed—is a recurrent self-description. The decision of the medical board in 1918 that he was “permanently and totally unfit for any form of Military Service” can have come as a surprise to nobody.
Strachey, previously known only as a reviewer and as the author of a book on French literature, was thirty-eight when Eminent Victorians came out and made his name. He was clearly aware, among his gifted and productive friends, of the relative slowness of this emergence. But it is clear too that the lightness and brilliance of the book, its stylistic bravura, the subliminal …