The Ambiguity of Ambiguity: “Mr. Gladstone” and the Abduction of Victorian Culture in Strachey’s Eminent Victorians

The Ambiguity of Ambiguity: “Mr. Gladstone” and the Abduction of Victorian Culture in Strachey’s Eminent Victorians

In the preface to Eminent Victorians, Lytton Strachey claims to have merely dipped a “little bucket” into the “great ocean” of the Victorian Age, in order to retrieve some “characteristic specimens from those far depths” ; this is an accurate description of his activities as a biographer, save in the impression it conveys of having penetrated to those depths. In fact, Eminent Victorians fails so completely to reach what might be called the “spirit” of the Victorian Age, that the reader must conclude this was not Strachey’s intention. It is more plausible to read the text as an agile, but flawed, attempt to obscure the continuity between Bloomsbury liberalism and the most vital aspects of Victorian culture. Strachey’s achievement as a caricaturist is remarkable, but his targets (if not his style) resemble those chosen by the greatest (and most popular) Victorian humourist–Charles Dickens. Strachey did not write about artists or intellectuals–he preferred “men and women of action”–and this bias allowed him to avoid dealing with complicated figures such as Dickens, John Stuart Mill, and Matthew Arnold; however, in the first and (especially) the final sketch of Eminent Victorians, the unavoidable “Mr. Gladstone” emerges out of the obscured depths of Victorian culture to destabilize the entire text.

From the moment of its publication in 1918, Eminent Victorians was a critical and popular success. To be sure, the book’s extraordinary wit and dramatic flair are enough, by themselves, to account for this reception; and yet, the fact that its four principals–Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale, Dr. Arnold, and General Gordon–were “straw men”, whose reputations were due for a reassessment, cannot be entirely discounted. The Modern age had dawned, and self-conscious members of the “new generation” naturally reserved their most caustic judgments for the immediately preceding era. A vital test of the “modern spirit” was the rejection of Romanticism and, a fortiori, its tepid, sentimental offspring–“Victorianism”. Polemicists such as Pound, Hulme, and Wyndham-Lewis all quickly passed through a neo-romantic, “impressionist” stage, on the way to a hard, anti-humanist “classicism”: best exemplified by Hulme’s dictum that “it is essential to prove that beauty may be in small, dry things” .

The most radical Modernists wasted little time scourging the excrescences of the Victorian Age; their wrath was primarily reserved for the Promethean figures of the early nineteenth-century. T.S. Eliot, the great consolidator of the Modernist revolt, fought his greatest battles to enshrine the Metaphysical poets in the place of honour that had been occupied by Wordsworth, Keats, and Shelley. He did not see fit to challenge the reputation of Tennyson; nor did he need to–it had gone into eclipse on its own.

An aggressive adherence to Modern aesthetics did not necessitate–but certainly did encourage–political anti-liberalism. Indeed, the rhetoric of democracy was vulnerable to the same sort of critique that modernists directed at the gauzy, emotional poetry of the nineteenth-century. Liberal democracy was not a well-thought-out system: it was founded upon no “hard” principles; it was not efficient. In T.S. Eliot’s cultural scheme, “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, there was no place at all for public opinion–nor, for that matter, for the talentless individual.

Bloomsbury politics, like Bloomsbury aesthetics, were never so extreme. In fact–if the attitude of E.M. Forster’s Two Cheers For Democracy may be taken as somewhat typical of the group as a whole–they adhered to a cautiously optimistic view which privileged toleration over efficiency and pragmatic, fluid arrangements over hard, dry principles. J.K. Johnstone has written–of Virginia Woolf, Strachey, and Forster–that they “all value self-possession, self-knowledge and humour; they dislike pomposity, pretension, and muddle. They agree that man is the measure; and they are much occupied with the question, What is a good man?” Ultimately, it must be concluded that these artists fit very awkwardly into the “Modernist” debate–as it was defined by its most ardent participants. They have no notion of themselves as a “permanent avant-garde”; nor do they have any particular desire to recast culture in a rigid new mold of “Tradition”.

