English Literature » Notes » Lytton Strachey’s ironic attitude

Lytton Strachey’s ironic attitude

Lytton Strachey, an English biographer, critic and essayist, is best known for his ironic attitude towards the subject of his biographical studies. Strachey’s targets of irony were evangelicalism, liberalism, humanitarianism, education and imperialism. Strachey proposed to write lives with brevity which excludes everything that is redundant and nothing that is significant. He is best known for “Eminent Victorians”.

Treating his subject ironically he was fascinated by personality and motive. His aim was to paint a portrait; and through this he led to an ironical caricaturing. He taught biographers a sense of form and of background, and he sharpened their critical insight.

Strachey ironically shows us General Gordon including in his secret passion for fame and becoming a willing instrument not of God but of the extreme imperialist faction of the British Government. The messianic religiosity inspiring Gordon was well known by a weary generation just back from the trenches and sickened by the chauvinism of bishops and journalists declaring that God had been in the trenches on their side.

Strachey said:

My notion is to do a series of short lives of eminent persons of that kind. It might be entertaining if properly pulled off. But if will take a very long time.

Some of the eminent persons were to be admired while others like Manning were to be exposed ironically. To Ottoline Morrell he wrote:

I am … beginning a new experiment in the way of a short condensed biography of Cardinal Manning – written from a slightly cynical point of view.

The impact of ‘Eminent Victorians’ on literary circles was tremendous. The world was weary of big guns and big phrases, and Strachey’s witty polemic was especially attractive to the younger generation. In his preface, which was a manifesto for 20th century biographers, Strachey wrote:

Human beings are too important to be treated as mere symptoms of the past. They have a value which is independent of any temporal process.

Yet the four Victorians he chose for treatment were not independent of the moral system of the Victorian Age. His verbal attack against Cardinal Manning is an attack on the evangelicalism that was to be the defining characteristic of 19th century culture, an exposure of its hypocrisy and the emptiness of self-regarding ambitions.

Strachey toppled Florence Nightingale from the pedestal where she was placed as the legendary lady with the lamp, having saintly and self-sacrificing qualities. He replaced her with a twentieth century neurotic. Thus Strachey struck ironically at the popular mythology of Victorian England, in particular its conscience-saving humanitarianism.

His irony towards the Dr. Arnold probably arose from his own unhappy schooldays. He depicted Arnold as the most influential teacher of the Victorian public school system whose cult distorted middle-class intelligence and set hard the principle of Victorianism into the 20th century.

Strachey has ironically presented his sinister picture of Manning’s formal interview with the Pope. He ironically mentioned Manning as an ‘eagle’ and Newman as a ‘dove’.

There are times, however, when Strachey’s sharp sense of the ridiculous does find its way into his irony. It is a definite undercurrent in this treatment of the Chinese diplomatist Li Hung Chang:

It was Gordon who gave him his first vision of Europe. Nothing could be more ironical. The half-inspired, half-crazy Englishmen, … the irresponsible knight-errant whom his countrymen first laughed at and neglected, then killed and canonized – a figure staying through the perplexed industrialism of the nineteenth century like some lost “natural” from an earlier Age.

Thus irony with its marked possibilities for variation, served Strachey admirable not only for comic purpose of suggesting change and dissimilarity which could be significantly and effectively relate to a background of uniformity in style.

Strachey’s great weapon was irony and ‘Eminent Victorians’ set the tone for subsequent biographers. It made ‘debunking’ fashionable. Few of Strachey’s imitators possessed his gift of sharp irony or his picturesque humour. They inherited from him nothing but his shallow scepticism. Strachey was in high favour with the wound because they relished the breaking of ‘Eminent Victorians’ praised till then like idols.

P. M. Jack wrote in praise of Strachey that he had a faculty for sharpening the readers’ critical sense and often proved to be right.

We doubt if another miscellany of this sort could possess half the wit and distinction of a biographical style that we find here.

In 1937 Edgar Johnson praised Strachey’s ironical sense of values and the largeness of his opinion:

In Strachey the old Elizabethan lion refines down to a cat. The lion singles out the enemy to be destroyed; it is the cat, however, that plays slyly and patiently with the victim.

Andre Maurois had already spoken of him not only as an iconoclast using the method of irony but also as a highly gifted writer in the tradition of the great humorist and as “a very deep psychologist”.

In fact, Lytton Strachey is best known for his ironic attitude towards the subjects of his biographical studies. His point of view was highly personal and some of his judgments have been described as exaggerated. But his sense of form and his witty, ironic style inspired a host of imitators who were eager to reduce historical figures to life size. He established the ironical writing of biography as a literary art.

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