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32 of 34 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The importance of not being earnest
Some of Lytton Strachey's choices of subject for the four scathing biographical essays contained in _Eminent Victorians_ may seem rather strange. Florence Nightingale was an obvious choice for any biographer, but who cared about Matthew Arnold in the post-war era when Strachey was writing these essays? Who gave a thought to Cardinal Manning or Chinese Gordon? And why...
Published on September 23, 2005 by Charlene Vickers

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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars love the book but numerous publishing errors
This is a really terrific book to read, just not this version. Strachey gets 5 stars. But I really have to complain about the poor quality of the book itself. A prodigious number of typos (at least one on every page), one page left entirely blank, and lousy glued paper binding really mar the experience.
Published on March 21, 2009 by Amazon Customer


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32 of 34 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The importance of not being earnest, September 23, 2005
By 
Charlene Vickers (Winnipeg, Manitoba) - See all my reviews
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Some of Lytton Strachey's choices of subject for the four scathing biographical essays contained in _Eminent Victorians_ may seem rather strange. Florence Nightingale was an obvious choice for any biographer, but who cared about Matthew Arnold in the post-war era when Strachey was writing these essays? Who gave a thought to Cardinal Manning or Chinese Gordon? And why combine their biographies into one book?

The answer may be that all four shared one unusual character trait, one so reminiscent of the Victorian age that even the thought of it brings the scent of lavender to mind: extreme earnestness. Each figure cared very, very deeply about something, but for each that earnestness also masked a corresponding personal craving. Like many young Britons in the post-WWI era, Strachey was deeply distrustful of earnestness, often seeing it as an excuse for personal gain or fulfillment. This was especially true when one man's deeply held beliefs sent others to their deaths, as it often had during WWI. He had no time for official incompetence, ignorance, or inaction, but often found the opposite just as dangerous.

The first essay in _Eminent Victorians_ is that of Cardinal Manning. Manning was a priest in the Church of England who became involved in the Oxford Movement, a group of churchmen who disliked the increasing secularization of the C of E and who wished to bring it back to its Catholic roots. Most of those involved remained in the Anglican communion, forming the nucleus of the "High Church" movement of the late 19th century. Manning found that he could not stop at that, though; unable to reconcile his belief in a Church Universal with his membership in a church that existed basically because Henry VIII was a serial adulterer, and unable to 'take back' the text of a tract he had written that was deeply critical of the Anglican church and which eliminated any chances of his gaining higher office, Manning found himself eventually in the arms of Rome. Strachey paints Manning as a weak, vacillating, impulsive man of great ambition whose conversion to Roman Catholicism was as much a political and career move as one of the heart and soul. Had Manning remained in the Church of England, Strachey implies, he would have been an archdeacon until death; only conversion to Roman Catholicism allowed him to fulfil his ambitions towards higher office. It's a masterful biography, one that explores not just its purported subject but also the birth of Anglo-Catholicism.

The third essay, of Rugby school headmaster Matthew Arnold, reveals Strachey's hatred of the English public school system (or what we in North America would call the private school system). He skewers Arnold for failing to make the educational reforms he was hired to make and for delegating the discipline of younger students to the senior class, thereby condoning and even encouraging the type of severe bullying that caused many young men to consider suicide. Arnold, whose earnestness in creating 'Christian gentlemen' did not go so far as to allow him to teach them himself, refused to update the school curriculum ostensibly because gentlemen didn't need science, maths, or English literature, but really (as Strachey contends) because Arnold had studied Latin and Greek himself and didn't want to feel his own learning was unnecessary. Strachey points out that Arnold did little at Rugby except pronounce the Sunday sermon, intimidate students, and foster a personality cult that eventually made him the father of modern education in many Britons' eyes - even though he made no changes to the educational system itself. His reforms in discipline and in religion (and his lack of reforms in curriculum) were copied by most public schools, to the great detriment of the British people.

In Strachey's essay on General Gordon, Strachey shows how a brave man with a strong belief in the rightness of his cause and an overwhelming desire for adventure may have been used to precipitate a war and to advance the cause of imperialism. Gordon, a war veteran and former colonial administrator (and a rather unstable fellow), was sent to the Sudan during a revolt to report on conditions there and to evacuate civilians who were loyal to Egypt, which was then controlled by the British. Gordon did none of the above; he instead tried to wipe out the insurrection, and for his troubles was killed and his staff and allies massacred. His death was used by the imperialist factions in the ruling party as a call to arms. Strachey wonders: was this deliberate? Was Gordon given alternate instructions by the imperialists? Did they intend for him to die, so that his death could be used as a rallying point for further imperialism? He argues his point well, and the essay is definitely worth reading.