Robert Langbaum, discussing E.M. Forster, traces a “migration of English liberal intellectuals from Clapham to Bloomsbury” which leads directly through the most characteristic thinkers of the era that Strachey’s text satirizes. At the mid-point between the laissez-faire piety of the Clapham sect and the socially-conscious aestheticism of the Bloomsbury group, Langbaum locates John Stuart Mill’s

characteristic Victorian synthesis–the absorption . . . into a progressivist philosophy of a new respect for the past and for those institutions and values of the past that could not have been what the Benthamites thought them, mere frauds, since they had engaged the best minds and hearts of so many centuries.

In the best Victorian liberal tradition, the Bloomsbury group worked to correct the errors of bourgeois philistinism while maintaining an eminently bourgeois commitment to the principle of individual liberty and self-development. Strachey, Forster, and Woolf used their freedom to open up important questions concerning sexuality and gender relations that had been neglected by their forebears; while John Maynard Keynes contributed a profound meditation upon the economic preconditions of liberty–but none of these figures advocated the kind of wholesale, immediate changes in society that many of their contemporaries did.

Presented against the chaotic backdrop of late-teens English culture, Eminent Victorians seems much more like the work of a moderate than that of

a great anarch, a revolutionary text-book on bourgeois society written in the language through which the bourgeois ear could be lulled and beguiled, the Mandarin style.


Michael Holroyd lists Strachey’s targets as: “evangelicalism, liberalism, humanitarianism, education, [and] imperialism” . To be sure, imperialism is presented in a bad light by Strachey, but the remaining items are far less evidently on trial in Eminent Victorians. It would be more accurate to read the book as an attack upon Victorian hypocrisy–upon various failures to live up to the ideals of liberalism, humanitarianism, education (even–if the portrait of Newman is to be taken seriously, and perhaps it is–Christianity)–and in this Strachey takes his cue from the Victorians themselves. He exposes the same kinds of faults that Charles Dickens delighted in caricaturing, and it is important to remember that “the best Victorian writers were on the whole ‘anti-Victorian'”.

Robert Langbaum’s essay, “The Victorian Idea of Culture”, conceives of “culture”, in an open society, as always “antithetical to the prevailing ideology–not so much to destroy the ideology (though that may sometimes be necessary) as to complete it” . In continuing the assault upon a series of personifications of Victorian ideology, Strachey at once obscures and makes manifest his connection to Victorian culture. Perhaps the most important contribution made by Eminent Victorians to its own cultural moment was its skewering of whatever nostalgia for Victorian “earnestness” was in the air.

The crucial difference between Strachey and Modernists such as Pound and Eliot is that the latter figures polemicized against Victorian (and Romantic) culture itself. Strachey never attacks the main current of liberalism in Eminent Victorians, but neither does he come out openly in defence of it. He can hardly be expected to have done so, given that the text was written at the height of the Modernist revolt–he was sufficiently a man of his time to participate in the fashionable deprecation of the nineteenth-century, despite his preservation (consciously or otherwise) of many of its most essential values.

Strachey’s use of “men and women of action” as biographical subjects enabled him to avoid, almost completely, declaring himself upon what Langbaum would call “Victorian culture.” Certainly, Strachey was not averse to making global pronouncements upon the Victorian Age’s “self-complacency and self-contradiction” and its lack of humour , but he rarely engaged the era’s more complex figures head-on. According to Holroyd, “when Siegfried Sassoon . . . asked why [Strachey] did not write about Dickens, he weakly protested: ‘But I should have to read him!'” Whether Strachey had read the Victorian novelist or not, it was clearly not in his best interests to think about him. The rich gallery of hypocrites, bumblers, and busybodies present in Dickens’s oeuvre certainly would give pause to any writer inclined to lampoon nineteenth-century English life; and it is significant that Strachey’s biographical enterprise never found its way into the streets of the emergent metropolis that Dickens captured so well. Eminent Victorians is concerned with provincials, colonials, and ecclesiastics–peripheral figures whose lives, doubtless, shed a certain amount of light upon the workings of the their society; but what is palpably absent from the book, what the narrative strives to exclude, is the vital centre of Victorian culture Strachey’s strategy for containing the dynamo of Victorian liberalism is to wrap it in the layers of his monochromatic portraits. Eminent Victorians presents a series of compressed, ironic (or fondly wry), “pigeonholing paragraphs”, followed by dramatic sequences in which reified personalities manifest their various natures under pressure from external circumstances. An early statement about Manning is indispensable for understanding Strachey’s method:

Undoubtedly, what is most obviously striking in the history of Manning’s career is the persistent strength of his innate characteristics. Through all the changes of his fortunes the powerful spirit of the man worked on undismayed.

