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 Portraits and photographs depict him as a withdrawn, pallid creature, hiding behind a beard and peering out at an alien world, etiolated, passive, blank.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 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.”

CERTAINLY MICHAEL HOLROYD’S two-volume twelve-hundred-page biography is a remarkable achievement. He is the first to begin to make a map of Bloomsbury and to establish the identity of the minor as well as the major characters. Nor for him the security of a university post: he worked in the most straitened circumstances and his transparent honesty won him the support of James Strachey, Lytton’s brother and literary executor. He has not written a literary masterpiece and his style is at times overblown: but then he did not need to. He needed to construct a work out of a mountain of material nearly all of which is fascinating. This he has done with skill and with integrity, which was not easy to maintain when so many of the survivors from those days were adamant that he or she alone knew the true story of these intricate relationships. Perhaps wisely he declines sometimes to choose among the various accounts of incidents or states of mind and prints four or five separate versions. There are passages in the first volume in which he himself seems to tire; and indeed seems there almost to dislike Strachey. But in the second volume the story takes hold of him, the pace is excellent, and he is sensitive in the one field in which Strachey’s biographer must excel: personal relations.

And yet, time and again, one wishes that he had stepped back from the documents and analyzed his subject. Leonard Woolf has criticized him for taking Lytton’s sexual escapades too seriously and for being misled by his letters in which he bemoans his fate. Lytton, Woolf argued, adored to dramatize life and enjoyed seeing himself as a character in a drama by Racine. Men have died, Woolf quoted, and worms have eaten them, but not, certainly not in Lytton’s case, for love.

How intense were Strachey’s feelings? There is a passage in Paradise Lost describing Adam and Eve’s sensations after eating the apple: “they swim in mirth, and fansie that they feel, Divinitie within them breeding wings”: to which Aldous Huxley once objected that nobody can fancy that he feels something—we either do feel or don’t. Huxley was wrong. It is true than Lytton could not have felt such direct physical emotion as, for instance, Gertler felt for Carrington. But his mind told him that that was what he should be feeling; and both the knowledge that the deepest emotions in him were stultified, and that his projected emotion was inadequate to achieve its end, were highly painful. At a conference of intellectuals in France he was asked what was the most important thing in life. He answered: “Passion.” When at last comfortably off after his success, he said of his lovers—a remark not quoted by Holroyd—“I would like to throttle them with luxury.” Behind the frivolities and giggles, the absurdities and intrigues, behind even the severity of his judgments on people, including his most intimate friends, Strachey was capable, not of passion in the Lawrentian sense, but of love. Affection is a difficult quality to convey in a biography. But it was this that suffused the atmosphere of the country cottages in which he lived during the last sixteen years of his life.

IT IS DIFFICULT to convey because in Strachey’s case affection was hidden by his quick wits, and his wits took command in his letters. The written word, as any historian knows, needs to be interpreted. Holroyd calls his work a critical biography, but it is only critical in a limited sense. He does not sufficiently criticize his sources and takes letters at their face value. He does not ask himself under what circumstances a letter was written and for what purpose. He will cite letters to Strachey from G. M. Trevelyan as evidence that Trevelyan approved of Strachey’s biographies: whereas in fact Trevelyan loathed Strachey and his works, and his appreciative comments were insincere civilities written from a variety of motives. Many of Lytton’s letters can be read accurately only if they are set in an appropriately satirical context, and nothing is made of their vitality and gaiety. (“I am stiff—frozen still—a rigid icicle. I hang at this address for another week, and slowly melt southwards and eastwards—a weeping relic of what was once your old friend.”) Holroyd is excellent when he tackles the vexed question about how accurate Strachey was in the use of his sources in his historical works, and he has made wise use of the pioneer work of two American scholars, C. R. Sanders and George Simson. But he does not assess the purpose and impact of Strachey’s work as a whole.

Strictly speaking Eminent Victorians was neither history nor biography. It was a polemic against the Victorian Establishment and its culture—a culture which had begot the terrible slaughter of the First World War. The essay on Gordon was an attack on imperialism and power politics which Strachey and his friends considered to be one of the major causes of the war. But there was another manifestation of Victorian culture which Strachey detested even more—and that was Christianity. The messianic evangelical religion which drove Gordon on was the same as that which made bishops declare in 1914 that God was fighting on the side of the Allies. Then Strachey chose as the next figure to pillory Dr. Arnold, who wanted the public schools to turn out Christian gentlemen and had set up, however unwittingly, altars to the tribal Deity in these schools where the cult of compulsory games stultified the intellect. He picked on Cardinal Manning as the epitome of the worldly-wise prelate of the Church of Rome which by the end of the nineteenth century had become an intellectual force in the country, as if to emphasize that more sophisticated versions of Christianity were as dangerous as the cruder forms. Finally Strachey struck at the one great movement that had salved the conscience of Victorian England—he struck at humanitarianism. He did not deny that Florence Nightingale’s work was magnificent. He simply removed the picture of the Lady with the Lamp. He drew in its place the portrait of a commanding, ruthless bird of prey destroying anybody, her friends or her foes, who stood in her path and treating human beings not as sentient beings but as objects to be manipulated to her ends.

