Landmarks in French Literature, 1912
Eminent Victorians, 1918
Queen Victoria, 1921
Books and Characters, French and English, 1922
Elizabeth and Essex, 1928
Portraits in Miniature, 1931
Characters and Commentaries, 1933
The new movement in biography as a literary form began in England with Giles Lytton Strachey (STRAY-chee) as World War I came to an end. Strachey came from a family distinguished in the army, the civil service, and literature. His mother, Lady Jane Strachey, was a respected essayist and an amateur student of French literature; Lionel Strachey, a cousin, had established a literary reputation in the United States; another cousin, John St. Loe Strachey, was the brilliant editor of the Spectator from 1898 to 1925, and his children, John Strachey and Mrs. Amabel Williams-Ellis, were both writers.
A delicate child of marked but rather special talents, Lytton Strachey was limited in his choice of profession. At Trinity College, Cambridge, he distinguished himself in his studies, composed verses, and won the Chancellor’s Medal with his poem “Ely.” Fearing that he lacked true creative power, however, he dallied with literature in the critical essays that he wrote while living with his mother on an independent income. He began writing sketches of the great and the near-great of the Victorian Age; some of these sketches were later published in Eminent Victorians. As biography, his style was new to the English public, but it caught their fancy, and the book sold well. Actually Strachey had been strongly influenced by French biographers, especially Sainte-Beuve–his first publication was Landmarks in French Literature–and their naturalistic approach suited his predilection for accentuating the negative in personal relations. Strachey laid emphasis on others’ weak points, especially among the famous in politics or letters.
Consciously or not, he was effecting in his attitude a new realism to which his readers reacted not with scorn but rather with greater insight and sympathy. With flaws, the sacrosanct Victorian figures became more human and thus more lovable. This was true especially in the reaction to his Queen Victoria. While this biography was just as iconoclastic as the others in its portrait of the queen, the very style of the book, witty and concise, brought her to life as a woman as no similar work or public eulogy had ever done. Emphasizing personality, he brought his subject down to the human level. His greatest popular success, Elizabeth and Essex, strongly reflects the author’s tendency to judge the world by what was within himself.
He moved with his mother to Bloomsbury, London, on a whim. By chance there were other literary people in the neighborhood, and they were welcomed at the Strachey home. Among them were Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster. Though known later as the Bloomsbury Group, their only tie besides sociability was a desire to reveal the warm current of fallibility beneath the facade of conventionality in English life. Among the members of the so-called Bloomsbury Group Strachey found his spiritual home and his friends, who shared his interest in the exercise of clarity, restraint, and precision as the basis of literary style. These qualities are all apparent in the portrait gallery of minor, even obscure, figures whom Strachey presents in his Portraits in Miniature, perhaps the best book of his lifetime. He died in 1932, at a country residence he had bought with his royalties from Queen Victoria.