Official Lives: Lytton Strachey, the Queen's Cabinet and the Eminence of Aesthetics

By Powell, John | Nineteenth-Century Prose, Fall 1995 | Go to article overview

Official Lives: Lytton Strachey, the Queen's Cabinet and the Eminence of Aesthetics


Powell, John, Nineteenth-Century Prose


In the autumn of 1912, Lytton Strachey brooded over his plan for a series of concise, artistic biographical portraits of a dozen eminent Victorians. Some were to be admired, others ridiculed. As he read their self-assured letters, however, his rebellious spirit asserted itself. Though he recognized a certain "baroque charm" in their old-fashioned ways, he settled instead for a single-minded exposition of their pretensions, and in so doing fashioned the framework for what remains the most potent critique of Victorian biography, Eminent Victorians. (1)

By 1914, the tone and many of the characteristic phrases of abuse which would be published four years later were already being rehearsed. (2) In his brilliantly malicious sketch of Matthew Arnold, Strachey sardonically argued that perhaps there should be founded an Old Victorian Club, whose business it was to protect the reputation of their age and give it a fair chance with the public. It must fail, of course, for he was sure that "reputations, in the case of ages no less than of individuals", depended upon the "judgments of artists." As an artist himself, he could see that the "essential and fatal weakness" of the Victorian Age was its "incapability of criticism," born of an ineradicable "instinct for action and utility" (187-189). As both critic and artist, how better to undermine those "queer Victorian fishes" than by laying siege to the artless symbols of their rectitude, the Official Lives--fat, fulsome and full of pretension.

Biography since Strachey's day has attracted much of learned attention. Of the general affluence of biographical criticism during the past seventy-five-years, several important gaps have nevertheless tended to perpetuate Strachey's authority. First, the nineteenth century has suffered in comparison to the twentieth. (3) Second, literary biography has attracted far more attention than any other type. (4) And third, every study has been highly selective. Consider that Peter Bell's bibliography for individuals dying between 1851 and 1901, admittedly incomplete and by design excluding many "Victorians", includes close to 3000 titles. Yet studies of Victorian biography have been based upon close readings of a handful of biographies, usually exceptional in nature and principally of literary figures. (5) In this paper I wish to address in some degree each of these deficiencies by examining all Official Biographies of British cabinet ministers during the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901), with special reference to the definitive critique of their genre, Lytton Strachey's introduction to Eminent Victorians. I will first survey the development of biographical criticism during the past hundred years, situating Strachey's pivotal declamation on Official Lives. I will then test his observations against the whole sample. Finally, I will make some general observations regarding the nature of Official political Lives.

The parameters of this discussion require some clarification. First, in saying 'biography' I mean a work interpreting an entire life course, constructed with purpose by another hand. Purely autobiographical accounts, such as Lord George Hamilton's Parliamentary Reminiscences (1917, 1922), are excluded, while biography masquerading as memoir, as in Ina Campbell's George Douglas, eighth Duke of Argyll (1823-1900): Autobiography and Memoirs (1906), is included. The Panmure Papers (1908), edited by George Douglas and George Ramsay and devoting less than forty pages to the first fifty-four years of its subject's life; Selborne's heavily autobiographical Memorials (1896, 1898); and the nearly finished Life of Salisbury by Lady Gwendolen Cecil which ends in 1892, represent the outer limits at which studies have been included.

Second, in saying 'official', I mean what Strachey and the publishing houses meant by Standard, that the Life must in some manner have been sanctioned by the family or trustees of the biographee, and the biographer granted access to papers which otherwise would not have been available for use. …

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