Virtually the whole of Strachey’s work and indeed his life can be seen as his contribution to the destruction of what under his influence came to be called Victorianism. He did not argue the case—that would have been to put himself on the same level as the moralists whom he regarded as grotesquely inflated with their own self-importance. He did not become a militant pacifist as Russell did: he merely turned his examination at a conscientious objectors’ tribunal into a farce. (“What would you do if you saw a German soldier trying to rape your sister?” “I would endeavour to interpose my own body.”) His method was drawn from Moore but adapted to his own personality. The eyebrows rose, the killing silence followed any remark he found boorish or funeste, he enveloped his enemy not with ferocious satire by with the inextinguishable laughter of ridicule.

WAS IT A LAUGH, or was it a snigger? Very many people have come to believe that it was a snigger, and in coming to this belief have been influenced less by the detailed criticisms of outraged historians and professors of Victorian literature than by the devastating attacks launched by F. R. Leavis in Scrutiny. In a memorable passage Leavis denounced Strachey’s manner and influence as “Articulateness and conceit cultivated together, callowness disguised from itself in articulateness; conceit casing itself safely in a confirmed sense of sophistication; the uncertainty as to whether it is serious or not taking itself for ironic poise; who has not at some time observed the process?”

Michael Holroyd tries to brush off Leavis’s criticism, but he is not equipped to do so. For Leavis’s criticism contains within it certain profound philosophical implications and assumptions about the nature of morality and life, e.g., the proposition that good ends do not conflict. I think myself that the assumptions are wrong; that to make them leads to confusion, to an unacceptable rigidity, and to the exclusion of much that is not only valuable but of what exists and cannot be summarily graded. But the indictment should be analyzed and met with the same seriousness as that with which it was put.

Those who detest Strachey will find plenty of material in the biography to sustain their contempt. They will note the racialism typical of the Edwardian upper classes. Or be astonished that the popularizer of French literature exhibited an Anglo-Indian disdain for Frenchmen, who were always referred to as frogs. Or observe that for a member of the avant garde it was odd that he turned his back on the most remarkable experiments in literature and art. Or be wearied by the cruel and malicious comments which he would make to one intimate friend about another. Or be appalled at Strachey’s attitude to the working classes, whom he regarded as belonging to another species (the Great Unwashed) remote from his own. Or preach a cautionary tale by pointing out that Strachey seemed to have come a long way from the simple infatuations of his youth when in the years just before his death he got sexual gratification from dressing up as a French maid and playing out the usual fantasies.

The long serious debate on culture as a mode of criticism, carried out in the Fifties and early Sixties by New York intellectuals, has thrown some doubt on the self-confident assurance, once regarded as a state of grace, with which certain styles of life were condemned and dismissed. Neither Strachey’s life nor works will stand up, of course, to such strenuous examination, if only for the reason that neither his feelings nor his intellect was strenuous or self-critical enough. But some do not understand that what they detest in him is his homosexuality and what they call corrupt is the camp world and its jokes. Others are offended by his sense of humor and would be indignant if they were told the truth—namely that they themselves are devoid of humor and, not understanding it, are frightened by it.

YET NO CRITICISM of Strachey is worth much which does not analyze his humor. One of his favorite quotations was Horace Walpole’s dictum that life is a comedy to those who think and a tragedy to those who feel. He treated the world as a comedy, and his sense of the humor of situation and his irrepressible gaiety were the media through which he judged it.

Modern criticism is ill-equipped to do justice to comedy or to humor, which is treated insensitively as a subsection of irony. It may well be that the appalling explosions of mass hatred and violence which so disgrace our civilization, and which have had such an effect upon our art, have made it almost impossible for us to visualize existence as comedy. Strachey is in fact overwhelmed by a vast change in taste and value. Despite superficial similarities, no one should seriously compare him to Voltaire or Gibbon, for he lacks the energy of spirit and European reputation of the former and the prodigious erudition and monumental accomplishment of the latter. But just as Voltaire appeared thin and indeed conservative to the generation of Rousseau and Condorcet, or Gibbon flippant and conscienceless to the younger Pitt or Hannah More, so Strachey’s brand of satirical rationalism is at present languishing, and people now find it difficult to join in the hilarity of his life and essays.

