BOOK REVIEW / For consenting adults: 'Lytton Strachey: The New Biography' - Michael Holroyd: Chatto, 25 pounds

Sean French
Saturday 27 August 1994 23:02 BST

LYTTON STRACHEY has been blamed for almost everything that has gone wrong with Britain in the 20th century, from the fall of the empire to the decline of the nuclear family. And Michael Holroyd's biography of Lytton Strachey, the original version of which was published in 1967, has been condemned both as an incitement to unnatural sexual conduct (Dame Helen Gardner described it as a 'directory for consenting adults', which sounds harmless enough) and, just as bad, the first stirring of the Bloomsbury industry.

For this new version of the biography, Holroyd has written an amusing introduction about stumbling into the world of ageing, querulous and frequently barmy Bloomsberries in the mid-Sixties. There is something comically poignant in his portrait of the great British propagandists of Freud and sexual freedom, James and Alix Strachey, in their old age eating Spam and watching children's TV. (Rather bafflingly, it was Alix's way of teaching herself physics.) E M Forster and Virginia Woolf were out of fashion, and painters like Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant were virtually forgotten, their works in storage.

His rewritten version - shorter than the original while incorporating a great deal of new material - has been made necessary by the flood of new information which was unleashed partly by the effect of the book itself and its startling candour about the polymorphous sexuality of main characters such as Dora Carrington, Duncan Grant and John Maynard Keynes. Bits of the original were edited out for legal reasons, or because people were still alive and litigious, and these gaps have now been fascinatingly filled.

Yet it's not just a matter of scholarly completeness. In its way, this new edition is as quietly polemical a book for the Nineties as its ancestor was for the Sixties. Holroyd's original crime was to trace the sexual intricacies of the Bloomsberries without prurience or prudery. Now, seen from the vantage point of the puritanical 1990s, the group's commitment to social and intellectual freedom has regained its power to shock.

For Lytton Strachey, the decline and fall of the British Empire began at home. His father, a major figure in the Anglo-Indian administration, began like a Kipling character, establishing the country's network of railways and canals, and ended like a Forster character, sitting by a blazing fire in a crumbling Kensington house, reading novels as the family finances dwindled. Strachey grew up in an age of public monumentality and private sublimation, of the Albert Memorial and Tennyson's shame-faced, homoerotic elegy to Arthur Hallam, In Memoriam; he was 15 at the time of the Oscar Wilde trial in 1895.

Studying at Liverpool and then Trinity College, Cambridge, Strachey led an unsatisfactory academic career, dismally unsuccessful by comparison with his intimate friend Maynard Keynes. Yet before he had written anything of significance, he became the private conscience of a close-knit group of artists and thinkers first in Cambridge, then in London. He spoke on behalf of a complete freedom and integrity of the private life, unfettered by conventional prejudices.

The implications of this were shocking enough, but it was expressed in a camp, frivolous style

that, though part of the point, compounded

the offence.

Virginia Woolf privately described the famous occasion in the drawing room at Bloomsbury's epicentre in Gordon Square when Strachey pointed to a stain on the dress of her sister, Vanessa, and inquired 'Semen?' It was inconceivably shocking, but liberating as well. Holroyd follows this incident with Vanessa Bell's assertion that only those who knew Strachey could 'understand what an exciting world of explorations of thought and feeling he seemed to reveal. His great honesty of mind and remorseless poking fun at any sham forced others to be honest too and showed a world in which one need no longer be afraid of saying what one thought, surely the first step to anything that would be of interest and value.'

Strachey's Eminent Victorians was the first public salvo in what had previously been a private campaign. Published in the dark days of 1918, these brief, terribly funny and disrespectful lives of Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale, Thomas Arnold and General Gordon read like brilliant epitaphs on the world that had culminated in the dreadful slaughter of the Great War. To a modern reader, this work - which once seemed 'downright wicked in its heart' (Kipling's words) - now seems entirely reasonable in its refusal to separate the public lives of these idols from their private neuroses. What was once Stracheyesque subversion has become simply the way that everybody writes about public figures.

Michael Holroyd himself has a Stracheyesque integrity as a biographer. He always keeps his nerve. Despite the amount of time Strachey spends dealing in obscene gossip and going to parties, Holroyd never tries to pretend that Strachey is 'really' being serious. He describes tiresome, snobbish, trivial behaviour because things like that are a part of any life, and he remains sure, without insisting on it, that there is enough intelligence, kindness and good humour, as well as the convincing testimony of those who adored Strachey, to weigh in the other half of the scales. The love of Dora Carrington is in itself almost enough to win the reader over, and her letter to Strachey written on the evening she decided to marry Ralph Partridge is one of the most moving love letters in the English language.

Even in this shortened version, this biography is longer than all the books Strachey published in his lifetime put together, but it is right that this should be so. Through subterranean channels Strachey became one of the decisive influences on the way we think of politics and private life. This can only be described by evoking the world in which Strachey moved, and it is difficult to imagine it better done than in this book.

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