That Essex Boy

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‘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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‘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. Strachey enjoyed the fantasy of dressing up, as it were, in Queen Elizabeth’s raiment which concealed, under its enigmatic complexities, the image of a woman. But it was the Earl of Essex, with his moments of obscure melancholy mingled with the vigorous aristocratic blood flowing through his veins, who attracted Strachey. We cannot become the people we admire in life, but we may fall in love with them. And this is what Strachey did.

He had met a young Old Etonian called Robert Senhouse a few months before he began writing Elizabeth and Essex, on 17 December 1925. Senhouse was ‘a romantic creature’ with a melting smile, boyish spirits and great charm, and he fascinated Strachey. They appeared perfect companions and the following year they became lovers. ‘I have just had a most unexpected piece of good fortune – a free gift from Providence,’ Strachey wrote to a friend in the second week of August 1926. ‘The other day I gave a slight push to a door which I had longed to turn the handle of . . . To my amazement, it opened;
and I found myself in exquisite paradise.’

This unexpected gift of happiness, though it was to enrich his book, did not hasten its painfully slow progress. ‘A kind of drowsiness has descended upon me,’ he told David Garnett that summer. The problem that confronted him was the remoteness of Elizabethan life. The distance of three centuries made it impossible to gain a sense of intimacy. He knew how they dressed and how they danced. And he had read the public speeches they made. But there was little else to go on. He decided to pulverize what material there was and remould it in a way that reflected something of his own life.

In the opening chapter he prepared an historical framework for what was to be his intimate biographical picture. Elizabeth brought about a change in the structure of secular life during the sixteenth century, while the young Essex is seen as a radiant flame of fading feudalism. Strachey introduces the Queen as an extraordinary diplomat who worked by instinct. She was fundamentally strong and tremendously alive, though not particularly brave or heroic – quite the opposite. She used ambiguities and excelled at contradicting her previous contradictions. The ambassadors from France and Spain as well as her own ministers were outmanoeuvred by her dissimulations and delays. From the twentieth century she appeared, among many dangerous enemies, to be a sane woman who made the country a coherent nation, independent of the Continent.

Essex was one of the brilliant, brave young men seeking advancement through duels and wars – though still with something of the naughty boy about him. Elizabeth tried to protect him from danger, sometimes using threats and then suddenly forgiving him. He entreated her to let him command the English army in Normandy fighting with the French against the Catholic League and Spain – and at the end of two hours she reluctantly agreed. The result was disastrous. He was an incompetent leader, though his reputation was retrieved by his bravery. The Queen dispatched several angry letters but was disarmed by his letters of love – that ‘convenient monosyllable’.

Elizabeth was not at all pleased however to discover that, at the age of 23, Essex had secretly made a socially impeccable marriage to the daughter of Sir Francis Walsingham who had been the Queen’s principal secretary. She stormed and raged at him until suddenly remembering that ‘a queen could ignore a wife’. Besides, it might help to avoid sexual embarrassments. Elizabeth never married, never had a child, because, Strachey diagnosed, ‘her sexual organisation was severely warped’.

When Essex’s life was not at risk, Elizabeth enjoyed playing irritating games with him. She made him wait for over a year when he appealed to her to have Francis Bacon made Attorney-General – finally appointing someone else. After another long wait she denied him again when he implored her to promote Bacon to be Solicitor-General. ‘Essex had failed – failed doubly – failed when he could hardly have believed that failure was possible,’ Strachey wrote. ‘The loss to his own prestige was serious.’

A glance through the index of Elizabeth and Essex shows the many ups and downs in their relationship. ‘Favour with the Queen . . . His account of the Queen’s temper . . . in high favour with the Queen . . . crisis in his relations with the Queen . . . his apparent reconciliation with the Queen . . . constantly writes to the Queen for forgiveness . . .’ One day there would be no forgiveness.

