Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Birthday: the contrarian aesthete

Giles Lytton Strachey (1880-1932)

Eleventh of thirteen children of a colonial British officer and a suffragist, Strachey was plagued by fragile health and the sort of manner that led him to be plagued by hearty boys at school. He was unusually bright, but his manner could put people off and cast his intellect in a diminished light. His mother had her sights on Balliol College, Oxford for him; the unimpressed examiners suggested Lincoln. Feeling dissed, Mrs Strachey enrolled Lytton at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he studied between 1900 and 1905.

Failing at a Trinity fellowship and entry to the Civil Service, Strachey moved from The Apostles set at Cambridge to the nascent Bloomsbury Group in London eking out a living from writing for periodicals and grants from friends. He sought conscientious objector status in World War I, but his eccentric look- in 1911 he grew a famously rats-nest beard that he kept until death- and arch replies to his interview questions made him more suitable, the review board found, for a medical exemption.

"Tell me, Mr. Strachey, what would you do if you saw a German soldier trying to violate your sister?" the chair asked. With an air of noble virtue, Strachey replied, "I would try to get between them."

Impressed by Freud and weary of the hagiographic biographical style of the day (“The history of the Victorian age will never be written: we know too much about it”), Strachey set out to plow new ground in Eminent Victorians (1918), a set of four interlocking biographies. Of the idea, he wrote a friend,
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... I should like to live for another 200 years (to be moderate).
The literature of the future will, I clearly see, be amazing. At last it'll tell the truth, and be indecent, and amusing, and romantic, and even (after about 100 years) be written well. Quelle joie! -To live in those days, when books will pour out from the press reeking with all the filth of Petronius, all the frenzy of Dostoievsky, all the romance of the Arabian Nights, and all the exquisiteness of Voltaire! But it won't be only the books that will be charming then. The people! The young men! ... even the young women... but the vistas are too exacerbating.
The books was a hit and made him financially secure; he followed it with the controversially disrespectful Queen Victoria (1921). Unimpressed by the monumentality of Victorian-era public images and their backstairs foibles, Strachey conjoined the two and wrote their lives in whole. For a nation bled and disillusioned after The Great War, it unlocked the floodgates of what has become biography as pathology. A New Yorker staff member describes the Strachey style:
“Eminent Victorians” consists of four sections: Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale, Dr. Arnold, and General Gordon. Strachey attempted to undercut the reverence the Edwardians felt for these stolid Victorians and to show them as humans—in fact, as especially hypocritical, blinkered humans. There is a fair bit of malice in his tone. Of Cardinal Manning: “Power had come to him at last; and he seized it with all the avidity of a born autocrat, whose appetite for supreme dominion had been whetted by long years of enforced abstinence and the hated simulations of submission. He was the ruler of Roman Catholic England, and he would rule.” Not exactly Kitty Kelley, but close enough for the period.
His personal life was shambolic by any standard outside his group's. He had any number of same-sex affairs, most notably with the economist J.M. Keynes; his cousin, the painter Duncan Grant;  and Alan Searle, who later made his way to a relationship with Somerset Maugham. His last relationship, with the future head of Secker & Warburg, the publishing house, was a gay version of Fifty Shades of Grey that Strachey rightly thought a hundred years ahead of its time. He was shockingly blunt, and often blasphemous, and by design, in a high-camp, mocking way. Gerald Brenan, who was involved with Strachey and Carrington in the 1920s, wrote of him,
One observed a number of discordant features – a feminine sensibility, a delight in the absurd, a taste for exaggeration and melodrama, a very mature judgement and then some lack of human substance, some hereditary thinness in the blood that at times gave people who met him an odd feeling in the spine. He seemed almost indecently lacking in ordinariness.
In 1909, Strachey- perhaps seeking a post-Wilde scandal cover for his same-sex attractions- proposed to Virginia Woolf. He came to his senses the next day and Woolf let him off the hook. Strachey then set as his task linking Leonard Woolf with Virginia, and they married in 1912.

After 1924, he lived in Wiltshire, often with the painter Dora Carrington. She carried a mostly unrequited torch for Strachey, who encouraged her marriage to the devastatingly handsome Ralph Partridge, for whom he carried an unrequited torch. It was all very complicated and featured entrances and exits by many others. The menage was well-portrayed in the 1995 film, Carrington.

Strachey declined rapidly in the late 1920s, dying in 1932 of undiagnosed stomach cancer. Near the end, he commented, “If this is dying, then I don’t think much of it.”

Dora Carrington committed suicide out of grief three months later. Ralph Partridge remarried and died in 1960; his wife, Frances, became the last of the Bloomsberries. Late in life, she overcame the reticence being part of the endless historical autopsy of the group. She published a series of memoirs and diaries and died a month short of her 104th birthday in 2004.

A 1967 biography by Michael Holroyd was almost as great a scandal as Strachey’s work half a century earlier. As one reviewer noted in the 1990s,
Strachey has been blamed for almost everything that has gone wrong with Britain in the 20th century, from the fall of the empire to the decline of the nuclear family. And Michael Holroyd's biography, the original version of which was published in 1967, has been condemned both as an incitement to unnatural sexual conduct (Dame Helen Gardner described it as a 'directory for consenting adults', which sounds harmless enough) and, just as bad, the first stirring of the Bloomsbury industry.
Strachey’s death marked the beginning of the Bloomsbury Group’s decline. His own reputation suffered; his was an artist’s rather than a historian’s pen and his style seemed too frivolous for the post- Depression, post-World War II era.

#LiteraryBirthdays #HenryBemisBooks #Charlotte #LyttonStrachey #EminentVictorians

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