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.

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