• Email
  • Print

Eminent Anti-Victorian

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 air of absurdity that haunts even its most sober passages, were the fruit of long thought, complex feeling, and protracted struggle. It was a work of art, in a way that his letters, quite reasonably, weren’t. The letters, as selected and (somewhat eccentrically) annotated by Paul Levy, convey the struggle not only to write that book, but to become his adult self.

Though the letters are often interesting, sometimes funny, and indeed full of malice, candor, and buggery, the first half of the book in particular has a sort of opacity to it, an air of frustration and indecision which conveys itself to the reader through a good deal of waffle, evasiveness, and what he himself calls “blither.” The letters are peppered with exclamations—“Good Lord!” “Good heavens!” “Mon dieu!” “Lord, lord, lord!”—a recurrent bleat of bemusement and protest, so frequent that you feel they must have been typical of his talk as well, in its notorious fretful falsetto. What does anything mean? “The world is too intolerably confused.” What is he going to do when he leaves Cambridge, a place whose magic is fast evaporating? Where will he find happiness? What is he going to write? (He thinks for a long time he will be a playwright, and works on large verse dramas.) How is he to cope with his mood swings, and with the Cambridge-Bloomsbury round of love affairs in which he seems always to be left without a partner? “It’s terrifying as well as consoling—never to know from minute to minute whether one’s going to be in the inferno, or a first class compartment, with fur rugs and foot-warmers and a beautiful young man on the opposite seat.”

He can make a joke out of it, and seek to entertain, but what these earlier letters lack is the note of charm or solicitude. They are too self-absorbed, too urgent to their writer, perhaps, to allow much disinterested thought for the recipient. His practice of plunging straight in without any opening endearment impersonalizes them further. They lack the peculiar alchemy of a great letter-writer like Evelyn Waugh, who even at his blackest and most misanthropic could turn out letters that must have been a joy to receive.

Levy has taken the peculiar decision to make up the first hundred and more pages of his book almost wholly of letters to Leonard Woolf (leaving out, except for one example, the delightful and precocious letters of childhood and adolescence quoted in Holroyd). Woolf was a close Cambridge friend who went to work as an administrator in Ceylon, and Strachey’s letters to him are by design informative about life at home and the antics of their mutual friends, and thus useful from a biographical point of view. But presented en masse they create a very constricted portrait of Strachey as a correspondent and as a social being. If you read Holroyd’s biography in parallel (and really it’s necessary, if you’re to follow the story at all clearly), you see that Holroyd tells, for instance, the story of Strachey’s affair with the painter Duncan Grant largely through letters to Maynard Keynes, wittier and more vivid than those to the heterosexual Woolf, and with larger implications too, because of the personal tensions between Strachey and Keynes and the fact that Keynes was shortly to start a secret affair with Grant himself.

At Cambridge, Strachey was a member of the Apostles—more properly, the Cambridge Conversazione Society—whose secret proceedings, the reading and discussion of papers behind locked doors over tea and anchovy toast, were governed by principles of absolute candor. In the lingo of the Apostles, other people were mere “phenomena” while they themselves were “realities.” It was the sort of clique that Strachey liked best, and its ethos, contained but experimental, and self-consciously superior, was to remain with him all his life, for good and for ill: it licensed not only the liberating frankness, about sex, morality, and religion, that he brought to Bloomsbury but also the total lack of feeling for “phenomenal,” or more ordinary, life that is characteristic of him, and seems often a limitation of Bloomsbury art.

The proselytizing homosexual element is central to this complex of feelings and assumptions. His fellow Apostle Bertrand Russell claimed that Strachey had homosexualized the society, and turned it into a forcing house of romantic attachments. The letters to Woolf are certainly full of amorous rivalries and fervent interest in the potential of new members: “he talks ‘philosophy’ and ‘sodomy’ with great ease,” he notes approvingly of one of them in 1906. The philosophy was an important part, and it was the philosopher G.E. Moore who had the profoundest influence on Strachey. Had Moore himself homosexual feelings? Strachey didn’t quite dare ask this revered figure—perhaps the only truly revered figure in his life—this simple question. But Moore’s Principia Ethica, with its emphasis on aesthetic experience and the cultivation of personal relationships, was seized on by the anti-Christian Strachey as a kind of alternative bible, a moral authority for his own temperament and worldview.

