Ah, la vie!

Ruth Bernard Yeazell

  • The Letters of Lytton Strachey edited by Paul Levy
    Viking, 698 pp, £30.00, March 2005, ISBN 0 670 89112 6

Lytton Strachey loved reading letters, including the published kind, but after glancing at a few sentences of George Meredith’s correspondence in 1912, he felt ‘so nauseated’, he told Virginia Woolf, that he shut the book at once:

Is it prejudice, do you think, that makes us hate the Victorians, or is it the truth of the case? They seem to me to be a set of mouthing bungling hypocrites; but perhaps really there is a baroque charm about them which will be discovered by our great-great-grandchildren, as we have discovered the charm of Donne, who seemed intolerable to the 18th century. Only I don’t believe it.

Strachey’s hatreds were always lively; and we should be grateful that this one persisted long enough to yield that small masterpiece, Eminent Victorians. Even those who find much to admire in his parents’ generation can still relish his devastating satire of the all-too-worldly Cardinal Manning or his shrewd portrait of the demons that drove the supposedly saintly Florence Nightingale. Yet Strachey himself seems less our contemporary now than he did when Michael Holroyd’s biography appeared in the late 1960s. Greeting the publication of G.E. Moore’s Principia Ethica in 1903, the young Strachey imagined that ‘the truth’ was ‘really now upon the march’ and that ‘the Age of Reason’ had dawned at last. But reading his letters in a new century makes the brave efforts at sexual enlightenment seem sadder than they once did, while nothing feels more remote than the idea that Moore’s work could make a difference.

‘Only two things I find amuse me (and perhaps everyone) – wit and the flesh,’ Strachey wrote to Leonard Woolf from Cambridge in 1904. This is partly bravado, of course, but the exercise of his own wit on the vicissitudes of the flesh was clearly one of Strachey’s favourite forms of love-making. From the age of 22 until little more than a year before his death in 1932, according to Holroyd, Strachey did not keep a diary, and it seems unlikely that he would ever have written as eagerly of ‘copulation’ and ‘buggery’ if he had not been writing to someone else. Many of the anecdotes passed on in these letters concern people other than Strachey himself; but even when he alludes to his own history, it can be hard to tell whether he most wants to record the truth of experience with one person or to flirt with another: it’s unclear, in other words, whether it is the copulated-with or the receiver of the message who is chiefly in the writer’s sights.

‘I find everything very maudlin and insipid and out of date,’ he wrote to Leonard Woolf in the midst of a briefly happy affair with the future painter Duncan Grant, ‘except the question of when Duncan will have his next erection, and whether it’s pleasanter to feel his buttocks or look into his eyes.’ Though ordinarily one might think such confessions more inclined to exclude a third party than otherwise, it seems clear that for Lytton they were a way of holding on to Leonard even while making love to Duncan. This is not to say that he wanted to have sex with all his correspondents, though his relation to Leonard Woolf seems more ambiguous than his claim never to have been ‘really … in love’ with him quite acknowledges. But it is to say that the notoriously ugly and squeaky-voiced Strachey used talk about sex as a principal means of creating intimacy.

The early letters also reveal a young man who prided himself on writing down what might never have been committed to paper before and enjoyed the risk involved in doing so. ‘These last three pages are I suppose unparalleled in the annals of known correspondence,’ he boasted to Woolf in 1905, after passing on some incidents in the love life of Maynard Keynes that Keynes had recounted to him:

How many persons do they put under criminal imputations? What scandals! What disclosures! And yet Heaven knows there’s nothing abnormal in the whole account. It’s only that I happen, for the first time, very likely, in the world’s history to give the account.

Several times he warns Woolf (then working as a colonial administrator in Ceylon) that keeping the letters is dangerous; but rather than encourage their destruction, he urges that the ‘parcel of dynamite’ be returned to its sender. Woolf evidently obliged, only to provoke Strachey’s outrage by deciding to tear up a subsequent letter: ‘Was it so dangerous as all that? And if so, couldn’t you have put it into an envelope and sent it straight back to me? … Surely it was worth keeping, if only as a document; or ought it, even as a document, to have been destroyed?’ Though Woolf’s side of the correspondence is not given, he had apparently inflicted a double wound here: rejecting the activities described – in one of his intermittent fits of puritanism, he seems to have distinguished between ‘healthy’ vice and some other kind – he had also failed to appreciate the skills of the writer, who had composed, Strachey professed to believe, ‘a chef-d’oeuvre’.

