Captain Moonlight: Holroyd returns to tell the full story

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WHEN Michael Holroyd wrote his biography of Lytton Strachey in 1967, he outed a number of prominent homosexuals including Maynard Keynes, the economist. Holroyd wanted to be free to include every detail - private or public - about Strachey and his Bloomsbury circle, and he set a benchmark for biographers who came after him.

However, Holroyd did not apply the same rules to himself when he secretly married the novelist Margaret Drabble in 1982. Not surprisingly, he would like a privacy law that protects the living, but not the dead. As he explains: 'Biographers are criticised, and understandably so, for being voyeurs, for invading people's privacy, for listening at doors, looking through keyholes, and for generally making life - which is difficult enough anyway - more intolerable. I very much divide the living and the dead.' But can a biographer have his cake and eat it?

Yes, says Holroyd, if the author is prepared to wait. Twenty-seven years ago, Holroyd fudged a lot to protect Strachey's friends and family who were still alive. Now, Lytton Strachey (Sunday Review, page 29) has been reissued. No, rewritten. Using pen, ink, scissors and sticky bits of paper, Holroyd has cut 350,000 words, and added about 100,000.

But why did he do it? Some say Holroyd is obsessed with his subject, others that his publisher Chatto & Windus forced him back to his desk to try and make up for the losses on the three-volume biography of Bernard Shaw, for which Holroyd was paid a record pounds 625,000. 'Not true, not true,' cries Holroyd. 'It was my idea to re-do it. I had to persuade them to

let me.'

True, Holroyd received only pounds 50 for the first Strachey, and pounds 25,000 for the latest one. But his real motives had nothing to do with money.

'I couldn't bear the book as it stood there with its inaccuracies, with getting things wrong, with its suppressions of things that now were in other books. It was absurd. I never re- read it. But I knew it was wrong.' Strachey's sister-in-law, on reading the book's earliest chapters, complained that there was something 'frog-like and unfeeling' about them. 'This is my final attempt,' says Holroyd 30 years on, 'to change that frog into a prince . . . I think I've simplified it, made it more streamlined. More sophisticated.'

(Photograph omitted)