Strachey, Prospero, and The Seventh Heaven

Peter Clarke

  • The Shorter Strachey selected and introduced by Michael Holroyd and Paul Levy
    Oxford, 288 pp, £6.95, April 1980, ISBN 0 19 212211 8
  • Lytton Strachey by Michael Holroyd
    Penguin, 1143 pp, £4.95, December 1979, ISBN 0 14 003198 7

It is odd that Lytton Strachey did not manage to strike up much fellow-feeling for Prospero. In an essay of 1904 on Shakespeare’s final period we find the puncturing remark (uncharacteristic of later deflationary measures only in the diffidence of the opening phrase): ‘To an irreverent eye, the ex-Duke of Milan would perhaps appear as an unpleasantly crusty personage, in whom a twelve years’ monopoly of the conversation had developed an inordinate propensity for talking.’ Yet Strachey shared with the ex-Duke a notable penchant for working his designs by command over light and air. The specific illuminating detail and the general atmospheric effect constituted his medium. Deadly in observation, lively in exposition, his biographical portraits made an irresistible impression upon his contemporaries.

Strachey’s centenary falls this year, and is fittingly marked by a new collection of his shorter essays. Fittingly, because his talents are perfectly suited to the discipline of this form. As a miniaturist, he has few rivals, and some of his finest work is to be found in essays of little more than 2,000 words. The last of his books to be published during his lifetime was Portraits in Miniature (1931), in which he gave the final polish to 18 pieces, written chiefly for the Nation and/or the Athenaeum during the previous decade. More than a dozen of these are reprinted in the present volume, and they are its flowers.

The other essays are interesting mainly as representing stages in Strachey’s literary development. Some are explicitly autobiographical, like ‘Lancaster Gate’, which was written for his Bloomsbury friends in the Memoir Club in 1922. It was an attempt to set down the influence upon him of the vast, dowdy house in Bayswater in which he grew up. This almost obsessive concern to identify and chronicle the particular – to record it exactly in all its uniqueness – takes us to the heart of Strachey’s fascination with biography. ‘The actual events of life are perhaps unimportant,’ he reflected. ‘One is born, falls in love, falls out of love, works, is happy, is unhappy, grows old, and dies – a tedious, a vulgar, succession; but not there lies the significance of a personal history: it is the atmosphere that counts.’

In papers intended for his own friends, Strachey was free from the constraints of more formal composition: a mixed blessing. He never wrote carelessly, or without concern for the effect he was creating, but in these pieces there is a looseness of structure which sometimes becomes merely lax. It may seem unfair to remark that there are self-indulgent passages of this kind in ‘Monday June 26th 1916’, since Strachey’s declared purpose there was to record the events of a single day, abjuring ‘selected realisms’ in the hope of capturing ‘its minuteness and its multiplicity and its intensity, vivid and complete!’ The project was, of course, unrealisable, and the vividness which Strachey succeeded in giving to his Monday was the result of a subtle shaping of his materials. An aside in an earlier essay shows that Strachey knew full well what he was doing. Referring to James Mill’s ‘treatment of the evidence’ on Warren Hastings, he added parenthetically: ‘and, in all history, the evidence must be “treated”.’ Selection and excision were necessary to the process of historical reconstitution, and Strachey learned to make a virtue of necessity.

