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Sardonic and priceless,
This review is from: Eminent Victorians (Oxford World's Classics) (Paperback)
I have read "Eminent Victorians" several times now, each time with greater enjoyment. In it's time a bestseller, it is forgotten by all but literary types today. Reading it, even now, you can see why it was so popular. Four people, iconic in their time, pivotal in the thinking of the 19th century and key turning points in the development of the modern world, are laid bare.
Strachey was famous for his dry, incisive wit and here, in 1918, in a world disillusioned by war, he turns his jaundiced eye on four of the "boys own paper" heroes of Victorian public life. Cardinal Manning, the talented and ambitious cleric who made a new career for himself after converting to catholicism; Dr Arnold, the headmaster immortalised (in fictional form) in 'Tom Brown's Schooldays' - the man who civilised the barbaric "Lord of the Flies" world of the late Georgian public school and intorduced the 'play up play up and play the game' philosphy which is still satirised today; General Gordon, the charismatic hero of Britain's wars in China and the sacrificial victim at Khartoum; and last but most well-known, Florence Nightingale, the reformer of nursing and heroine of the Crimean War.
All four were in their day idolised; all four share a self-consciousness of their destiny which, to a modern eye, looks arrogant and egocentric. Strachey, separated by a generation and illuminated by the early twentieth century's dawning understanding of psychology, invents in these monographs a new type of biography; one which unpicks the forces shaping a personality, examines their motives and looks coolly at the roots of their "greatness". In doing so, he punctured the over-blown balloon of hero-worship which had suurounded them, and amused a whole generation of younger readers brought up on the sort of nauseating moralist didacticism which we are mercifully spared today.
Modern scholarship has redressed the balance somewhat and we can say that Strachey was unfair. But his unfairness is so beautifully written, so compact and concise in its dissection, that we are seduced. To get the full flavour of his style, find and read an earlier, hagiographic biography of any of these figures for contrast.
If you enjoy "Eminent Victorians", try Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh (Penguin English Library) , a fictional biography which Strachey would certainly have known. Butler's hero struggles through the Victorian pomosity, cant and hypocrisy which Strachey is also attacking.