Strenuously Modern

Rosemary Hill

  • Bombay to Bloomsbury: A Biography of the Strachey Family by Barbara Caine
    Oxford, 488 pp, £25.00, February 2005, ISBN 0 19 925034 0

For nearly three generations, from the high-water mark of the Victorian age to the eve of the Second World War, the Stracheys were prominent in English life. Noted for their intellect and their boisterousness in argument, and characterised, in most cases, by long limbs and large spectacles, they struck Leonard Woolf as ‘much the most remarkable family I have ever known’. His wife, on the other hand, who knew several Stracheys well, thought them ‘a prosaic race, lacking magnanimity, shorn of atmosphere’.

The direct line has died out now. The family’s tremendous flowering left its legacy in books and institutions rather than in living heirs. Barbara Caine is considering a completed episode, a story that ended in the last century. It is possible to see in it something of what both the Woolfs meant, but from this distance perhaps the most striking of the Strachey family characteristics is their sheer, unshakeable confidence.

For the older generation this resided in Britain’s ‘imperial project’. Jane Strachey’s life, as she told a luncheon at the Lyceum Club in 1910, had, like her husband’s, been spent ‘in the arduous and noble service of rescuing the natives of India from intolerable oppression & in building up such an example of government by foreign conquerors as the world has never before seen’. Richard Strachey had not only played his part in running the Raj. It was he who, at the International Conference held in Washington in 1884, was largely responsible for the decision – which so infuriated the French – that the prime meridian should run through Greenwich.

These Stracheys were much occupied in making the rules and drawing the lines on which the Empire ran. Theirs was a generation that ‘never cheated, never doubted’ and for whom, if they lived so long, nothing was the same after 1919. Then, as the certainties of empire faded, they were replaced, in the Strachey family at least, by other certainties: female education, psychoanalysis, biography.

Jane and Richard’s daughter Pernel became principal of Newnham. One brother, James, translated Freud, coining in the process many of the psychoanalytic terms still in popular use. Another, Lytton, now the best-known of them all, penetrated the ‘foggy distances’ of the 19th century with Eminent Victorians, bringing a satirical intelligence to bear on what already seemed a ‘peculiar age’, ‘at once very near and very far off’. As the orthodoxies of the children replaced those of their parents, Victoria herself underwent a symptomatic transformation. The ‘good queen and empress’ was clearly, Lytton thought, ‘a martyr to anal eroticism’.

Without the frames of reference Lytton and James Strachey laid down, Caine’s own study, as she reflects, would be a different enterprise. The existence of the unconscious and the legitimacy of the biographical form, if not so absolutely fixed as the Greenwich meridian, are at least as firmly established in the modern mind. The very concept of ‘modernity’ as a new kind of psychological sensibility is one that the younger Stracheys helped to propagate.

Their story begins, for Caine’s purposes, in Calcutta in 1859, with the marriage of Richard Strachey and Jane Grant. Jane was the daughter of the lieutenant governor of the Central Provinces. Her husband, a widower twenty years her senior, was her father’s assistant, the latest generation of a Somerset gentry family which had served in India since Henry Strachey went out as secretary to Robert Clive. Jane was clever, as patchily educated as most women of her class and generation, but determined to learn and with ‘a vein in her’, as Lytton later recalled, ‘of oddity and caprice’.

Richard, anti-social, a hypochondriac and old enough to be her father, began by gently patronising his wife: ‘Leave off assuming … Train your mind to distinguish a fact from an hypothesis.’ As Jane absorbed the advice and applied it, working her way through Hume and Mill, mastering the principal scientific ideas of the day and becoming fluent in French and Italian, her husband modified his attitude. The intellectual balance shifted rapidly until he was sending her his government dispatches in draft and soliciting her opinion on the railway estimates ‘as early as possible’.

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