Ariane Bankes on Lytton Strachey, Dora Carrington, Slightly Foxed Issue 33

Lytton’s Characteristic Specimen

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Rereading ‘The End of General Gordon’, the fourth of Lytton Strachey’s portraits in Eminent Victorians (1918), is an awful reminder of our failure to learn from history. Gordon’s and Gladstone’s ill-fated machinations in the Sudan are so redolent of Britain’s recent misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq as almost to take one’s breath away: substitute either country for Khartoum, and you have an example fearsome enough to deter any but the most fatuous sabre-rattler from going near the place, let alone attempting to influence its political fate from thousands of miles away.

Yet it was the recent past, not the future, that preoccupied Strachey when, in the run-up to the First World War, he squirrelled himself away in a cottage near Marlborough to compose this and its companion essays on Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale and Thomas Arnold. Honesty being the byword of the Bloomsberries, he decided to re-evaluate with an untarnished gaze the gilded reputations of these éminences grises from the recent past, all of them prominent members of a British Establishment whose collective failings had brought the country to its knees in the supremely pointless conflict that raged about him as he wrote.

And this he set about with relish. The mighty were delicately dislodged from their pinnacles, cut down to size by the waspish wit and gleeful scrutiny of this most laconic member of the Bloomsbury set. His companion Dora Carrington’s best-known portrait depicts him lying under a coverlet, his foxy ginger beard spread neatly before him,his long and delicate fingers clasping a book, his eyes behind owlish spectacles utterly absorbed in its contents. From this languorous and pensive figure would come a volume that would upend and overturn all decorous assumptions of biography to date, a volume to set tongues wagging, reputations spinning and tills ringing. For Eminent Victorians proved a wild success on publication

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About the contributor

Ariane Bankes edits Canvas, the Friends’ magazine of the Charleston Trust, when not running some festival or other.

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