- Paperback: 216 pages
- Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (November 17, 2013)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 146372991X
- ISBN-13: 978-1463729912
- Product Dimensions: 8 x 0.5 x 10 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 46 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #4,862,645 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Eminent Victorians Paperback – November 17, 2013
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The four biographical essays that make up Eminent Victorians created something of a stir when they were first published in the spring of 1918, bringing their author instant fame. In his flamboyant collection, Lytton Strachey chose to stray far from the traditional mode of biography: "Those two fat volumes, with which it is our custom to commemorate the dead--who does not know them, with their ill-digested masses of material, their slipshod style, their tone of tedious panegyric, their lamentable lack of selection, of detachment, of design?" Instead he provided impressionistic but acute (and, some said, skewed) portraits. Rarely does Strachey explore the details of a subject's daily or family life unless they point directly to an issue of character. In short, he pioneered a deeply sardonic and often scathingly funny biographical style.
None of Strachey's Victorians emerge unscathed. In his hands, Florence Nightingale is not a gentle archangel descended from heaven to minister sweetly to wounded soldiers, but rather an exacting, dictatorial, and judgmental crusader. Her "pen, in the virulence of its volubility, would rush ... to the denunciation of an incompetent surgeon or the ridicule of a self-sufficient nurse. Her sarcasm searched the ranks of the officials with the deadly and unsparing precision of a machine-gun. Her nicknames were terrible. She respected no one." Dr. Thomas Arnold, the man appointed to revamp the very private British public school system, fares little better: in Strachey's acid ink, he became "the founder of the worship of athletics and the worship of good form." In this same vain, military hero General Gordon is portrayed as a temperamental, irascible hermit, occasionally drunk and often found in the company of young boys--a man who tended to forget and forgo the tenets found in the Bible he kept with him always. And the powerful and popular Cardinal Manning, who came within a hair's breadth of succeeding Pope Pius IX, belonged, Strachey writes, "to that class of eminent ecclesiastics ... who have been distinguished less for saintliness and learning than for practical ability."
As he offered up indelible sketches of his less-than-fab four, Strachey was intent on critiquing established mores. This effortlessly superior wit knew full well that deep convictions and good deeds often go hand in hand with hypocrisy, arrogance, and egomania. His task was to pique those who pretended they did not. --Jordana Moskowitz --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
Collection of short biographical sketches by Lytton Strachey, published in 1918. Strachey's portraits of Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale, Thomas Arnold, and General Charles "Chinese" Gordon revolutionized English biography. Until Strachey, biographers had kept an awestruck distance from their subjects; anything short of adulation was regarded as disrespect. Strachey, however, announced that he would write lives with "a brevity which excludes everything that is redundant and nothing that is significant," whether flattering to the subject or not. His intensely personal sketches scandalized stuffier readers but delighted many literati. Strachey's impressionistic portraits occasionally led to inaccuracy, since he selected the facts he liked and had little use for politics or religion. By portraying his "Eminent Victorians" as multifaceted, flawed human beings rather than idols, and by informing public knowledge with private information, Strachey ushered in a new era of biography. -- The Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
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All four subjects of this book are out-sized. Henry Manning, switching from the Church of England to the Church of Rome, became a cardinal in the bargain and a central figure in British church and state affairs. "The Lady of the Lamp" Florence Nightingale, the heroine of the Crimea, founded modern nursing. A driven hyper-critic in an angel suit, she crusaded for hospital reform while hovering "near death" for the fifty years following the Light Brigade's charge. Thomas Arnold, headmaster at Rugby, triggered change in the British public school system, putting intellect third behind good conduct and religious principle. General Gordon, was an intense and eccentric polymath hero in China but eventually a victim of Sudanese violence and British politics.
Strachey's four portraits show able, strong and willful people all astringently sure of themselves and, to varying degrees, mentally mis-calibrated. Alongside them, he delivers vivid cameos of Victorians ranging from Newman to Gladstone to Victoria herself, each with mental dents and bendings of their own.
Common to all the principal figures is a personal struggle on behalf of, with, against, or about, God. Of course, if there is no God, the struggles were a waste of time. And if there IS a God, the struggles were no less a waste since the principals could never do better than finish an infinitely distant second. Strachey never actually says exactly that. But the agonies over God drift through his book like mist through muslin.
This is a very fine work, a full purse of polished prose expressed with the cadence of hymns, the force of surprise, and the occasional bite of an adder. ("The great bulk of the clergy walked calmly along the smooth road of ordinary duty.") Sadly, the fine writing is poorly served by a clumsy publisher. To site only the most visible faux pas among scores of them, the back cover includes the statement that the book "was first published in 1818." No doubt this would have come as surprising news to Lytton Strachey who was not born until 1880.
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.
Particularly interesting, for me, were those on Gordon Pasha and Florence nightingale.
A minus is the pedantic and heavy prose that makes reading somewhat unconfortable.
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Thank you for that.