Again you would have to go to Holroyd to find the letter to Keynes of April 8, 1906, in which he speaks about the possible consequences of Moore’s doctrine:

It’s madness of us to dream of making dowagers understand that feelings are good, when we say in the same breath that the best ones are sodomitical. If we were crafty and careful, I dare say we’d pull it off. But why should we take the trouble? On the whole I believe that our time will come about a hundred years hence, when preparations will have been made, and compromises come to, so that, at the publication of our letters, everyone will be, finally, converted.

Since the centenary Strachey looks forward to falls in a few weeks’ time, it’s hard not to feel that Levy has missed a trick. The value of the letter depends, of course, on how you take “converted.” If Strachey is saying that everyone will be gay in 2006, or at least think gay feelings are “the best,” he is clearly exaggerating Moore’s influence to a comic degree; if he’s saying that the idea of homosexual love will have found wide acceptance then his prophecy has a measure of justice to it, as well as an untypical patience. It was his brother James’s belief that he was planning some “explicit autobiographical campaign” for homosexual equality at the time he died.

Strachey was always exhilarated by the novelty as well as the naturalness of gay life. After writing of one of Keynes’s affairs, he exclaims,

These last three pages are I suppose unparalleled in the annals of known correspondence. How many persons do they put under criminal imputations? What scandals! What disclosures! And yet Heaven knows there’s nothing abnormal in the whole account.

We have grown so used to thinking of gay lives in the decades after 1895 as shadowed and immobilized by the conviction of Oscar Wilde that Strachey’s breeziness and intellectual self-assurance are very refreshing.

The letters throw some light on historical usage in this vaguely embarrassed matter. When such love dared to speak its name, it was not always quite sure what to call itself. The word “homosexuality,” newfangled in 1892, and spread by the burgeoning literature of psychology, makes its first and only appearance in these letters in 1929. “Sodomy,” with its resonance of biblical anathema and perhaps of the Wilde trials, is the preferred term at the Cambridge stage; the blunter “buggery,” as a metonym for the whole homosexual condition, comes later, and has a certain Bloomsbury defiance to it—cheerful, straightforward, but with some residue of awkwardness in its bluntness. (Virginia Woolf gives a revealing account of “the atmosphere of buggery” around Lytton, which made on her “a tinkling, private, giggling, impression. As if I had gone in to a men’s urinal.”)

In Strachey’s letters, actual sexual descriptions are greatly outnumbered by hints and fantasies about young men seen on the train or in the street. Levy prints a rapturous letter to Leonard Woolf describing sex with Duncan Grant on Hampstead Heath: “I had hardly believed so much was possible; to be embraced so passionately, to be kissed so often, and not to know whether one was buggering, or being buggered!” One feels one would, as a rule, have a pretty clear idea about that, but perhaps he is using the word in some looser way, or referring to a commonplace uncertainty about sexual roles. The rapturous note is only heard again in the letters to Roger Senhouse, the much younger boyfriend of Strachey’s last years (“Dearest Monster,” “Dearest angel,” “Dearest of divine creatures”), with whom sex was sadomasochistic, and again with an uncertainty about roles, the dominant and donnish Strachey gratefully submitting to various mild tortures and an apparently enjoyable crucifixion.

