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Lytton Strachey by Dora Carrington (1916)

Lytton Strachey by Dora Carrington (1916)


I’d prefer to have met Strachey’s work first in this book rather than in Eminent Victorians (1918). Then the best would have been still to come. As it was, I first read Eminent Victorians, then sought out more of his work and was disappointed. Victoria (1921) is dull, Elizabeth and Essex (1928) duller.

The Shorter Strachey is much better than those two. Indeed, one short essay on Lodowick Muggleton is worthy to stand beside the long essay on Cardinal Manning that opens Eminent Victorians. This is very good writing:

Never did the human mind attain such a magnificent height of self-assertiveness as in England about the year 1650. Then it was that the disintegration of religious authority which had begun with Luther reached its culminating point. The Bible, containing the absolute truth as to the nature and the workings of the Universe, lay open to all; it was only necessary to interpret its assertions; and to do so all that was wanted was the decision of the individual conscience. In those days the individual conscience decided with extraordinary facility. Prophets and prophetesses ranged in crowds through the streets of London, proclaiming, with complete certainty, the explanation of everything. The explanations were extremely varied: so much the better — one could pick and choose. One could become a Behmenist, a Bidellian, a Coppinist, a Salmonist, a Dipper, a Traskite, a Tryonist, a Philadelphian, a Christadelphian, or a Seventh Day Baptist, just as one pleased. Samuel Butler might fleer and flout at

petulant, capricious sects,
The maggots of corrupted texts;

but he, too, was deciding according to the light of his individual conscience. By what rule could men determine whether a text was corrupted, or what it meant? The rule of the Catholic Church was gone, and henceforward Eternal Truth might with perfect reason be expected to speak through the mouth of any fish-wife in Billingsgate. (“Muggleton”, in Portraits in Miniature, 1931)

Elsewhere, Strachey writes well but not exceptionally on subjects as varied as Voltaire and Frederick the Great, the acting of Sarah Bernhardt, the humour of Dostoevsky, and his own life. He’s witty, perceptive, and, in the autobiographical pieces at least, unblushingly candid. His day-description “Monday June 26th 1916”, in which he longs for a flyweight boxer in the Daily Mirror and tries to realize a daydream of seducing “that young postman with the fair hair and lovely country complexion who had smiled at me and said ‘Good evening, sir’, as he passed on his bicycle”, couldn’t have been published in his lifetime.

Which didn’t last long. It began in 1880 and ended in 1932. There were big changes in those five decades and Strachey was at the heart of some of them. Eminent Victorians was an important book, part of the revolt against the old order provoked by the slaughter and futility of the First World War, but it wouldn’t have been so successful if it hadn’t been so well-written.

You’ll see here that Strachey was rebelling against part of himself: there’s Victorian stodginess in some of the essays and reviews, even if they were written after Eminent Victorians. But “Muggleton” is as light as a soufflé. It’s also affectionate rather than acid. It would have been a foretaste of literary bliss, if I’d read this book first.

I’d didn’t, but you should if you don’t know Strachey. If you do, you’ll learn a lot more about him here. There are also glimpses of others in the Bloomsbury Set, like Ottoline Morrell and Dora Carrington. And The Shorter Strachey closes with four essays on French literature and culture, which were both very important to Strachey. The French writer Jean Giradoux supplies his epitaph: « Seuls les médiocres sont toujours à leur meilleur. » – “Only the mediocre are always at their best.” Strachey wasn’t mediocre and wasn’t always at his best. But he got there in “Muggleton” and got close elsewhere in this book.

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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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