Yet for all its insistence on speaking freely, this record of intimacies in Cambridge and Bloomsbury often feels as stultifying as the repressive silences of any Life and Letters from the previous century. Michael Holroyd long ago observed that the predominant effect of reading the letters of Strachey’s Cambridge years was one of ‘acute depression’; and in this volume, despite the abundance of quotable bits, the dispiriting effect continues well after he has officially left the university. Part of the problem is the claustrophobia induced by the clannish world of the Apostles – the secret society to which Strachey was elected in his third year at Trinity and whose activities remained of serious interest to him for a number of years thereafter. In addition to contemporaries such as Woolf and Keynes, Strachey’s circle included such eminent representatives of the older generation as Moore and Bertrand Russell; but distinguished though many of them were, the hothouse atmosphere of their relations, both intellectual and erotic, soon grows oppressive. The tedious worrying over who’s in, who’s out, is not improved by the editor’s haphazard identification of the parties involved, even if it does inadvertently help to explain (if it still needs explaining) why Virginia Woolf – whose brother Thoby was another member of the group – felt drawn to invent a Society of Outsiders.

But the depressive effect is also a consequence of Strachey’s tremendous neediness, a desperation about loving and being loved that persists even in the midst of constant socialising and that is understandably intensified each time he discovers, as he repeatedly does, that what he thought was a couple has in fact been a triangle. More than once, the successful interloper proves to be Keynes, whose detailed confidences about the affair only increase Strachey’s sense of martyrdom. ‘Oh, Christ! my loneliness here, with these friends of so many years, who have shared so much, who have known so much, who are so intimately bound – I believe it almost equals yours,’ he writes to Woolf on an excursion with some Apostles in the aftermath of one such episode.

I feel desperately homesick – but for what home? My mind is sick with imagining heavens and havens of wedded happiness. Contrived and triumphal dreams nauseate me; I have a surfeit of unexperienced splendours. I long for real kisses which will come in ways I have never guessed of, and unexpected hands which I can touch …

I am restless, intolerably restless, and Cambridge is the only place I never want to leave, though I suffer there more than anywhere else. And Cambridge I shall have to leave, in two months, for ever.

He was 25 at the time, but the adolescent cast of this and many other letters written in his twenties may come as a surprise to those who know only the superbly controlled ironist of the published works. So may his taste for Swinburne, who evidently spoke to Strachey’s own tendency to luxuriate in suffering. (His hatred of the Victorians did not extend to the poet who sang the praises of ‘Our Lady of Pain’.) Though the publicity material for this volume calls attention to the ‘shocking’ evidence of sado-masochism in his last serious affair, with Roger Senhouse, Strachey’s bent for victimisation is apparent long before the cheerful allusions to being beaten and cut. Some of the correspondence with Senhouse is disturbing, but the letter that reports the after-effects of an experiment in ‘crucifixion’ is scarcely more painful than the abject remark with which he earlier accounts for Senhouse’s avoidance of him in a letter to his cousin Mary Hutchinson: ‘There must be something tiresome about me, when seen very near at hand.’

‘All decent people remain young for an incredible length of time and suffer accordingly,’ Strachey wrote to Senhouse in 1929: ‘It would certainly show that there was something very wrong if you were satisfied at the age of 29!’ Strachey, who died of stomach cancer at 51, was in his mid-forties when he fell in love with Senhouse. He liked to pretend that he was over the hill at 30, but the evidence suggests that he was happier in middle age than previously. The great success of Eminent Victorians made an obvious difference, as did the decision to set up house with the painter Dora Carrington.

Though he could be wickedly funny about the limitations of domesticity – he once wrote to Clive Bell that his prescription for too much family life was ‘a letter of Les Liaisons [dangereuses] before going to bed, and a Fleur du mal first thing in the morning’ – life at the Mill House in Tidmarsh and later at Ham Spray in Hungerford seems to have assuaged some of that yearning for a home he had evoked in the correspondence with Leonard Woolf. A comic letter to Virginia written very soon after the move to Tidmarsh begins with frozen pipes, temperatures ‘so cold that my nose (to say nothing of other parts) dripped in icicles’ and a ‘female companion’ who ‘keeps herself warm by unpacking, painting, pruning the creepers, knocking in nails etc’. But even as he jokes about writing a play called ‘Le Bougre marié’, a note of satisfaction mingles with the irony: ‘Ah, dearie, dearie me,’ the same letter ends, ‘I am nodding over the fire, and she’s sewing an edge to the carpet, with a diligence … Ah, la vie! it grows more remarkable every minute.’