In his unpublished – or rather unpublishable – papers Strachey more happily escaped from other constraints, especially in reference to sex. The reticence of prevailing canons of good taste made him genuinely angry. It was a deplorable victory of the 19th century over the 18th, and he looked to the 20th to redress the balance. Reviewing a mutilated edition of Boswell’s letters, he demanded: ‘When will this silly and barbarous prudery come to an end?’ But if he stood for candour as a matter of high principle, it can hardly be overlooked that he was also personally fond of smut. It is disputable which aspect better characterises his now notorious ‘remarks on Mr Asquith, whom I happen to have met, and who is bound to become “historical” ’. These pages were written in 1918, and provide a life-drawing from an unexpected angle. If his friends looked upon Asquith as ‘the last of the Romans’, it was not, presumably, because he ‘carried a lot of liquor and was lecherous with the ladies’, which is the suggestion here. ‘Who would guess from this book of his which has just come out, with its high-minded rotundities and cultivated respectabilities,’ clucked Strachey, ‘that the writer of it would take a lady’s hand, as she sat behind him on the sofa, and make her feel his erected instrument under his trousers?’ This is Strachey at his best and at his worst, with his eye pressed to the keyhole, recording for posterity what the butler saw.

The group of essays, ‘Six English Historians’, forms the solid core both of Portraits in Miniature and of the present volume. These studies of Hume, Gibbon, Macaulay, Carlyle, Froude and Creighton encapsulate Strachey’s own historical method both in theory and in practice. He defined the three qualities that make a historian as ‘a capacity for absorbing facts, a capacity for stating them, and a point of view’. That he possessed the first has occasionally been questioned. Admittedly, his copious reading may not have conformed to the orthodox procedures of scholarly research, but it is his grasp of a situation which gives remarkable coherence to his best work. As to his capacity for stating facts, even sceptics have to concede the triumph of Eminent Victorians and Queen Victoria. The final quality which Strachey demanded – and assuredly exemplified – was the possession of a point of view. This was what informed the purpose and structure and manner of the whole work.

Strachey recognised that some degree of sympathy was necessary to historical insight, and that outright withdrawal of sympathy was ruinous to the enterprise. Intrusive judgments of the sort handed down at that curious place, the bar of history, were abhorrent to him, and he saw that they brought little credit on those who presumed to sit on the bench. The point of view of the moralist had to be conveyed more subtly. ‘Morality, curiously enough, seems to belong to that class of things which are of the highest value, which perform a necessary function, which are, in fact, an essential part of the human mechanism, but which should only be referred to with the greatest circumspection. Carlyle had no notion that this was the case, and the result was disastrous.’

To some extent Strachey’s objection was aesthetic. Though regarding Clio as ‘one of the most glorious of the Muses’, he thought that she ‘suffered from a sad defect: she is apt to be pompous.’ In short, he recognised that the capacity for stating facts and the point of view were related though not inseparable qualities. In his essay on Macaulay in 1928, he used the great man’s great-nephew, G.M. Trevelyan, as an example of the perils of sympathy. He had, Strachey declared, ‘written a delightful account of the Italian Risorgimento, of which he is an enthusiastic devotee’. Nonetheless, the ‘epic would have been still more delightful if it had contained a little of the salt of criticism – if, in fact, he had not swallowed Garibaldi whole’. His private verdict on the trilogy, 15 years earlier, had been more pithy: ‘There is much interest in it, but tiresomely told.’ Michael Holroyd’s admirable biography allows us to peep behind the bland phrases of public seemliness here. It suggests, conversely, that Trevelyan’s fulsome congratulations to Strachey upon his books masked his real views with a more calculated insincerity.

Trevelyan’s tiresomeness, of course, ran in the family. What Strachey could not swallow when he read Macaulay – ‘A preposterous optimism fills his pages’ – was the Whig interpretation of history at full strength. It smacked of Victorian smugness, and one can practically feel Strachey’s knee jerk. His own values set the cosmopolitan French civilisation of the 18th century as an alternative standard. The Victorians, by comparison, stood self-condemned as insular and boorish philistines. Strachey tells of his uncle Edward, on a visit to Paris in the days before the railway, refusing to tip the postilon: ‘Vous avez drivé devilish slow.’

