More about Lytton Strachey and related links:

Biographical Notes: Lytton Strachey

Art and Culture: Lytton Strachey

Lytton Strachey—Life Stories, Books, and Links

The Bloomsbury group

Holroyd's Room

Contemporary Writers: Michael Holroyd

The film Carrington based on this biography of Strachey

book review
Bobzeen > literature > holroyd biography of strachey

Michael Holroyd’s Biography of Lytton Strachey—hardcover version

Michael Holroyd’s Revised Biography of Lytton Strachey

Lytton Strachey: The New Biography
By Michael Holroyd
Illustrated. 780 pages.
New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Also available in paperback from
Farrar, Straus & Giroux’s Noonday Press.

Holroyd has at least two good reasons for rewriting Strachey’s biography. (The first version was published in 1967.) While both versions contain the shocking revelations of homosexuality and other unconventional Bloomsbury affairs, and a synopsis of the two would turn out very much the same, Holroyd has accomplished a rare distinction with the new biography. He has drawn from a wealth of new material uncovered since 1967 which subtly alters the personalities and relations of the characters. But even more striking is Holroyd’s new stylistic approach. The new biography achieves vibrancy where the original seems prosaic. Now Holroyd has made the personalities and their tangled relations more compelling. The biography has been remolded into novelistic form. Unlike the first version, the new biography of Lytton Strachey is Stracheyesque.

The story line moves quickly through childhood. Strachey’s personality flowers as he becomes acquainted with those who would later become his fellow Bloomsburies. These first acquaintances occur about the time he joins the esoteric “Apostles” at Cambridge in 1902. In the original work Holroyd reaches this point after some 180 pages of the less-interesting early life, while in the new biography we get there after only 75 pages. Holroyd cuts enough old text to considerably shorten the work even while incorporating new material. He then refashions the entire text with more active, novelistic narrative. The net effect is a style similar to that of Strachey’s own biography of Queen Victoria: a slice of history dramatically told.

Part of the change can be attributed to constraints limiting Holroyd in the 1960s which disappeared by the 1990s. Bloomsbury figures were still living in the 1960s. Even with all the shocking revelations of the original, Holroyd’s awareness of living persons’ sensitive feelings produced a stylistic tone that trod lightly. Lytton Strachey’s brother James Strachey was still alive during the original writing. Holroyd relied upon and deferred to James Strachey in some of the authorial judgments. Other Bloomsburies were still alive as well, and though it may seem merely quaint today, they had some anxiety over legal as well as social consequences of the biography’s revelations in 1967. Holroyd had a freer hand in 1995.

With a resurgence of interest in Bloomsbury in the late 1960s and 1970s, a profusion of memoirs, letters, and other documents surfaced. Many subtleties of personalities and relationships were treated in 1967, but they have been made more accurate in 1995. Subtleties become important in more complex relations. Bloomsbury relations were often subtle and complex, where, for instance, Angelica Bell’s husband (Bunny Garnett) once had been the male homosexual lover of her father (Duncan Grant), the father being Angelica’s mother’s second extramarital lover. The intrigue continues as the mother’s husband (Clive Bell), who was not the father but ironically was one of the few heterosexuals in the circle, had his own extramarital lover (Mary Hutchinson), who became a good friend of Lytton Strachey’s (though Mary’s husband Jack did not). Angelica’s mother (Vanessa Stephen) was the sister of Virginia Woolf who was engaged to Lytton Strachey for twenty-four hours, but instead, married Strachey’s best friend Leonard Woolf. Angelica’s father (Duncan Grant) also was a young adult lover of Lytton Strachey but who was stolen away from Strachey by the famous British government finance officer and economist Maynard Keynes who had also been Strachey’s lover. Keynes, who was the one man in the world who in 1918 predicted another world war would break out by approximately 1938, passed through a number of male lovers before marrying in midlife to a young Russian ballerina.

These arabesques were in addition to the Strachey-Carrington-Partridge ménage à trois at Tidmarsh Mill House and Ham Spray, in and out of which orbit some half-dozen or more other part-time lovers drifted, a couple of marriages included. Soon after Partridge married Dora Carrington, he moved out of Ham Spray to live with his second mistress (Frances), leaving only Strachey and Carrington. This may be understandable as Carrington’s lover was Partridge’s best friend, and Partridge’s first mistress (Valentine) was vastly disliked by both Carrington and Strachey. These affairs seem complex enough, and sordid enough. One must read the biography to see what subtleties Holroyd has in mind when he says sexuality among Bloomsburies was always steeped in the intellect. The diaries, letters and memoirs that surfaced after 1967 provided clarification of some of the complex feelings and connections.

