THE GUILLOTINE: No 20: LYTTON STRACHEY

Twentieth-Century Classics That Won't Last

Like the Americans but unlike, say, the French, the British are acknowledged masters of the biographical genre. So much so that a handful of the century's cultural luminaries, from Einstein to Coward, from Alfred Hitchcock to Michel Foucault, now have as many biographies to their names as a cat has lives. Not to mention countless minor figures who enjoyed at least short-term fame - a leasehold on posterity, so to speak, if not a freehold - less because of their own, often strangely downplayed achievements than because they had the good fortune to have been given the kiss of life by a devoted biographer. Such was the case of Lytton Strachey.

Strachey, uncle of the novelist Julia Strachey (who once claimed that her ideal existence would be "lying on a pink fur rug doing absolutely nothing"), was almost wholly forgotten until, in 1968, Michael Holroyd published his massive biography of the man. Not merely did Holroyd bring Strachey's own books - Eminent Victorians, Elizabeth and Essex, Queen Victoria - back into both print and fashion but he launched, more or less single-handedly, the mania for the Bloomsberries. Suddenly, out of the elegant mahogany woodwork, they materialised, draped languid and boneless across a network of armchairs in Russell Square: Roger Fry, Maynard Keynes, Duncan Grant, the two Bells, Clive and Vanessa, the two Woolves, Leonard and Virginia, and, eternally bringing up the rear, the doomed, untalented Carrington.

It seemed, for a few years, as though we just couldn't get enough of them. Then that moveable feast of petits-fours, the cocktail-party circuit, moved on and, Virginia Woolf and Maynard Keynes apart, they were re-consigned to the circle of Hell - making cameo appearances in the indexes of other people's biographies - from which they had briefly surfaced.

And Strachey? The irony was, of course, that he himself had been an innovative biographer, the author of slim, suavely debunking volumes which wore their erudition lightly and wouldn't deign to offer the reader anything so vulgar as a laundry list - and there he was, his reputation revived by a great fat biography which didn't shy from impudently poking its nose into every shadowy nook of his life. But an even greater irony was that, when Holroyd's biography came out, it was widely judged superior to anything its subject had ever written. The moral? You live by the biography, you die by the biography.

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