In a letter to Woolf in 1905, Strachey exclaims: “Oh, Christ! my loneliness here…I feel desperately homesick—but for what home?” One of the practical subjects that emerges from the letters is the predicament of the homosexual bachelor with insufficient means to set up on his own. The Stracheys were not poor, but they had ten surviving children, and Lytton had scant expectations. A Cambridge fellowship would have been a comfortable solution but he failed in both his attempts to get one. The family home, first in a vast and cheerless Victorian house near Hyde Park, later in Hampstead, was a recurrent bolthole, but in the nature of boltholes was constricting. There was Lady Ottoline Morrell, whose Bloomsbury salon gave him a setting, and once the Morrells had moved into Garsington Manor near Oxford in 1915 he was a frequent if often scathingly critical guest there. But the real solution came in a series of attempts at communal living, either in Bloomsbury itself or in the country. In these the great facilitator was the young painter Dora Carrington, and her benignly transforming presence in his life transforms the letters as well.

The homosexualized ethos of Strachey’s Cambridge was childishly misogynistic. Women were “filth-packets,” the idea of marriage to one of them “execrably sordid.” (He proposed marriage to Virginia Stephen, but instantly thought better of it, as did she. The cheerful altruism of his subsequent urgings to Leonard Woolf that he should propose to her himself is surely colored by a feeling of embarrassed relief.) Nonetheless, his letters to women are the best in this volume. Those to Ottoline Morrell are really too confused by pretense and reserve to ring quite true, and his despair at her as a person incapable of self-knowledge is coupled in a later letter to Virginia Woolf with keen physical revulsion:

Her bladder has now gone the way of her wits—a melancholy dribble; and then, as she sits after dinner in the lamplight, her cheek-pouches drooping with peppermints, a cigarette between her false teeth, and vast spectacles on her painted nose, the effect produced is extremely agitating.

But the letters to Woolf herself are lively from the start, rising to the challenge of an original new intelligence. And those to Mary Hutchinson, the mistress of Woolf’s brother-in-law, Clive Bell, have the warmth and sparkle of unrivalrous friendship, and also of a superior kind of sympathy, since Bell, clumsy, unsophisticated, “bursting with fat and lust,” is a recurrent butt of Strachey’s unkind humor.

When he first met the twenty-three-year-old Carrington in 1916, Strachey found her “a queer young thing,” with the perplexing mores of the young, less puzzling in a young man, “but when it comes to a creature with a cunt one seems to be immediately désorienté.” Nonetheless, it was Strachey who took her virginity, when they were staying together at a hotel in Wells. Thereafter their relationship was not to be sexual, but Carrington became a central part of his existence: nurse, cook, decorator, fellow artist, protector, adorer. They shared two homes during the remainder of Strachey’s life, first at the Mill House in Tidmarsh on the River Pang, then at Ham Spray, under the Berkshire Downs, in an unconventional ménage with Rex Partridge (renamed Ralph by Strachey, who fell deeply in love with him). Partridge married Carrington; though there were to be numerous twists of the amatory kaleidoscope over the following years, throughout them a special consideration for Strachey and his needs, as writer, friend, sage, and semi-invalid, governed the behavior of both of them.

Strachey and Carrington’s correspondence should be published as a separate volume, since Carrington’s own letters (edited by David Garnett in 1970) are wonderful: reliably misspelled, vivid, funny, impulsive, and moving. “I lap them down with my breakfast,” Strachey told her, “and they do me more good than tonics, blood capsules, or iron jelloids.” His own letters to her are similarly charming, expansive, affectionate. At first he adopts an archly avuncular or even grandfatherly attitude, but soon the steady unprecedented flow of love makes him relax. The success of his experimentally novelistic biography Queen Victoria in 1921 put him suddenly in demand with hostesses who had once thought him too outré and odd, and he was often away for weekends which he recounted to Carrington with mordant relish and diary-like detail in letters up to thirty-six pages long. Elizabeth and Essex (1928), in which his feelings for Senhouse were sublimated into a Freudianized study of the Queen and her much younger lover, was an even greater success, selling more than a quarter of a million copies in Britain and the US, and making life at Ham Spray more comfortable through his illness-stricken last two years.

