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The History Of The Victorian Age

The History
of the Victorian Age
The Victorian era produced many eminent
figures. Lytton Strachey was one of them. Born in 1880, Strachey was a
British biographer and a critic who is credited of having revolutionized
the art of writing biography. He opened a new era of biographical writing
by adopting an irreverent attitude to the past, especially to the volumes
of the Victorian biography. His book, Eminent Victorians, a wartime book
composed of four miniature biographies, won him widespread recognition
as a literary critic and a biographer. In this work, instead of using the
conventional method of detailed chronological narration, he has carefully
selected his facts to present highly personal portraits of his subjects.

The four biographies of Victorian figures
that Strachey has described in Eminent Victorians are of Henry Cardinal
Manning – a Roman Catholic prelate, Florence Nightingale – a sentimentally
idolized female humanitarian, Thomas Arnold of Rugby – an educational reformer
with a pronounced moralistic bent and General Charles (“Chinese”) Gordon
– a military adventurer. All this figures had earlier been the subject
of admiring biographies, but Strachey treated them instead in the form
of caricatural case histories: Manning as an obsessive ecclesiastical opportunist,
Florence Nightingale as a workaholic driven by ruthless devotion to duty,
Arnold as a zealous pompous public-school head master who tended to confuse
himself with God, and Gordon as a religious fanatic and dipsomaniac, alternating
between Bible and brandy bottle. The four demonstrated the goals of the
Victorian age but Strachey’s presentation gave rise to a new form of biography
and caused people to express their opposition to the Victorian period.

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In short, Strachey had four – victim agenda for misrepresenting the whole
culture. He did not just use his subjects: he abused them.

I feel that Strachey has used his witty
and impressionistic style in writing this book Eminent Victorians, not
only to disclose the hidden facts of the Victorian society, but also by
writing this biographies, he has targeted on hypocrisy, imperialism, and
religion of the Victorian era. It seems that each of the four figures was
chosen with malice aforethought. For example, there are some things about
Nightingale that Strachey has genuinely admired – her determination to
cut herself free from family ties and make her own way in the world; her
reforming zeal and her crusading ardor. But in general he found the matron
very unpalatable. According to Strachey, she was a self-righteous, domineering
amazon, who was ruthless in her compassion, merciless in her philanthropy,
destructive in her friendship, obsessional in her lust for power, and demonic
in her saintliness. Above all, Strachey disliked her because in her frigid
indifference to intimate relationships, in her determined suppression of
her own erotic impulses, she denied her own womanhood, and thus rejected
in her self the very humanity she claimed to be serving.

Overall, the book has great brilliance
of style and is probably the most successful application of the comic spirit
to literary biography in English literature. It is a period piece, a vivid
point in the long transaction of the twentieth century with its immediate
past. Although the book offers very few dates and not many footnotes or
charts or graphs, Strachey’s biographies are short anecdotal, witty and
entertaining. His aim, as he has declared in the preface, was to cast”
a sudden revealing searchlight into obscure recesses hitherto undivined”.

In the process he occasionally sacrificed truth, but the result – polished,
malicious, and lively – made him the hero of the Victorian era. Even today,
when people use “Victorian” as a synonym for “smug,” “prudish” or “flowery,”
they are showing the impact of Strachey’s satiric perspective.


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