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Customer Review

on 26 October 2000
In the preface of "Eminent Victorians" Lytton Stracheys affirms his contemporaries could not write the history of victorianism because they know it too much. And indeed Strachey appears to know "too much" about an era which is finished but still lingers on in Edwardian and Georgian squeamishness. Writing in 1921, Strachey is intent of getting rid of this cumbersome Victorian heritage, hence his fierce, ironical blows at a few select personalities. This methods enables him to throw light into hidden places, to expose the world of vice and corruption, the inner rotten core which is hidden by the high-flung discourses of High Victorianism. Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale and General Gordon are the four emblematic, nearly iconic characters of an ambiguous hypocritical society. Strachey portrays Cardinal Manning as a cunning self-seeking man, using the Churches - the Church of England and later the Catholic Church - as a ladder for his own career. The mythic Florence Nightingale appears in a crude light, as a psychotic authoritarian leader. Through Dr Arnold, the Master and reformer of Rugby, Strachey exposes all the violence and hidden cruelty of the public school system. "The last days of General Gordon" show the reverse side of the imperial myth - in its most appalling aspects. There's something terrifing in these insights into the secret lives of such celebrated personalities. "Eminent Victorians" is a challenging, compelling essay, all the more so as the life of each character is dealt with briefly, concision being for Strachey an essential quality for a biographer. This very conciseness, added to an inimitable style, witty and full of understatement, gives the essay even more satirical brilliancy - thus it is delightful food for thought.
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