What strikes the reader most about Eminent Victorians is the way most of its characters manifest a similar persistence. Whether they were chosen by Strachey for this very reason, or reduced to this state by his prose, they function as characters from the “romance” tradition–distinct, unchanging constellations of attributes which are brought into conflict (or contact) with each other. There is no attempt to create a realistic, nuanced world around these figures, nor to bring them into contact with anything like “reality”. The method is similar to that described by Hawthorne in his preface to The Blithedale Romance:

[the author’s] present concern with the socialist community [Hawthorne’s real-life residence at Brook Farm] is merely to establish a theatre, a little removed from the highway of ordinary travel, where the creatures if his brain may play their phantasmagorical antics, without exposing them to too close a comparison with the actual events of real lives.


Can Strachey have had this passage in mind, when he wrote, in introducing the Gordon story, that “one catches a vision of strange characters, moved by mysterious impulses, interscting in queer complication, and hurrying at last . . . like creatures in a puppet show predestined to catastrophe”?

Among the most succesful of the myriad monochromatic portraits in Eminent Victorians is the description of Sir Evelyn Baring:

When he spoke, he felt no inclination to express everything that was on his mind. In all he did, he was cautious, measured, unimpeachably correct. . . His temperament, all in monochrome, touched in with steely cold blues and indecisive greys, was eminently unromantic. He had a steely colourlessness, and a steely pliability, and a steely strength.

After reading this passage, the reader knows at once what to expect from Sir Evelyn Baring–how he will play off Gordon and the other characters. The method works equally well with more flamboyant (and prominently featured) figures, such as Gordon himself:

As a boy, Charlie was remarkable for his high spirits, pluck, and love of mischief . . . On one occasion, when the cadets had been forbidden to leave the dinning room and the senior corporal stood with arms outstretched in the doorway to prevent their exit, Charlie Gordon put his head down, and, butting the officer in the pit of the stomach, projected him down a flight of stairs and through a glass door at the bottom . . . Later, when he was eighteen . . . [a cadet] said that Charlie Gordon had hit him over the hit with a clothes-brush. [Gordon] had worked well, and his record was on the whole a good one.

It is only upon the appearance of “Mr. Gladstone” in “The End of General Gordon” that the prose of Eminent Victorians loses its assured tone (although some aspects of the difficulty must be traced back to Gladstone’s appearance in “Cardinal Manning”) and an overdose of affect is evident in the passage in which Strachey attempts to pigeonhole Gladstone as “a chimera of the spirit”. Quite simply, Gladstone cannot be fitted into the biographer’s scheme–he was a key figure of the Victorian cultural enterprise that Strachey, for his own purposes, wished to keep out of the narrative.

William Ewart Gladstone was a “man of action”, but he was also a “man of thought” and–as his A Chapter of Autobiography demonstrates–something of an artist as well . Gladstone was born to upper-middle-class parents in 1809, attended Oxford–where he distinguished himself as a student of Aristotle–and, in 1832, was granted a “pocket-borough” seat in the House of Commons, as a member of Robert Peel’s Tory party. He came to national prominence as an eloquent opponent of the first Reform Bill and insisted, throughout the 1830’s, upon the importance of maintaining the Established Church as the “institutional conscience” of the English polity.

Gladstone broke with Peel, in 1845, over the question of the Maynooth Grant: a large sum of money offered to an Irish seminary, intended to appease Catholic unrest. Gladstone considered the act inconsistent with the government’s avowed aim of strengthening the Established Church of Ireland, and refused to be a party to an act which would undermine that institution. He resigned his position in the cabinet as President of the Board of Trade. This extraordinary act secured his reputation as a man of integrity, if not of sound political judgement.

Referring to this pivotal moment, from the vantage of his position as Prime Minister of England (as leader of the Liberal Party) in 1868, Gladstone wrote:

Some may say that it is perfectly consistent to have endowed Maynooth anew, and yet to uphold on principle, as a part of the Constitution, the Established Church of Ireland. It may be consistent, for them; it was not consistent, as I have shown, for me.


