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Lytton Strachey: A Biography, Michael Holroyd (1967)

It’s likely that the biographer of a writer will write less well than his subject. The better the writer, the likelier this is. Strachey was very good indeed, so Holroyd’s flaws stand out a lot. Some are venal, but some aren’t excusable in a supposed littérateur. In fact, this book proves once again that an interest in literature does not necessarily go with an interest in language. In fact, you could almost imagine that they’re mutually exclusive. Michael Holroyd was born in 1935 and attended Eton, where you might suppose he received an excellent education. From passages like this, you should suppose again:

On leaving Cambridge, Lytton’s rooms were rather violently redecorated in apple-green and taken over by his younger brother, James. (Part II, Sec. 6, “Post-Graduate”, Sub-Sec. 2, “The Limbo of Unintimacy”)

There are suspended participles like that everywhere in this book, or at least everywhere I’ve looked. It’s 1,144 pages long in my Penguin edition, after all, and that’s another glaring contrast with Strachey. If brevity is the soul of wit, Strachey both wrote and lived wittily. Reading this book, I felt rather as though Holroyd was using a microscope on a soufflé. Strachey’s Eminent Victorians captures four very active and sometimes very long lives in just under 100,000 words. In the introduction, Strachey says that to “preserve a becoming brevity ― a brevity which excludes everything that is redundant and nothing that is significant ― that, surely, is the first duty of the biographer.”

If so, then Holroyd badly neglects his first duty. There is some memorable writing here, but Holroyd isn’t directly responsible for it:

“Now and then,” recalled [Lady Ottoline] Morrell, “Lytton Strachey exquisitely stepped out with his brother James and his sister Marjorie, in a delicate and courtly minuet of his own making, his thin long legs and arms gracefully keeping perfect time to Mozart ― the vision of this exquisite dance always haunts me with its half-serious, half-mocking, yet beautiful quality.” (Part II, Sec. 11, “The Lacket”, Sub-Sec. 4, “Business as Usual”)

On one occasion the two of them [Lady Ottoline and Nijinsky] were sitting together in a tiny inner room when Lytton entered the house [at Bedford Square]. As he advanced towards the drawing-room he overheard Ottoline’s husky voice, with its infinitely modulated intonations, utter the words, “Quand vous dansez, vous n’êtes pas un homme ― vous êtes une idée. C’est ça, n’est ce pas, qui est l’Art?… Vous avez lu Platon, sans doubte?” ― The reply was a grunt. [“When you dance, you are not a man – you are an idea. It’s that, isn’t it, that makes Art?… You have read Plato, no doubt?” ― The reply was a grunt.] (“The Lacket”, Sub. Sec. 2, “Scenes from Post-Edwardian England”)

Elsewhere, Holroyd offers his readers all they ever might have wanted to know about Lytton Strachey, but many of them, like me, will not have the patience to dig through the dross to find all the concealed nuggets. That is the image suggested by the book; the relation of author and subject suggests another. The gap between their literary talent isn’t the only jarring thing: Strachey was very close to being a genius, studying both literature and mathematics at university, and Holroyd’s much weaker mind flutters around his like a moth beating on a powerful bulb, ever attracted, ever unable to reach the core of that dazzling brilliance.

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