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Eminent Victorians (Oxford World's Classics) Paperback – October 30, 2003

4.3 out of 5 stars 42 customer reviews

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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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Product Details

  • Series: Oxford World's Classics
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; New Ed edition (October 30, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0192801589
  • ISBN-13: 978-0192801586
  • Product Dimensions: 7.6 x 0.7 x 5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (42 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #4,405,642 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer 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.
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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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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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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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