Later, the “Grand Old Man” “explained” the abrupt twists and turns in his political trajectory in a sentence of Strachean brevity: “I was brought up to distrust and dislike liberty, I learned to believe in it”. Gladstonian scholars have taken pains to demonstrate that the case was considerably more complicated than that. It does seem agreed that Gladstone never wavered in his search for a means of “moralizing” the state, and that the faith he once reposed in the Established Church gradually migrated toward the electorate at large. Characteristic of the mature Gladstone is the statement that:

honour and duty themselves require their loyal servant to take account of the state of facts in which he is to work, and, while ever labouring to elevate the standard of opinion and action around him, to remember that his business is not to construct, with self-chosen materials, an Utopia or a Republic of Plato, but to conduct the affairs of a living and working community of men, who have self-government recognised as in the last spring of their political life, and of the institutions which are its outward vesture.

This is another instance of the “characteristic Victorian synthesis”, identified by Langbaum; and, clearly, it is a political attitude shared, in large part, by the Bloomsbury intellectuals.

Ironically then, the most enigmatic character in Eminent Victorians is also the closest thing to a dramatized stand-in for Strachey himself. Gladstone is introduced in the portrait of Cardinal Manning as a contemporary of the eponymous character at Oxford. At first, Gladstone figures merely as one of three young men (along with Manning and Samuel Wilberforce) to whom “the whole world lay open. Were they not rich, well-connected, and endowed with an infinite capacity for making speeches?”

The politician’s character becomes somewhat more distinct in the exchange with Manning occasioned by the Gorham Judgement. Opposed to “precipitate action”, Gladstone advocated a “scheme of procrastination” as an alternative to Manning’s headlong course, which culminated, inevitably, in his break with the Anglican Church. Here Gladstone’s “wait-and-see” attitude is both lampooned and tacitly endorsed–what else could have been expected from a biographer who was fundamentally a “quietist, of donnish and didactic temper.” Michael Holroyd is surely right in pointing out the affinity between the Newman of Eminent Victorians and the text’s author–and the Gladstone of the Gorham judgement does exhibit some of these same qualities. However, Gladstone (like Strachey) also had an active side, and possessed a ready wit (as we have seen from his Chapter of Autobiography) that the “saintly”, defenceless Newman does not possess. This becomes manifest, in Eminent Victorians, in the letter from Gladstone to Manning quoted near the end of the essay:

My dear archbishop Manning . . . it did seem to me an astonishing error to state in public that a friendship had not been overcast for forty-five years until now, which your letter declares has been suspended for twelve. . . I wonder, too, at your forgetting that during the forty-five years I have been charged by you with doing the work of Anti-Christ in regard to the Temporal Power of the Pope.

Gladstone is a problematic enough figure in “Cardinal Manning”–more various than any of the other characters (despite being on stage for a very limited time), and a more substantial counter-weight to Manning’s egotism than the bland, endlessly victimized Newman–but in “The End of General Gordon”, the problem of what to do with “Mr. Gladstone” almost hijacks the narrative, and certainly destabilizes it.

Holroyd has written that Strachey’s “portrait of Gladstone . . . for all its lively imagery, its vividness and subtlety, its display of controlled verbal pyrotechnics, does nothing to reconcile the conflicting elements in Gladstone’s character.” Holroyd attributes to Professor Bonamy Dobree the opinion that “Lytton made no attempt to understand Gladstone and even ceased to think about him while putting together this intricate literary mosaic [the “portrait” of Gladstone].” Holroyd disputes this contention, maintaining that “Lytton did not forget Gladstone as a human being, but tried to show him as a man who, in the confusion of his conscience and his policy, was a kind of moral opportunist, not a humbug, but a man greatly self-deceived.”

In “The End of General Gordon”, unlike “Cardinal Manning”, Gladstone is given no real chance to speak in his own voice. He is presented at all times through a heavy narratorial smokescreen. Indeed, one can easily see what Dobree meant when he guessed that Strachey had ceased thinking of Gladstone while he composed; but, if anything, the truth may be closer to the reverse. Perhaps the author of Eminent Victorians became obsessed with Gladstone, and the similarity of his role, as the chastener of Victorian “men of action”, to Strachey’s own.

