Eminent Victorians, Lytton Strachey (1918)
I once had to take two long train journeys every weekday, travelling to and returning from my place of work. One day I took and finished a P.G. Wodehouse novel. The next day I accidentally took the novel again and, having nothing else to read, started it again. And finished it again. It proved just as enjoyable second time round, because although the story was completely familiar, I could re-enjoy the prose and the inconsequential but intricate plot.
There aren’t many authors I can re-read immediately like that. Wodehouse is one; Evelyn Waugh is another; and Lytton Strachey is a third. Eminent Victorians is a book I can read again and again, or rather the essay on “Cardinal Manning” is. I think it’s some of the best writing in modern English: 36,000 words of immaculate prose, coruscating wit and magisterially distilled erudition. It’s been easy for a long time to laugh at the Church of England, but no-one has ever fired sharper satiric darts than Strachey did almost a century ago:
When Froude succeeded in impregnating Newman with the ideas of Keble, the Oxford Movement began. The original and remarkable characteristic of these three men was that they took the Christian Religion au pied de la lettre. This had not been done in England for centuries. When they declared every Sunday that they believed in the Holy Catholic Church, they meant it. When they repeated the Athanasian Creed, they meant it. Even, when they subscribed to the Thirty-nine Articles, they meant it – or at least they thought they did. Now such a state of mind was dangerous – more dangerous indeed than they at first realised.
They had started with the innocent assumption that the Christian Religion was contained in the doctrines of the Church of England; but, the more they examined this matter, the more difficult and dubious it became. The Church of England bore everywhere upon it the signs of human imperfection; it was the outcome of revolution and of compromise, of the exigencies of politicians and the caprices of princes, of the prejudices of theologians and the necessities of the State. How had it happened that this piece of patchwork had become the receptacle for the august and infinite mysteries of the Christian Faith? This was the problem with which Newman and his friends found themselves confronted.
His mockery of Catholicism, while also highly entertaining, seems to me less effective, partly because it is also less affectionate, less en famille, and more inspired by hatred and rancour. But then, as Strachey notes himself, the Church of Rome “has never had the reputation of being an institution to be trifled with.”
The other essays, on Dr Arnold, Florence Nightingale, and General Gordon, are also highly readable and entertaining, but there are signs, particularly in the last, of the carelessness and solecism that mar Strachey’s biography Queen Victoria (1921). He writes well elsewhere, but he never repeats the sustained perfection of “Cardinal Manning”. And his biography Elizabeth and Essex (1928), whose first line announces that “The English Reformation was not merely a religious event; it was also a social one”, starts as it means to go on: badly. Has ever wittier written weaker? But if Strachey disappoints so strongly there, that is a measure of the greatness he achieved in Eminent Victorians.