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’.

In this and other ways, the elder Stracheys, agnostic, feminist and demonstrative in their affection for one another, did not conform to the stereotypes that Lytton later satirised. Neither of course did anyone else, quite. The Eminent Victorians stood for real 19th-century ideas and attitudes but they were not real people. They were crinolined and whiskered guys set up to be knocked down. This has become ever more apparent with the passing decades but Caine’s study of the Strachey family explores its implications, showing how the relations between Lytton and his biographical subjects reflected in part the involuted relations between generations of Stracheys themselves.

The younger ones, like most young people, found the older ones exasperating, thought them benighted about life in general and especially stupid about sex. Unlike most people, however, the young Stracheys extrapolated from their own experience, casting their own long shadows back over the Victorian age. Their parents became the über-parents and grandparents of the next generations, whose limitations became the supposed limitations of a century. ‘To our fathers,’ Lytton wrote, ‘the visible conformations of things were unimportant … The Age of Victoria was unaesthetic to its marrow bones.’ This was certainly true of his own father and of the spectacularly ugly and uncomfortable house in Lancaster Gate where the family grew up. Describing it in an essay for the Bloomsbury Memoir Club, he caught with brilliant acuity its peculiarly 19th-century hideousness: ‘size gone wrong, size pathological … a house afflicted with elephantiasis’. As an absolute verdict on the age of Morris and Ruskin, however, it was ridiculous, though it still persists.

Caine is sometimes too inclined to take at face value the post-Freudian Stracheys’ own estimation of themselves, especially their claim to be living lives of ‘unprecedented’ sexual and emotional frankness. On the whole, however, she is judicious, showing where and how the rising generation were neither so fair to, nor so free from, their parents as they imagined. Her study, moving to and fro between themes and individual lives, unfolds something like a relief map of the changing social, political and cultural landscape her subjects both formed and inhabited.

In marked contrast to most of their children, Jane and Richard Strachey, despite being Victorians, enjoyed a long and largely happy marriage. If, as Caine suggests, their frequent separations and his deafness contributed something to conjugal harmony, then the fact that the last of their 13 children was born when Jane was nearly 50 and her husband 70 is evidence of something more positive. Lytton was reluctant to ascribe the size of 19th-century families to anything more sensual than the ‘unhasting, unresting diligence’ on which the Victorians prided themselves in all departments. In his parents’ case there was clearly more to it than that, for their output struck them and others as prodigious. ‘I am very sorry to say that number 7 is on the road,’ Jane wrote glumly to her mother in 1869. ‘I have not told a creature … I thought they would hardly have recovered from Ralph yet – as I am sure I haven’t.’

‘We all … hope it may be the last time we will have to send you congratulations on such an occasion,’ Lady Grant wrote back to her daughter with some impatience after James, number 13. Why, given their intelligence and scientific pragmatism, the Stracheys did not control their fertility is a point on which Caine is disappointingly silent. Had they done so, however, the family’s eminence as well as its character would have been much reduced. Of the ten children who survived, Lytton and James were among the last and most loved. They were born nearly 30 years after their eldest siblings which, given the age difference between Richard and Jane, meant that the family spanned nearly four generations instead of the more usual two. It was no wonder Lytton found the Victorians both ‘very near and very far off’, for they were his brothers and sisters as well as his parents.

By the time he was growing up, the burden of family expectation that had weighed heavy on Dick, Oliver and Ralph, the oldest surviving sons, had lightened considerably. Richard Strachey had ceased to be the awe-inspiring father figure, difficult to live up to and often disappointed, and had become remote, grandfatherly.

The chief expectation for the older boys was India, where none of the younger male Stracheys distinguished themselves. The doors that his father’s name opened for Dick slammed abruptly shut in the face of his incompetence and disinclination to apply himself. He neither liked nor excelled at anything the Subcontinent had to offer except pig-sticking and amateur theatricals. Ralph and Oliver were for different reasons disaffected with the Indian Civil Service, troubled by loneliness or depressed by the banality of colonial social life.

