Friday, 19 August 2011

Strafing Strachey

Eminent Victorians, Lytton Strachey
I once had to take two long train journeys every weekday, traveling 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-savor the prose and the inconsequential but intricate plot.
Not many authors can sustain an immediate re-reading like that. Wodehouse is one; Evelyn Waugh is another; and Lytton Strachey is a third. Eminent Victorians is a book I can re-read immediately, 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. For at least two centuries it’s been easy to laugh at the Church of England, but sharper darts than Strachey’s have never found out her fallibilities more surely. His mockery of the Church of Rome, while also highly entertaining, seems to me less effective, perhaps in part because it is less affectionate, less en famille, and more inspired by hatred and rancor. But then, as Strachey notes himself, the Church of Rome has always been an altogether more formidable foe.

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 of Queen Victoria. Although there are undoubted treats to be had, he never repeats the sustained perfection of “Cardinal Manning” in any of his other writing, while Elizabeth and Essex, 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: very dully. Has ever wittier written weaker? But if Strachey disappoints so often and so strongly, that is a measure of the greatness he achieved in Eminent Victorians.

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