Yet the very strength of the obsessive references to his malign influence makes one ask why, if he is so insubstantial, he continues to exist. Here it is for the historian rather than for the critic to answer. Strachey has a minor, but a secure, place in his country’s cultural and social history. It is true that there has been over-investment in the shares of the Bloomsbury group, and that the greatest creative artists of their time—Eliot, Yeats, Lawrence, and Joyce—stood apart from them. But Bloomsbury’s dividends were covered many times over by their earnings, and Keynesian economics, Russell’s and Moore’s philosophy, Roger Fry’s art criticism, and the novels of Forster and Virginia Woolf provide an yield far exceeding the manifestoes and ephemera which are all that most coteries produce.

Strachey’s writings are as distinctive as anything his friends created and he made a small imprint on the thought and behavior of his times. How well known did that pattern of life become!—the English intellectual, in his white-washed country cottage hung with paintings, revolving in a circle of hereto- or homosexual relationships, cultivating the arts and practicing humor and truthfulness in friendship, oblivious to the horrors of politics and divorced from the social structure of country life. And yet who can doubt that Russell and Strachey were the most deadly of all propagandists for the immense revolution in England against the Victorian Ten Commandments?

Strachey imposed his personality on an era. For what he lacked in intellectual energy he made up for in strength of character. In Bloomsbury it was the strongest of all, Keynes included, and he concentrated his abilities to achieve his ends. His assumptions were even narrower than those of Moore, but then this was what gave them their force. He lived according to his creed. Neither fame nor money in the days of his success made him waver in his contempt for the gospel of success and the ultimate worthlessness of upper-class society. For him the world of public affairs or of ideologies led people into hypocrisy, worthless equivocation, and delusion. There must be no compromise with delusion: that was why he refused to speak to foreigners, for it was a delusion in his eyes that they could understand in any meaningful sense him, or he them. That was why he made killing judgments even upon his friends, for what mattered in personal relations was truthfulness. He was as skeptical of reformers as he was satirical about reactionaries. He had the limited aim of exposing by ridicule the conventions of the society into which he was born and of rescuing individuals and artists from the bien-pensants.

THERE WAS indeed a contradiction implicit in Strachey’s life and explicit in his biographical studies. “Human beings,” he wrote in his short introduction to Eminent Victorians, “have a value which is independent of any temporal process—which is eternal and must be felt for its own sake.” He carried this precept into practice within his own intimate circle. Respect for their integrity and happiness entailed disciplining one’s own emotion; if personal relations became tangled, reason, good sense, wisdom, and sympathy must disentangle them, and jealousy never be permitted to get the upper hand.

But this principle conflicted with another well-known passage in the introduction where Strachey said that the first task of the biographer was to draw out of the ocean of material on which he sailed “some characteristic specimens…to be examined with careful curiosity.” Are human beings specimens or to be valued for their own sake? Strachey wanted to have it both ways. But there was room for very few angels to dance on the end of the pin of values and attitudes which he constructed, and the remainder of mankind were specimens of the symptoms of the inanity which ruled the world.

Nevertheless, his specimens were never stereotypes, and it is paradoxical that the man who is often written off as the unscrupulous caricaturist of the Victorians was in fact most anxious to attack the practice of moralists who sort human beings into bundles and tape and label them. Strachey would have perused Leavis’s stricture upon him and declared that in that distinctive prose could be found the very targets he had always selected for attack: portentousness issuing from inflexible self-righteousness; self-righteousness masked by unctuous humility; the hypertrophy of conscience which, forever measuring man against an ideal, excludes half of what is human and therefore poisons the savior and destroys the people whom he sets out consciously to save.

Strachey impressed upon his readers how singular and rum human beings were, how curious the recesses of their character, how startling their emotions, and hence how unpredictable their actions. Perhaps the best tribute which Michael Holroyd pays to Strachey is to show what a peculiar and contradictory character Strachey himself was and to have presented without moralizing just such a spectacle as Strachey himself loved to depict. He is himself a peculiar specimen and, as a farmer’s wife once said, baffled by his appearance: “I could see he was a gentleman but a very queer one.”

This Issue

June 6, 1968