It was their sister Pippa who found herself in the Raj. Having arrived in India with an uncle in 1900 and been treated with less ceremony than she thought was due to her as her father’s daughter, she overrode her brothers and sent telegrams to the relevant authorities demanding a pass and a private railway carriage. ‘You will all be pleased to hear,’ she wrote to her parents a couple of months later, ‘that I’m at last firmly established in my rightful position on the East Indian Rly. That’s to say in complete control.’

Over the years that followed she went on to assume control of the family as well. The shift of emphasis from male to female that had taken place on the intellectual level in their parents’ marriage was repeated on almost every front among the elder children. After her father’s death Pippa was the hub of the Strachey universe, and she and her sisters were markedly more effective and serious-minded than most of their brothers.

Pernel was the first of the girls to go to university, coached in Latin and Greek by her elder sister Dorothy. Her success at the entrance exam was, as their father noted with delight, a huge achievement for both his daughters. Pernel was instantly happy at Newnham, where life in those days was chaperoned and earnest. There was sal volatile in the examination room and a cup of tea in bed the morning after finals, in which she did outstandingly well. The rest of her life was spent in academic work and in the campaign to have women admitted to degrees.

Among the brothers, Oliver dropped out of Oxford after a term; and while for Lytton the experience of Cambridge was formative, it was very different and much less serious. ‘To my great surprise and delight the gown is blue!’ he wrote home to his mother. ‘Lovely!’ University marked one of the great divides within the family. Pippa, who did not go to Cambridge, was left on the further bank of Victorianism. She seemed ‘singularly reactionary’ to James and Lytton, while Pernel was ‘infinitely more advanced’.

The outward expression of the greater changes taking place in society in general carried out, as usual among the Stracheys, in a more high-pitched and self-conscious form, was the family’s departure from the monstrous house in Lancaster Gate. Richard Strachey had died in 1908, and the ‘crammed high hideous edifice’ where Lytton had read ‘the riddle of the Victorian age’ among the conversations in the overcrowded drawing-room, was no more.

With the move to Belsize Park Gardens went not only the 19th century but also an older, Georgian sense of family ‘connection’ that gave both Richard and Jane a close interest in cousins, second cousins and relatives by marriage. From now on, as the family spread out, its internal ties were drawn thinner, or re-formed along different lines. The ‘modernity’ of the younger siblings, their feminism, Lytton’s homosexuality, and their general determination to follow the intellectual or emotional paths most congenial to them, meant that there were few conventional families among them.

Their influence, meanwhile, spread outward. Pippa and her mother worked tirelessly for women’s suffrage, Pippa self-effacingly, while Jane – now Lady Strachey – was a great chairer of meetings and an imposing presence on platforms. In psychoanalytic circles and through Bloomsbury, wider still and wider the Stracheys permeated interwar life until they seemed to become a kind of force field, drawing outsiders into their own peculiar ‘atmosphere’.

Ray Costelloe was one such. She had been at Newnham with Elinor Strachey’s daughter and was apparently in love with the family in general and with Pippa in particular. That she married Oliver rather than any of the others was more the result of his availability, having been modern enough to divorce, than much personal attraction. Alix Sargant-Florence, another Newnhamite, laid siege to James and spent many poignant days and evenings with Dora Carrington, who was in love with Lytton, comparing notes on ‘the Strachey frères’ and ‘grousing’ about them. James in the end caved in and not only married Alix but, somewhat to her dismay, fell in love with her, which she discovered gave her ‘fixation neurosis’.

Caine’s hair-raising chapter on ‘Modern Marriages’ among the younger Stracheys makes clear what Virginia Woolf meant about the family’s literal-mindedness. Although they felt so much freer than their parents to talk about sex, they made far more difficulties about actually doing it. James and Alix in particular applied themselves to analysis and sexual freedom as if it were the East India Railway, running their ‘open’ marriage on strenuous modern lines. They went immediately from their wedding to Vienna so that James could be analysed by Freud. After that, although the relationship remained largely sexless, Alix kept her husband informed about her vaginal libido and the peculiar outlets she found for it as well as her relief when, after several years of failure, she finally managed to have a lesbian affair.