There was not much danger that the domestic arrangement would prove an ordinary one. From the beginning, Strachey’s relation to the younger and erratically educated Carrington was more familial and tutorial than erotic. Virginia Woolf reported with amusement that some mutual friends had gone to visit the newly settled couple, ‘and after tea Lytton and Carrington left the room ostensibly to copulate; but suspicion was aroused by a measured sound proceeding from the room, and on listening at the keyhole it was discovered that they were reading aloud Macaulay’s Essays!’ Though the evidence suggests that they did consummate their relationship, their complicated sex lives at Tidmarsh and after were primarily conducted with other people.

Strachey had first suggested that Carrington live with him several years earlier, in an attempt to rescue her from the obsessive pursuit of the painter Mark Gertler; but ‘luckily’ she ‘immediately refused’, he reported to Mary Hutchinson. The manifest ambivalence of the proposal recalls his well-known offer of marriage to Virginia Stephen some seven years before: an offer no sooner made, he told Leonard Woolf, than ‘I saw that it would be death if she accepted.’ On that occasion, he had immediately followed up his abortive proposal by suggesting that Leonard marry her instead; and he continued to urge that union with a confidence that seems remarkably prescient in retrospect, even if it sorts oddly with an earlier claim, also to Leonard, that the very thought of marriage made him ‘shudder’. (‘Is it marriage in itself or only marriage with females that’s so execrably sordid?’) Carrington, too, would later marry with Strachey’s blessing, though the triangle thus formed – with Carrington still primarily in love with Strachey and Strachey himself strongly attracted to her husband, Ralph Partridge – would in turn recompose when both partners to the marriage became involved with new lovers.

The capacity for farce – or tragedy – in all this was great; and both possibilities constantly hover around these letters. ‘The world is rather tiresome, I must say,’ Strachey wrote in the midst of Partridge’s pursuit of Carrington, ‘everything at sixes and at sevens – ladies in love with buggers, and buggers in love with womanisers, and the price of coal going up too. Where will it all end?’ Yet his affection for Carrington was clearly genuine, however difficult it may be to categorise, and the emotional generosity of his letters to her can be quite moving. ‘Oh my dear, do you really want me to tell you that I love you as a friend!’ he wrote when she was deciding to marry Partridge:

But of course that is absurd, and you do know very well that I love you as something more than a friend … Your letter made me cry, I feel a poor old miserable creature, and I may have brought more unhappiness to you than anything else. I only pray that it is not so, and that my love for you, even though it is not what you desire, may make our relationship a blessing to you – as it has been to me.

Remember that I too have never had my moon! We are all helpless in these things – dreadfully helpless. I am lonely and I am all too truly growing old, and if there was a chance that your decision meant that I should somehow or other lose you, I don’t think I could bear it. You and Ralph and our life at Tidmarsh are what I care for most in the world – almost (apart from my work and some few people) the only things I care for. It would be horrible if that were to vanish.

Characteristically, he insisted throughout these permutations that it was better to know the truth than not to know it, that no one was to be blamed, and that the love of all concerned would outlast their shifting allegiances. Rather than endure the pain of being shut out of others’ intimacy, he appears to have chosen a tolerance that would allow him to hold on to everyone.

If Strachey was lonely, as he told Carrington, it was not for want of company. The Apostles is only the first of the groups that crowd these pages and that make the editor’s casualness with identifications so irritating, from the many clubs that Strachey could not resist joining to the large assortments of people who gathered with the Bells at Charleston, Ottoline Morrell at Garsington or the Asquiths at the Wharf. A perpetual house guest and visitor even before the lionising that attended the publication of Eminent Victorians, the later Strachey is forever lamenting his susceptibility to invitation and forever succumbing to yet another one, even as he dashes off ironic sketches of the gathering to friends and lovers absent from the party. ‘Flitting from house to house, and settling upon the great, as if he were an ordinary house fly,’ as Virginia Woolf imagined him in 1919, Lytton nonetheless keeps ‘his sting … in perfect order’.

