‘The natural pleasure of reading it is enormous,’ wrote Maynard Keynes to his friend Lytton Strachey on coming to the end of Elizabeth and Essex. ‘You seem, on the whole, to imagine yourself as Elizabeth, but I see from the pictures that it is Essex whom you have got up as yourself. But I expect you have managed to get the best of both worlds.’
The book was published towards the end of 1928 when Strachey was in his forty-ninth year – and within three years of his death. It is very different from his two previous biographies. In Eminent Victorians he had attacked the nineteenth-century values, materialism at home and imperialism abroad, that had laid a powder trail to the First World War. His Queen Victoria was a gentler narrative showing the country coming to a halt in 1861 when the Prince Consort died. The public, loyal to their Queen, accompanied her through forty years of mourning as they crept into the twentieth century.
When I first read Elizabeth and Essex I missed the devastating irony of Eminent Victorians and the smooth pattern of storytelling, like the chapters of a novel, in Queen Victoria. I also preferred his Portraits in Miniature, which replaced the once-powerful Victorians as figures of admiration with a team of irresistible eccentrics. But reading Elizabeth and Essex again now, I have found it the most modern and experimental of all his books.
Originally Strachey had considered following Queen Victoria with a volume of love affairs. They would include, among others, the Brownings, Byron and his half-sister, Verlaine and Rimbaud. He pondered over this for several weeks and became absorbed by the tempestuous affair between Queen Elizabeth and the handsome young scholar and soldier Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. Eventually he decided to devote a whole book to them. As Maynard Keynes indicated, there is a strong autobiographical subtext to the book. Strach
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