Strachey's portrait of Florence Nightingale is not quite as successful as the rest. Nightingale was born into a wealthy family, and like all young women of her class and time was expected to marry young, have children, and generally be nothing more than a society lady. Florence wanted more: she wanted to work, to make a difference, to change the world, and she wanted everybody around her to work as hard as she did. After many years of waiting, she finally had her chance; her efforts to reform British military hospitals and eventually the practice of medicine in the Empire did in fact change the world. Strachey seems to have thought that she pushed her colleagues too hard, that her own drive was so abnormal that her friends and family could not keep up. Granted, she did push some of her colleagues very hard, and one may have even died from overwork, but they chose to work with her because they believed in her, and given what she was able to do I think they were right to believe in her. It also appears that Strachey may not have been comfortable with a woman refusing to hide her intelligence or personal strength when dealing with men. I had the distinct impression while reading this essay that Strachey was sneering at those men who took orders from Nightingale or who assisted her in her work. Another reviewer mentioned that Nightingale is portrayed here as a 'pushy woman' - and she certainly is; however, most of Strachey's implied criticism seems to be directed towards the men who treated her as the intelligent, hard-working, valuable human being she was. Strachey also seems to have viewed her invalid status as something of a neurotic problem, which in the light of recent research (showing that she likely had undulant fever) may not be accurate.
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars LAUGHTER AT POMP'S EXPENSE, January 8, 2001
By 
Daniel Myers (Greenville, SC USA) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)   
This review is from: Eminent Victorians (Paperback)
The most famous anecdote about this book (and the one that made me aware of it) is the scene of Bertrand Russell in his prison cell incarcerated for his Pacifism during WWI laughing hysterically while reading the work. (And being henceforth rebuked by a guard for doing so in what was, after all, a penal institution.)-The other reviewers are pretty much on the mark in that Strachey set a new standard for biography.-But the piece on General Gordon surpasses all. I can see myself on death row laughing over this section.-It is in part a sad reflection on what years in the Sudan can do to an orthodox Englishman's mind. It is indeed uncanny to hear Gordon aver, on his famous expedition to save Khartoum, nearly the exact words of Baudelaire as he gazed across the perhaps too familiar desert landscape:"It is necessary to be drunken always. This is everything. This is the unique question." (my translation)-This is the aged General the sober English sent on this perilous quest. This is the man who daily battled with the question of what God's Will was for him.-What the Gordon section and the others show, of course, is that man (or woman) is not one-dimensional. Far more often, he(she)is multi-dimensional to the point of being paradoxical. The hypocritical Victorian mindset was pushed over the edge by this book.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars All Time Classic- Worth it for Chinese Gordon Alone!, January 31, 2002
By 
Hans Castorp (Devon, Pa United States) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)   
This review is from: Eminent Victorians (Paperback)
Most of us here in the old "colony" have probably never heard of General Gordon. For Brits, he's a legendary eccentric military man of the late 1800's who died a hero in terrible circumstances.(At least that's what I think many Brits think..) After a brilliant career in many parts of the vast Empire, and beyond, Gen Gordon was sent to control some Islamic revolutionary jihadist types (sound familiar) led by a charismatic Mahdi (messiah). By all accounts the general was a man worthy of this assignment, and brought his small force to Khartoum to free the slaves, and rally the locals...The rest is bizarre and insane in the extreme with the good general suffering breakdowns of sorts, including having dinner with some rodent friends...When word gets to London, after political maneuvering and bickering, the people damand an expeditionary force to save Gordon and his men.Too late!! A great tragedy ensues. If there's a better short bio out there than this one, I'd read it ASAP...Florence Nightingale has a great story too, and her experiences show once again the horrors of war (this time the earlier Crimean one), and indifference of the comfortable few sitting at home by the fireplace in willful ignorance. No doubt she was a force to be reckoned with, and her ideas about clean hospitals and nursing helped change the world...This book is recommended to those looking for a different historical perspective on current events, and for nurse everywhere! The other two bios are good, but may be put aside for later.
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Delightfully bitchy, impeccably written, October 8, 1999
By A Customer
This book dealt a death blow to hagiographic biography as it was practised well into this century. The deligtfully bitchy tone, with conspiratorial overtones, takes one instantly into the boudoir of the personages portrayed. This shows it is not necessary to read a 1000 page tome to properly understand a historical figure. Strachey was obviously biased against religion (particularly of the Catholic variety), and against politicians in general. He was also selective of the material he chose to disclose and never wavered from allowing his preconceptions to substitute for analysis. But could he write!
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17 of 20 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not what you'd expect, June 6, 2004
By 
This is a strange book. The author created quite a stir when he published it at the close of the First World War: it's not the laudatory, voluminous biography that was popular at the time. Instead, it's a more impressionistic work, artistic rather than factual. And since it's not one biography but four short ones, the individual sketches tend to be more along the lines of extended eulogies or obituaries.
