The four biographical essays that make up Eminent Victorians created something of a stir when they were first published in the spring of 1918, bringing their author instant fame. In his flamboyant collection, Lytton Strachey chose to stray far from the traditional mode of biography: "Those two fat volumes, with which it is our custom to commemorate the dead--who does not know them, with their ill-digested masses of material, their slipshod style, their tone of tedious panegyric, their lamentable lack of selection, of detachment, of design?" Instead he provided impressionistic but acute (and, some said, skewed) portraits. Rarely does Strachey explore the details of a subject's daily or family life unless they point directly to an issue of character. In short, he pioneered a deeply sardonic and often scathingly funny biographical style.
None of Strachey's Victorians emerge unscathed. In his hands, Florence Nightingale is not a gentle archangel descended from heaven to minister sweetly to wounded soldiers, but rather an exacting, dictatorial, and judgmental crusader. Her "pen, in the virulence of its volubility, would rush ... to the denunciation of an incompetent surgeon or the ridicule of a self-sufficient nurse. Her sarcasm searched the ranks of the officials with the deadly and unsparing precision of a machine-gun. Her nicknames were terrible. She respected no one." Dr. Thomas Arnold, the man appointed to revamp the very private British public school system, fares little better: in Strachey's acid ink, he became "the founder of the worship of athletics and the worship of good form." In this same vain, military hero General Gordon is portrayed as a temperamental, irascible hermit, occasionally drunk and often found in the company of young boys--a man who tended to forget and forgo the tenets found in the Bible he kept with him always. And the powerful and popular Cardinal Manning, who came within a hair's breadth of succeeding Pope Pius IX, belonged, Strachey writes, "to that class of eminent ecclesiastics ... who have been distinguished less for saintliness and learning than for practical ability."
As he offered up indelible sketches of his less-than-fab four, Strachey was intent on critiquing established mores. This effortlessly superior wit knew full well that deep convictions and good deeds often go hand in hand with hypocrisy, arrogance, and egomania. His task was to pique those who pretended they did not. --Jordana Moskowitz