Bombay to Bloomsbury by Barbara Caine

All in the family
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

OXFORD £25 (488pp) £22.50 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

The Stracheys, wrote Leonard Woolf, "stand out in my memory as much the most remarkable family I have ever known... The atmosphere of the dining-room at Lancaster Gate [in 1902] was that of British history and of the comparatively small ruling middle class which for the last 100 years had been the principal makers of British history." It is a nice irony that the Strachey most people remember now is Lytton, the celebrated debunker, in Eminent Victorians, of such makers of British history as Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale, Thomas Arnold and General Gordon.

Barbara Caine reminds us in her family biography, however, that Lytton was named after the Viceroy of India and that his parents were both dedicated servants of Empire, as were their own parents and grandparents. "Our connection with India stretches continuously from the days of Clive and Warren Hastings to the present day," Jane Strachey boasted in 1910. One of the great strengths of Caine's book is to show just how important the Raj was in the family's life.

Starting out as a second lieutenant in the Bombay Engineers, Richard Strachey spent much of his career overseeing the building of railways and canals across the subcontinent, becoming Secretary of Public Works and ending up as Sir Richard Strachey CGSI. In Calcutta, he met and married Jane Grant, daughter of the lieutenant-governor of the central provinces, and the couple eventually produced 13 children, 10 of whom survived into adulthood.

Back in England, the family was installed in a cavernous Bayswater mansion, large enough but awkwardly appointed and hideously decorated. The children formed alliances and talked frankly, wittily and non-stop about one another's qualities and failings, like characters in a novel by Ivy Compton-Burnett.

A photograph reproduced on the dust-jacket depicts them kneeling in prayer, lined up like figures on a 17th-century tomb. Religion did not, in fact, play a central role in their lives, and Christianity was replaced by a strong moral sense of the sort that characterised servants of Empire. Great stress was laid upon the children's education and intellectual development, producing varied results. The three eldest sons followed the family tradition of imperial service in India, without quite achieving the distinction of their parents. But Oliver went on to become a leading code-breaker, while Pernel was elected Principal of Newnham, Pippa was a well-known suffragist, James translated Freud, Dorothy wrote that little Sapphic masterpiece Olivia, and of course Lytton founded modern biography.

Caine started out on a book about the formidable Strachey women, but realised this would be impossible without discussing the men. This decision is vindicated by the extraordinarily close and complex relationships she lays out. Ray Costelloe, for example, appears to have married Oliver Strachey because of an emotional attachment to his sister Pippa, while in early life James Strachey tended to fall for the objects of his brother Lytton's sexual obsessions, including their cousin Duncan Grant. Lytton's unlikely partner, Dora Carrington, was rather in love with James's wife, Alix... and so on. Children were occasionally abandoned by or removed from their parents and farmed out among siblings, thus further complicating the many-branched family tree.

Family biographies can be tricky to write, particularly when the members were as numerous, as variously distinguished and as mutually bound up as the Stracheys. Caine's decision to tell the story thematically makes a certain sense, but results in a great deal of overlapping and the frequent repetition of information from chapter to chapter. Although she writes with some humour and asperity, investigations of such topics as "Gender Transformation and the Question of Sexuality" remind us that we are in the hands of an academic biographer who is sometimes too inclined to see her subjects as examples of social patterning rather than as living individuals. Theoretical discussions of "erotic displacement" tend simply to get in the way of what Alix Strachey called "the mere fucking business". Caine's frequent genuflections before fellow academics occasionally make one feel as if one is attending a seminar rather than reading a narrative.

In fact, Caine is perfectly capable of writing about the shifting allegiances within the family by returning to biographical basics. She has done some excellent primary research among several huge collections of Strachey papers, and uses letters to particularly good effect. In the end, the Stracheys win through, and the book ultimately confirms Leonard Woolf's impression that this wayward and frequently infuriating family was indeed remarkable.

Peter Parker's 'Isherwood' is published by Picador

Buy any book reviewed on this site at Independent Books Direct
- postage and packing are free in the UK