The various marriages and separations reconfigured the pattern between the siblings, and were surprisingly often the cause of trauma. Jane had set up pairings among her children when they were small, some of which survived while others broke or were re-formed. Ralph was always as close to Pippa as he could be to any woman. He could not bring himself to tell her when he became engaged and his marriage, so unsteadily begun, soon faltered. Oliver’s divorce gave Marjorie hysterics and on his second marriage she was so stricken, for reasons Caine leaves unspecified, that she had to be sent on a rest cure.

As in most families, however large or unconventional, there was a misfit, and in this case it was Marjorie, one of the youngest. Unpopular with her parents, unvisited at school, the one whose birthday everybody forgot, she never married and never succeeded in any of the artistic and intellectual pursuits into which she flung herself with misplaced enthusiasm. Yet she was not it seems crushed by life, having inherited all the family confidence, if none of the ability. Her two peculiar talents, shown off at the least excuse and received with varying degrees of dismay, were nude dancing and the recitation of obscene nursery rhymes.

One of Marjorie’s troubles was to be caught, despite her university education, in the internal generation gap; shocking to some of her family and shockingly reactionary to others. Despite her disapproval of Oliver’s divorce she had no qualms about telling Lytton that she thought she might ‘copulate with a woman’, a prospect that made him blanch, despite his modernity. In fact her only love affair was with a man, a married MP, Josiah Wedgwood, who, when he eventually divorced, married somebody else. Marjorie was heartbroken, much to the amusement of Vanessa Bell and Ottoline Morrell, who had set the whole thing up as a spiteful joke in the first place.

Depending on the view one forms of the Stracheys, Marjorie, who seems to have been largely good-natured and high-spirited to the end, is either a sad misfit or something of a heroine. In Caine’s thoughtful and punctilious but somewhat sterile account, Marjorie accidentally assumes an off-centre centrality. Examining her subject by themes – ‘sibling ties’, ‘sexuality and gender’, ‘careers’ and so forth – Caine has to make an exception in almost every case for the unfortunate youngest daughter, whose life thereby takes on the vivid cartoon quality of a running satire on the rest.

The disadvantage of Caine’s approach is that it involves her in a great deal of repetition, some of it verbatim, which is particularly unfortunate as the book would benefit from more quotation. It is in the extracts from the family letters that her constant assertions of the intelligence of the Stracheys come too fleetingly to life. The peculiar qualities that made them, as a group, so attractive and repulsive to contemporaries remain otherwise rather muffled.

Where she is most convincing is on the continuity that persisted through the several Strachey generations. India, if not the Indian Civil Service, always preoccupied them. Lytton’s interest in Warren Hastings came largely from his sense of family connection with the subject. More generally, as Leonard Woolf noticed, it was as if the Stracheys had known George IV personally. ‘I felt,’ he recalled, ‘that whereas I was living in 1902, they were living in 1774-1902.’ The atmosphere in the dining-room at Lancaster Gate was ‘that of British history and of the comparatively small ruling middle class which for the last 100 years had been the principal makers of British history’. Lytton characteristically began his essay on Carlyle with an anecdote about his own grandfather’s trip to Paris with the Sage of Chelsea.

In the end the family belonged more to the past that had formed it than to the modern age it helped create. In his essay for the Memoir Club, Lytton reflected that it would have seemed to him once that the passing of the house at Lancaster Gate would be the end of the Stracheys for it was ‘the framework, almost the very essence – so it seemed – of our being’. Yet, he wrote in 1922, ‘it was not so. Lancaster Gate vanished into nothingness and we survive.’ So they did, but only for a while. For good and ill, families like the Stracheys don’t happen any more.