The four people studied in this book are Cardinal Manning (who almost became Pope), Dr. Arnold (who reformed the British public school system), Florence Nightingale, and General "Chinese" Gordon (killed defending Khartoum). The first difficulty, I would imagine, for the average American reader is that of these four, only Florence Nightingale will be familiar. The book only briefly touches on the events of the people whose lives are sketched here, and it's helpful to know something of the individual's background and life prior to picking up the current book. I only knew "Chinese" Gordon, and him not that well, so the four bios were only of moderate interest to me.
The writing style, however, stood out. The author has a bad habit of stretching his thoughts out beyond all reason. Paragraphs, at various points, run upwards of two pages in length, and sentences fill line after line. The author is full of opinions, and pushes them at you rather relentlessly. The tone of the book, and the way it was recieved at the time, show a considerable irreverence, as all of the bios involved are at least somewhat negative. While "Chinese" Gordon has always been known to have been somewhat eccentric, and the criticism of Manning and Arnold are probably irrelevant to most now, Florence Nightingale is mainly criticized for being a pushy woman. I don't know that this will play very well these days, especially since she was right more than wrong.
I enjoyed this book reasonably well, given the shortcomings that I knew it had going in. I would recommend it to those interested in the topic, the author, or the era of British history.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars So glad I finally got around to reading this one, October 15, 2003
Eminent Victorians has been on my `to read' list for about 20 yrs, and I'm so glad I finally got around to it. Perhaps Lytton Strachey was the first to create "the new biography," not wrapping his subjects in flowery adjectives as was the style of his times, but instead skewering them with sarcastic and scathingly funny written portraits. And, as he seemed on intimate terms with Everyone Who Was Anybody during the early 1900s, his book created quite a stir. Far from confining his critiques to people, Strachey also lambasted the stilted mores, the hypocrisy, and the severely limiting lines of social strata of his era.
Although it's dated, of course, Eminent Victorians makes terrific reading for anyone interested in that era before everything changed with the First World War.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars love the book but numerous publishing errors, March 21, 2009
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This review is from: Eminent Victorians (Paperback)
This is a really terrific book to read, just not this version. Strachey gets 5 stars. But I really have to complain about the poor quality of the book itself. A prodigious number of typos (at least one on every page), one page left entirely blank, and lousy glued paper binding really mar the experience.
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12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Original Expose of the Victorians, September 7, 1999
This review is from: Eminent Victorians (Paperback)
This superb book, by a too-often overlooked author writing at the brink of the modern age, was an instant classic when it was released near the end of World War I. It exposed to the war-weary young the hypocrisy and hollowness of the Victorian ideals they believed they were fighting for, through its marvelous depictions of four leading Victorian figures. Strachey did a tremendous amount of background reading and research, which never shows in his tightly written, crystalline prose. But more impressive is how he managed to "re-imagine" these figures, based on their own writings and what was written about them, to understand why these figures were often held up as the ideal, but in reality had become stereotypes who did not deserve the reputations they had won (or deserved them for different reasons than were commonly acknowledged). Nightingale, Bennett, Gordon, Manning -- their names would taste bitter in the mouths of the first generation of the new century, because of this book.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A classic of biography., October 17, 2001
By 
R. H OAKLEY "roboakley" (Vienna, VA United States) - See all my reviews
Lytton Strachey, a member of the Bloomsbury group, altered the way biographies were written with this volume of four well-known Victorians. At the time the book was published, it skewered the hypocrisies and self-assured nature of the Victorians. Even today, when we are so far removed from the Victorian age that it seems quaint and even attractive, this book's attack on the deadening effect of much of that time still rings true. And it is as readable now as it was then; Strachey was one of the wittiest men of his time, and this book is his most successful work. Interestingly, he became less iconoclastic as he grew older, and his later biography of Queen Victoria (not one of the four figures contained in Eminent Victorians) is rather respectful. If you enjoy this book (and almost anyone would), you might want to try to see the movie released several years ago titled "Carrington." It is based on a biography of Strachey by Milchael Holroyd, but is told from the point of view of a woman who fell hopelessly in love with Strachey; unfortunately for her, he was a confirmed homosexual, but she loved him anyway. Emma Thompson plays the title roal and Jonathan Pryce is an excellent Strachey.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Lytton Strachey is rolling in his grave., February 1, 2010
By 
Gayle Turner (Bigfork, Montana) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
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This review is from: Eminent Victorians (Paperback)
This Wilder Publications edition of Eminent Victorians is the most poorly edited mess I have ever stopped reading. Gayle Turner
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Eminent Victorians
Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey (Paperback - November 17, 2013)
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