Strachey’s own point of view as a historian is illustrated in both its indulgent and its astringent modes in the treatment of France and of the Victorian age. The four reprinted essays on French subjects span 25 years – virtually half his lifetime. The study of Mademoiselle de Lespinasse is one of the most substantial in the book and the first to convey immediate recognition of Strachey’s true voice. The description of her salon strikes another familiar chord: ‘one found there what one found nowhere else – a sense of freedom and intimacy which was the outcome of a real equality, a real understanding, a real friendship such as have existed, before or since, in few societies indeed.’ The personal reference seems obvious in retrospect. We know, however, from Holroyd’s biography, that Strachey wrote this in the summer of 1906 at Dorking, while dreading the inevitable return to Lancaster Gate that autumn. This is at most an invocation of the idea of Bloomsbury, not a celebration of its actuality. Turning to ‘The Abbé Morellet’, written in 1924, one finds that the years have not soured Strachey’s vision of the Enlightenment. ‘The great battle for liberty, tolerance, reason, and humanity was in full swing,’ he wrote; ‘the forces of darkness were yielding more and more rapidly ...’ If there is irony here, it is so affectionate as to escape immediate detection.

When Strachey confronted 19th-century England, however, his guard was up at once. In 1914, he was already admitting ‘a strange fascination about the Age of Victoria’, which had ‘the odd attractiveness of something which is at once very near and very far off’. Its history, he was to claim in the preface to Eminent Victorians four years later, ‘will never be written: we know too much about it.’ But by this time his own brand of post impressionism was sufficiently developed to make the attempt feasible, juxtaposing tiny effects which would only be resolved in the eye of the beholder. There is a quintessential passage from the 1928 essay on Carlyle which revisits the mystery of this ‘most peculiar age’: ‘an age in which all the outlines were tremendous and all the details sordid; when gas-jets struggled feebly through the circumambient fog, when the hour of dinner might be at any moment between two and six, when the doses of rhubarb were periodic and gigantic, when pet dogs threw themselves out of upper storey windows, when cooks reeled drunk in areas, when one sat for hours with one’s feet in dirty straw dragged along the streets by horses ...’

This return to the scenes of his greatest triumphs is paralleled in other late essays. The final page of his best-seller Queen Victoria, imagining her dying reverie, had rapidly become famous as a Stracheyism, much plagiarised by others. And by himself, it seems. His biographical essays show him drawn time and again to the death-bed scene. The Abbé Morellet, in his 92nd year, dozes off, his thoughts wandering to Diderot – to d’Alembert and Mademoiselle de Lespinasse – Voltaire – Madame Helvétius ... We take leave of Gibbon as he ‘lay back among the pillows, dozed, half-woke, dozed again, and became unconscious – for ever’. With Hume, the ‘wonderful equanimity lasted till the very end’, or at any rate the end of the paragraph. By this reckoning, Freeman, who ‘went pop in Spain’, came off lightly (though the vulgarity offended Trevelyan).

One can thus understand why, in the summer of 1931, the competition in the Week-End Review should ask for an addition to ‘Six English Historians’ of a seventh name; and how Carrington, Strachey’s devoted companion, could win it with an all too prescient parody:

Crouching under the ilex tree in his chaise longue, remote, aloof, self-occupied and mysteriously contented, lay the venerable biographer. Muffled in a sealskin coat (for although it was July he felt the cold) he knitted with elongated fingers a coatee for his favourite cat, Tiberius. He was in his 99th year. He did not know it was his last day on earth.

Some six months later Strachey was dead. He was only 51. But perhaps he had already completed his essential work. The art of biography would never be the same again, and the Victorian period of history had been declared open. If it is now widely recognised that he remains worth reading – and reading about – the chief credit clearly belongs to Michael Holroyd. He was the first to use the hoard of Strachey family papers which have recently been catalogued and made properly accessible to scholars in the British Library. His critical biography, firmly based upon this archive, was acclaimed upon its publication in two volumes in 1967-8. The Penguin edition in 1971 separated the biography from the criticism, with beneficial results. It is this version which is now happily reissued, and this seems an appropriate moment at which to acknowledge its lasting value.