The Victorian era produced many eminent figures. Lytton Strachey was one of them. Born in 1880, Strachey was a British biographer and a critic who is credited of having revolutionized the art of writing biography. He opened a new era of biographical writing by adopting an irreverent attitude to the past, especially to the volumes of the Victorian biography. His book, Eminent Victorians, a wartime book composed of four miniature biographies, won him widespread recognition as a literary critic and a biographer. In this work, instead of using the conventional method of detailed chronological narration, he has carefully selected his facts to present highly personal portraits of his subjects. The four biographies of Victorian figures that Strachey has described in Eminent Victorians are of Henry Cardinal Manning – a Roman Catholic prelate, Florence Nightingale – a sentimentally idolized female humanitarian, Thomas Arnold of Rugby – an educational reformer with a pronounced moralistic bent and General Charles (“Chinese”) Gordon – a military adventurer. All this figures had earlier been the subject of admiring biographies, but Strachey treated them instead in the form of caricatural case histories: Manning as an obsessive ecclesiastical opportunist, Florence Nightingale as a workaholic driven by ruthless devotion to duty, Arnold as a zealous pompous public-school head master who tended to confuse himself with God, and Gordon as a religious fanatic and dipsomaniac, alternating between Bible and brandy bottle. The four demonstrated the goals of the Victorian age but Strachey’s presentation gave rise to a new form of biography and caused people to express their opposition to the Victorian period. In short, Strachey had four – victim agenda for misrepresenting the whole culture. He did not just use his subjects: he abused them.
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I feel that Strachey has used his witty and impressionistic style in writing this book Eminent Victorians, not only to disclose the hidden facts of the Victorian society, but also by writing this biographies, he has targeted on hypocrisy, imperialism, and religion of the Victorian era. It seems that each of the four figures was chosen with malice aforethought. For example, there are some things about Nightingale that Strachey has genuinely admired – her determination to cut herself free from family ties and make her own way in the world; her reforming zeal and her crusading ardor. But in general he found the matron very unpalatable. According to Strachey, she was a self-righteous, domineering amazon, who was ruthless in her compassion, merciless in her philanthropy, destructive in her friendship, obsessional in her lust for power, and demonic in her saintliness. Above all, Strachey disliked her because in her frigid indifference to intimate relationships, in her determined suppression of her own erotic impulses, she denied her own womanhood, and thus rejected in her self the very humanity she claimed to be serving.
Overall, the book has great brilliance of style and is probably the most successful application of the comic spirit to literary biography in English literature. It is a period piece, a vivid point in the long transaction of the twentieth century with its immediate past. Although the book offers very few dates and not many footnotes or charts or graphs, Strachey’s biographies are short anecdotal, witty and entertaining. His aim, as he has declared in the preface, was to cast ” a sudden revealing searchlight into obscure recesses hitherto undivined”. In the process he occasionally sacrificed truth, but the result – polished, malicious, and lively – made him the hero of the Victorian era. Even today, when people use “Victorian” as a synonym for “smug,” “prudish” or “flowery,” they are showing the impact of Strachey’s satiric perspective.