The scene at Garsington attracts its customary share of satire, but there is much more, including a report of the ‘Tchekhoffesque’ madness unleashed at Charleston by Keynes’s insistence on setting the clocks ahead an hour and a paradoxically vivid account of the crypt-like atmosphere of Bernard Berenson’s establishment at I Tatti:

And so much of it, too – such a large corpse – so many long dead corridors, so many dead primitives, so many dead pieces of furniture, and flowers, and servants, such multitudes of dead books; and then, outside, a dead garden, with a dead view of a dead Tuscan landscape … a dead Florence, one almost thinks – but that’s an illusion, I’m sure if one were here, in other circumstances, one would find Florence alive enough.

Blenheim, on the other hand – the house itself, not the people – he found ‘entrancing, and life-enhancing … The grounds are beautiful too, and there is a bridge over a lake which positively gives an erection.’

All this gossip and visiting leaves little room for Strachey the professional writer. ‘Perhaps there’s one thing that you don’t quite realise about me – I mean what I feel about my work,’ he wrote to Ottoline Morrell in a letter that Paul Levy has strangely chosen to omit. ‘Perhaps you don’t see that the idea of my really not working is simply an impossibility. Sometimes you have admonished me on the subject, and I think I have been rather curt in my answers; it was because I felt so absolutely sure of myself – that you might as well talk of my not breathing as not writing.’ Levy’s omission is all the odder in that this Strachey – both deeply confident about his work and deeply committed to it – appears so rarely in these letters. Often berating himself over his laziness, the correspondent on view here is more inclined to speak mockingly of what he has failed to do or to bemoan the difficulty of writing than to suggest that it came as naturally as breathing. His failure to win a fellowship at Trinity in 1905 left him ‘nominally a journalist’, as he wrote to Leonard Woolf, but ‘really … a complete drifter, without any definite hopes, and the New Age as far off as ever’. If he were ‘energetic’, things might be different, ‘but it’s so absurd – how can one be energetic over reviews?’

A year later it seemed clear to him that he ‘ought to stop journalism and begin some sort of a real chef-d’oeuvre’, but he still ‘shudder[ed] on the brink’. Even after the essays that became Eminent Victorians began to take shape, the passing allusions to his work were as likely to concern its agonies as its pleasures. ‘It’s a fearful business – putting pen to paper – almost inconceivable,’ he wrote to Virginia Woolf in the midst of the chapter on Florence Nightingale. And it wasn’t just Nightingale who managed to make herself ‘distinctly indigestible’. The ‘horrors’ of struggling with Queen Victoria left him unable to imagine ever facing ‘such a bulky affair again’ (the printed book came to just over 300 pages); while even a request to produce a piece on himself for the Memoir Club, made up of his Bloomsbury friends, prompted him to exclaim: ‘Oh dear, how I loathe the process of writing!’ Some of this may be posturing, but it also suggests that the appalled fascination which drew him to the ‘indomitable will’ of Nightingale or the doggedness of General Gordon derived from an ambivalence about the Victorians’ work ethic every bit as strong as his scorn for their hypocrisy.

Despite the claims of the book jacket, this is anything but a ‘definitive collection’ of Strachey’s letters. By Levy’s own account, a complete edition of the surviving correspondence would be six times its length. But the decision to cut many of the letters that are included has resulted in a very scrappy volume – full of bracketed ellipses and snippets without context, whose baffling allusions are only sometimes glossed by the running heads that substitute for footnotes. Printed in italics and arbitrarily paragraphed, the headnotes make even the facts which are supplied difficult to find, and the patchy index doesn’t compensate for the deficiency. Given how often readers are left to fend for themselves, the rare notes solemnly indicating that the editor has been unable to track down a bit of information seem either infuriating or comic.[*] Holroyd’s biography will supply most of what is missing, but it also drives home just how arbitrary this selection is and how much good writing has been omitted. Strachey himself repeatedly protested the Victorian custom of cutting passages from published letters on the grounds of propriety. We need not worry that Levy has done anything like that; but the commercial constraints to which he alludes in his introduction give us no reason to pride ourselves on our superiority to the Victorians.

[*] A paperback edition to be published in March will include corrections, revisions and new material.