In his late twenties Strachey had written a play in blank verse called Essex: A Tragedy. It focused on the last period of the Earl’s life which is covered in the biography by Chapters XII to XVI. We read of his forbidden return to London from a campaign in Ireland, the desperate courses he follows which lead to his trial and removal to the Tower of London. Throughout these pages Strachey writes as if he is giving stage directions for a team of actors: the sound of their voices, the way they make their exits and entrances, as if his readers are an audience watching eye-witness events with echoes of Antony and Cleopatra. When the Queen gives a speech in the House of Commons we are told how her words should be timed and spoken. ‘There was a pause: and then the high voice rang out . . . Pausing again for a moment she continued in a deeper tone . . . there was a sound of trumpets; and, turning from them in her sweeping draperies – erect and terrible – she walked out.’

Strachey dedicated Elizabeth and Essex to James and Alix Strachey, his younger brother and sister-in-law who were pupils of Sigmund Freud (and later the English translators of his work). Lytton infiltrated some Freudian ideas into his book, including the possibility that Elizabeth suffered from a contraction of the vaginal muscle, a neurotic symptom brought on by acute anxiety. Early in his book he had reminded us that when Elizabeth was aged 2 years and 8 months her father, Henry VIII, had cut off the head of her mother, Anne Boleyn. He uses this to give a dark inevitability to Essex’s execution. ‘He would find that she was indeed the daughter of her father who had known how to rule a kingdom and how to punish the perfidy of those he had loved the most,’ he wrote. ‘She felt her father’s spirit within her . . . as she condemned her lover to her mother’s death . . . There was a difference as well as a likeness; after all she was no man, but a woman; and was this, perhaps, not a repetition but a revenge?’

In the American Bookman of February 1929, the critic Raymond Mortimer wrote that the two most remarkable books that winter were Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and Lytton Strachey’s Elizabeth and Essex. ‘She has revolutionised fiction and he, biography,’ he wrote. ‘In style they are a world apart but in mind the authors have this mysterious quality in common.’ The mysterious quality arose from the authors’ emotional experiences at the centre of their books: Woolf’s love-affair with Vita Sackville West and Strachey’s with Roger Senhouse. After reading Mrs Dalloway, Strachey had encouraged Woolf to write ‘something wilder & more fantastic’. Her phantasmagorical Orlando, starting in Elizabethan times, sailing through three centuries and changing a man into a woman, was this wild experiment. But she described his Elizabeth and Essex as a ‘lively superficial meretricious book’ because he had flouted biography’s essential limitations. ‘The novelist is free,’ she wrote, ‘the biographer is tied.’

There are weak sentences and paragraphs in Elizabeth and Essex which reflect the tiredness about which Strachey complained and which may have been an early sign of the cancer from which he was to die. But the strength of his book lies in its dramatic initiative. His Eminent Victorians had freed biography from its bedrock of Life and Letters and mocked popular hagiography. Although Elizabeth and Essex examined the distant past, it belonged to a future where biography, with its quests, comedies and criticism, became recognized as recreative literature rather than something negative called ‘non-fiction’ – which is the equivalent of calling poetry ‘non-prose’ and fiction itself ‘non-factual’ writing.

Elizabeth and Essex was made into a play by Ferdinand Bruckner, a radio drama by Louis MacNeice and a libretto by William Plomer for Benjamin Britten’s opera Gloriana. Beginning as a bestseller, it has not been out of print in the English language for almost ninety years.

When writing a life of Strachey I got to know his model for Essex. Roger Senhouse was no soldier but he had the infinite charm that Elizabeth found in Essex. My publisher insisted that I get him to sign a statement that he would not legally object to my book. He kept losing the piece of paper; I kept finding it. As we stood on the station platform and saw the train that would carry me away, I produced it one last time and, as if acknowledging a good dueller, he smiled and signed.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 52 © Michael Holroyd 2016

 


About the contributor

Michael Holroyd is co-editing the letters of Augustus John’s wife Ida, with her granddaughter Rebecca John, and so is learning to see life through women’s eyes.

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