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BOOK REVIEW / A jolly way of honouring the dead: Michael Holroyd has revised his biography of Lytton Strachey; D J Taylor considers its influence

Lytton Strachey: The New Biography Michael Holroyd Chatto & Windus pounds 25

THE original Lytton Strachey was published in 1967-8. Though it did not single- handedly create the Bloomsbury industry, as a glance at the bibliography demonstrated, it gave a vast, authenticating push to the tide of memoirs, biographies and resuscitated belles lettres that followed. Its revision, almost 30 years after Holroyd began work, is a good excuse to reconsider the perennial exam question about the effect of Bloomsbury on English culture; and also other questions, about Strachey and his influence and - a reasonable enquiry in the age of biographies on the grand scale - Holroyd and his influence.

The reaction against Strachey was well underway in his own lifetime. One side of it surfaces in the preface to Evelyn Waugh's Rossetti (1928). 'Old fashioned' biography is gone, Waugh suggests. In its place 'we have discovered a jollier way of honouring our dead. The corpse has become a marionette. With bells on its fingers and wires on its toes it is jigged about to a 'period dance' of its own piping; and who is not amused?' It was a good question. Elizabeth and Essex, published two years after this rebuke, sold 40,000 copies in the UK alone, and went on to become America's biggest-selling non-fiction book to date. Another side to this hostility turns up a quarter of a century later in the closing pages of Lucky Jim (1954), where Jim Dixon's bearded adversary Bertrand Welch is thought to resemble 'Lytton Strachey represented in waxwork form by a prentice hand.' To Waugh, Strachey seems a deceitful middlebrow, to Amis he is a highbrow pinioning 'culture' under an elitist net; but their view of him is essentially the same: someone whose whole artistic outlook is a kind of disgusting fraud.

A long-lived and influential fraud, though. There are Strachey imitators at work today - it's no coincidence that Andrew Roberts's recent debunking of the Churchill circle is called Eminent Churchillians. One of the inevitable consequences of this revision is to make the reader wonder whether we haven't had enough of Strachey, and whether there aren't other, more deserving figures from the early 20th-century twilight waiting to step out into the paralysing glare of the biographer's lamp. To balance this is the fact that Holroyd's fascination with Strachey is wholly infectious.

A quarter of a million words of literary criticism were pruned for the one-volume 1971 paperback. Holroyd maintains that he has removed a further 100,000 and added about the same amount, but the result still seems a much smaller book. Gone are some of the rococo embellishments - the breathless descriptions of life at Ham Spray House, for example. To supplant them comes the identification of a few shadowy Bloomsbury figures like Bernard 'Beacus' Penrose, and a certain amount of intimate detail previously excluded in deference to living collaborators. Lytton's relations with Roger Senhouse, for instance, are given an earthier tone by the publication of an anxious letter or two about pubic lice. The broad outlines of a largely uneventful life remains: the echt-Victorian childhood under the gaze of his father, the General; the fallow years at Cambridge; the homosexuality; the early career as a reviewer flowering unexpectedly into the success of Eminent Victorians (1918); Keynes, Duncan Grant, and the Woolfs; a frightful death as a result of undiagnosed stomach cancer in his early fifties, followed by the suicide of his female companion, Carrington, who could not bear to live without him. Patiently unravelled into its millions of words, conspicuously bereft - for all the Bloomsbury talk about principle - of any real ideology, the whole becomes a lavish exercise in gossip. High-class gossip, yet of an increasingly fusty and antiquated type. The Bloomsberries might have managed to slough of the moral baggage of their parents' generation, but they retained its social attitudes. Lytton's hoary elitism surfaces in a trip to a Swedish sanatorium. Its inhabitants are 'middle class' representatives of a 'second-rate' nation. 'I sometimes fear that it may be the result of democracy,' he concluded.

The incorrigible invincibility of the Strachey set was quite as marked. 'I sometimes feel as if it were not only we ourselves who are concerned' he informed Leonard Woolf in 1905, 'but that the destinies of the whole world are somehow involved in ours. We are . . . like the Athenians of the Periclean age.' Granted, Lytton was a callow 25 when he wrote this, yet the same tone emerges in a letter written by Keynes about some absurd love- triangle or other: 'Great God, it's more weird and more bad than anything that ever happened in the world before.' At the very least, Lytton Strachey helps to explain the causes of the cultural guerilla warfare of the Thirties (and later decades), an era when elderly colonels publicly thanked God that they weren't 'brainy', and a hatred of highbrows infected the post-war literary generation. In the demonology of the average Fifties novel by Amis and Wain, Strachey, Woolf and Co are an abiding presence.

The works, meanwhile, have survived as 'modern classics'. Eminent Victorians, Queen Victoria and Elizabeth and Essex might seem period pieces now - histrionic, top- heavy with laborious wordplay, at times oddly sentimental. At the time, though, they cleared dead wood out of the field of biography almost at a stroke. Orwell thought that Strachey's stance was simply 'a polite 18th-century scepticism mixed up with a taste for debunking', which is harsh but not inaccurate. Read over 70 years after its first publication, Queen Victoria has a considerable forensic interest as the view of a highly intelligent sceptic on his parents' generation. But it is really a wonderful joke written by a man who doesn't care how long the joke goes on.

How was it that such an faintly insubstantial figure should inspire such a magisterial account of his life? One is reminded of the Victorian reader who, enquiring what might be the spectacular importance to posterity of John Sterling, was told that it lay in prompting Carlyle to write his biography. For this is that very odd animal, a mostly first-rate book about a mostly second-rate subject. Even stranger is that the methods used should be exactly the reverse of those favoured by Strachey himself, and that a coy ironist should have found himself memorialised by a well-meaning fanatic.

It isn't Holroyd's fault, but the testimonies to his influence lie all around us, in a biographical landscape populated by flabby monsters. Meanwhile, the Bloomsberries chatter on behind their glassy palisade. 'Look at them. Look at them, dear lady,' Henry James is recorded as observing to Ottoline Morrell as they gazed down over the banisters in Bedford Square, 'but don't go down amongst them.' There are enormous pleasures to be got out of Lytton Strachey, but we should never mistake what emerges for real life.