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EMINENT VICTORIANS (1918) by Lytton Strachey
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The Independent Culture
Plot: A collection of four iconoclastic studies that suggest general truths about the Victorian age. The approach is suavely ironic. Cardinal Manning is a creature of will, possessing ``magnetic vigour''. He rises through the Church of England and converts to Rome through a poisonous brew of religious conscience and undiluted self-advancement. Strachey's Florence Nightingale is similarly scheming and energetic. Driven to the Crimea by an obsession with hygiene, her attack on the War Office for better conditions proves more successful than the Army's campaign against the Russians. Dr Arnold, Rugby's great headmaster, is portrayed as a prig and philistine whose educational reforms were merely window-dressing. Saddest of the quartet is General Gordon whose messianic religiosity let him be manipulated by the fervid imperialists of the British government.

Theme: Strachey's Victorians are chosen to demonstrate the mad vitality of individuals who thrive on a system of rigid Christian belief. All four subjects are prepared to torture themselves on the wheel of personal conviction - but they don't mind torturing others as well.

Style: Derived from Hume and Gibbon, the prose has a mannered elegance that is fuelled by high-octane camp. Just as Wilde ditched the idea of earnestness, so Strachey murders eminence.

Chief strengths: Strachey's instinct for the damning quotation enables him to unpeel layers of hypocrisy; he can express a moral viewpoint without distorting his artful design with overt moralising.

What they thought of it then: Immensely popular, it was appreciated by everyone from Arnold Bennett to Andre Gide.

What we think of it now: The fascination with Bloomsbury has clouded any just appreciation of Strachey's work. Despite Holroyd's biography, he is still known as the thin one who almost went out with Dora Carrington.

Responsible for: Insisting that modern biographies should eschew hagiography and embrace brevity; most have followed the first half of Strachey's injunction.

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