Many have noted the irony in that Holroyd’s biography of Strachey is unStracheyesque because of its classical, exhaustive and reverential treatment. This is true of the original version, but not of the new one. Some mistakenly view “debunking” as the central characteristic in Strachey’s innovation of biographical form. Though an important element in Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, other innovative elements are equally important in that work. Furthermore, debunking as a biographical ingredient is all but absent in most of the rest of Strachey’s biographical works. Holroyd’s new biography of Strachey does not debunk in the spirit of Eminent Victorians; however, neither did the majority of Strachey’s own biographical writings debunk their subjects. Strachey’s biography of Queen Victoria and his collections of biographical essays also would be unStracheyesque in that sense. But what is Stracheyesque? Its primary quality is not debunking, but rather a critical objectivity that is neither reverential nor gratuitously sarcastic. These broad qualities alone might also apply to classical biography, but the difference is Strachey’s relish in noting ironic twists, in maintaining a sense of play, and in brevity. Strachey’s revolution in biography lies in colorfully developing all that is important in the subject, omitting all that is extrinsic or redundant, succinctly creating an accurate and vivid impression. Another ingredient in the Strachey invention is psychological analysis, varying from playful to poignant, and always perceptive. Strachey replaces terms such as “commodious” and “exhaustive” with terms such as “compelling” and “succinct.”

Given these features in the Strachey style, Holroyd’s new biography is eminently Stracheyesque. That is the striking stylistic change that distinguishes the 1995 version from the 1967 one. It is striking that the biography of a biographer (Strachey) first fell into a form that Strachey rebelled against; while the new version of the biography falls precisely into the form that Strachey invented. The new work is neither reverential nor commodious, but is compelling and succinct, stylistically much like Strachey’s Queen Victoria. Holroyd’s psychological speculations too are sometimes offhand yet astute and persuasive. Thus Holroyd, in revision, has become Stracheyesque.

If one desires more critical literary commentary and greater quantity of data, one has always the 1967 version. This is a convenient case of “have your cake and eat it too” for Mr. Holroyd. And he is not alone in using this strategy. He has done the research, authored the definitive, classical, exhaustive, two-volume biography in the 1967 version. His literary and historical achievement is beyond reproach. But he also has a compelling, tightly structured novelistic drama to his credit. As of 1995, he is popular. The new work even achieved the novelist’s ultimate dream: it has been made into a movie. The dramatic Stracheyesque style Holroyd employs naturally adapts to cinematic form, in the film, “Carrington.” Holroyd is not the first to rewrite a biography in this manner.

softcover copy of holroyd's new biography of strachey

While a movie has not yet been made of the life of Henry James, James’s biographer Leon Edel achieved a similar feat, and here we suspect a pattern developing. Edel wrote one of the best biographies of all time in his five-volume life of Henry James. Then in 1985 he published a much-revised, much-cut, one-volume version, about the same length as Holroyd’s 1995 work on Strachey. Leon Edel’s revised Henry James: A Life in 1985 achieved great popularity—for good reason. The 1985 work was more forthcoming about James’s latent sexuality regarding both women and men, and Edel benefited from decades of social change which allowed more openness in the narrative. The text is succinct, and as compelling as one could ever hope to find in a life of Henry James. And Edel makes fascinating psychological speculations. Edel’s reputation was secured in the five-volume work, his popularity was secured in the one-volume work. (Three major motion pictures on James’s works are upcoming in 1997, according to the front page of a recent New York Times, Arts section.)

This pattern of “establish reputation, then achieve popularity,” seems to be a trend—it allows the biographer, as was noted, to have his cake and eat it too. (Coincidentally, Henry James biographer Leon Edel applies similar novelistic technique to his own Bloomsbury work, Bloomsbury: A House of Lions, a short work that surveys Bloomsbury eminents with Stracheyesque colorfulness and succinctness, also without very much debunking. Edel too was well acquainted with the Strachey invention.)

In this equation, the first biography version is classical and exhaustive, the second is compelling and succinct: Stracheyesque. Another fairly recent Stracheyesque biography is Richard Ellmann’s Oscar Wilde, clearly influenced by such works as Strachey’s Queen Victoria. These have all been best sellers.

Stracheyesque does not mean “debunking”—one would have to reconcile the majority of Strachey’s work being unStracheyesque. Even Lytton Strachey’s succès de scandale Elizabeth and Essex was not debunking in the Eminent Victorians sense. It reads as something of a lark, though years of research lay behind its composition. Strachey’s psychological conclusions seem casually drawn, but Strachey interestingly received a letter from Sigmund Freud congratulating Strachey because, Freud said, Elizabeth and Essex had unlocked the secrets of Elizabeth I, its psychological speculations perfectly explained the queen’s condition.

We find today, in the stylistic tradition of Queen Victoria, Elizabeth and Essex and most of Strachey’s other biographical essays, three contemporary biographies: Ellmann’s Oscar Wilde, Edel’s new Henry James, and now Holroyd’s new Lytton Strachey.

Thus there can be no doubt a republishing and popularizing of Holroyd’s biography of Strachey is important and timely. Lytton Strachey invented the colorful, compelling, psychological and succinct biography. That invention happily influences today’s biographies, including the one of himself. Strachey’s inventions breathed new life into the genre, with fresh influences continuing in our best current-day works, not to mention current-day film. Biography readers are the benefactors. And the early-twentieth-century invention may now be influencing a new pattern of, not the two-volume, but the two-version biography.