It’s clear that a number of his very tender and confessedly tearful letters, to Carrington and to Partridge, express feelings which Strachey still found it hard to utter in person: on the eve of her marriage he writes to her of these difficulties, and protests how much he loves her, “you angelic creature, whose goodness to me has made me happy for years…. You and Ralph and our life at Tidmarsh are what I care for most in the world.” Carrington painted him several times, sitting and reading, but in her version uncomfortable analysis is replaced by a luminous tenderness which envelops but doesn’t wholly possess the subject: the adored figure is absorbed, not in her but in a book.

Naturally the letters help us to see Strachey’s strengths and limitations more clearly, as a man whose life was lived largely in books. He was a friend of modernists, but not one himself, and his literary personality, though intellectually modern, is informed by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as much as by his own. He toils his way through Proust, kept going by the revelation that the girls at Balbec are really boys, but he seems to have little patience for other contemporary experiments. He praises Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out, as being “very, very unvictorian!” He likes To the Lighthouse, despite “the lack of copulation—either actual or implied,” but is amused later on that no one can quite face reading The Waves. As for Ulysses, “I will not look at it, no, no.” He doesn’t have much time for Forster, as man or writer, though his famous letter to him about Forster’s gay novel Maurice is a masterpiece of pertinent but unusable criticism, going too sharply into the limitations of Forster’s outlook and experience; the lack of copulation again perturbs him.

Strachey’s idols are Racine and Voltaire: he likes order, wit, and passion heightened by containment. He finds it a rare thing for modern novels to be free from “horrors in taste.” Too exact a sense of taste can be a limitation in a critic, as in a person. Strachey seems never to have helped or encouraged any younger writer. Leonard Woolf himself came to think that Strachey had “the faults of a small nature…. He is ungenerous. He asks, but never gives…never a word of praise for other people.” Virginia Woolf, whose friendship with him was always colored by rivalry, agreed: “Often I have seen the dull eyelid fall over him, if one asked a little too much: some sheath of selfishness that protects him from caring too much, or committing himself uncomfortably.”

The dull eyelid falls particularly heavily for the duration of the Great War. Strachey was a conscientious objector, but his efforts to protect himself and his brother James from any kind of war work seem, from the letters, to be the main annoyances of the period. We find him knitting mufflers for the soldiers in October 1914, but after that the world catastrophe going on around him passes almost entirely unremarked. Of course, his objections to the war are serious ones, and his actual war work, the writing of Eminent Victorians, was to be a lasting critique of those themes—of hypocrisy, incompetence, religious delusion, and sexual repression—which he sees as integral to the mindset of imperialism, of which the war itself is a nightmarish culmination. Even so, the emotional detachment of this period seems fairly pathological. For Strachey the war years are spent in a round of reading, gossip, concerts, walking tours, and country house visits. One ought to be perfectly happy at Garsington, he tells Carrington, a few weeks before the Somme offensive, and one would be perhaps if Lady Ottoline’s pugs weren’t such a nuisance.

As a narrative, The Letters of Lytton Strachey is often hard to follow, in part because of inevitable problems in selecting one volume from a mass of material that could fill six. But these problems are made much worse by the chaotic editorial procedure, giving most of the letters a dense italicized headnote, explaining references, or at least some of them, in the text we are yet to read. One goes back, time and again, to hunt through these random digests for some obviously necessary piece of information; often the notes are several letters too late. There are dozens of unidentified passing figures, but the introduction of major players can also be very vague. All Levy tells us about Roger Senhouse is his dates and that he was “Lytton’s last lover”; Ralph Partridge gets no introductory note at all. Other allusions are gone into in whimsical detail: the 1899 musical San Toy, from which G.E. Moore’s nickname “The Yen” was derived, is given half a page of synopsis. Levy has an amusingly exact reliance on a table of monetary equivalents that he uses, saying for instance that £10 in 1910 was worth £623.94 in 2002. Yet one soon comes to wish such exactness prevailed elsewhere in his slapdash and error-prone edition. Beside the great scholarly monuments of Virginia Woolf’s Letters and Diary, The Letters of Lytton Strachey cuts a sadly shambolic figure.

  • Email
  • Print