The portrait of Gladstone is a shrill masterpiece, designed to stifle its subject by disorienting the reader. Through a process that might be called a mellifluous shouting-down, Strachey skillfully transforms a character he does not wish to understand into a character who seems incomprehensible.

The mechanics of this transformative passage are fascinating, and it is worth examining in detail. Gladstone is introduced as an “old statesman . . . now entering upon the penultimate phase of his enormous career.” Strachey then alludes to the “clashing reactions of passionate extremes” aroused by the Prime Minister amongst his contemporaries, noting that “it was easy to worship Mr. Gladstone . . . it was also easy to detest him as a hypocrite, to despise him as a demagogue, and to dread him as a crafty manipulator.” From this, the narrator “concludes” that

In the physical universe, there are no chimeras. But man is more various than nature; was Mr. Gladstone then a chimera of the spirit? Did his very essence lie in the confusion of incompatibles? His very essence? It eludes the hand that seems to grasp it. One is baffled, as his political opponents were baffled fifty years ago. The soft serpent coils harden into quick strength that has vanished leaving only emptiness and perplexity behind. Speech was the fire of his being; and when he spoke, the ambiguity of ambiguity was revealed.

The passage continues toward a cataclysmic finale in which Mr. Gladstone’s psyche is described as “a labyrinth . . . [out of which] flame shot out on every side, scorching and brilliant; but in the midst there was a darkness.” Along the way, the narrator of Eminent Victorians finds an opportunity to drive a triumphant wedge between himself and Gladstone: the Prime Minsister had “no sense of humour.” If it has already been proven, by “Cardinal Manning”, that this detail is inaccurate, then Strachey’s memory lapse, at this pivotal moment, is all the more telling.

Gordon is described as unaware of the “part that Mr. Gladstone was playing in his destiny” , and this is perhaps the key to understanding the link between the Liberal Prime Minister and the author of Eminent Victorians–watching, manipulating his “strange creatures in a puppet show.” However, this statement follows a Gladstone montage in which the narrator goes to great links to prove the absolute “otherness” of the “Grand Old Man”. As with all texts, Eminent Victorians offers up the tools with which it can be deconstruct; and like all well-written texts, these tools are not obviously on display.

The portrayal of Gladstone has elicited very little comment from scholars, and this can only mean that Lytton Strachey was largely successful in his attempt to abduct Gladstone (and the liberal current of thought he represents) from the Victorian world he set out to caricature. A careful analysis of the overwrought language used, in Eminent Victorians, to efface the real Gladstone, reveals much about the real Strachey, and the complexity of his situation as a latter-day liberal aesthete in an era which proclaimed that “serious art” (indeed, “serious thought”) and the liberal tradition were incompatible.

Works Cited and Consulted

Epstein, William H., ed. Contesting the Subjet: Essays in the Postmodern Theory and Practice of Biography and Biographical Criticism. West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Press, 1991.
Gladstone, William E. A Chapter of Autobiography. London: John Murray, Albemarle Street, 1868.
Holroyd, Michael Holroyd. Lytton Strachey: A Critical Biography, Volume Two. London: Heinemann, 1968.
Johnstone, J.K. The Bloomsbury Group: A Study of E.M. Forster, Lytton Strachey, Virginia Woolf, and their Circle. London: Secker & Warburg, 1954.
Kinzer, Bruce, ed. The Gladstonian Turn of Mind: Essays Presented to J.B. Conacher. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985.
Langbaum, Robert. The Modern Spirit: Essays on the Continuity of Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970.
Marlow, Joyce. The Oak and the Ivy: An Intimate Biography of William and Catherine Gladstone. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company Inc., 1977.
Matthew, H.C.G. Gladstone: 1875-1898. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995.
Parry, J.P. Democracy and Religion: Gladstone and the Liberal Party, 1867-1875. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
Rosenbaum, S.P. The Bloomsbury Group: A Collection of Memoirs and Commentary. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995.
Scott-James, R.A. Lytton Strachey. London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1955.
Strachey, Lytton. Character and Commentaries. London: Chatto & Windus, 1933.
—–. Eminent Victorians. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1986.
—–. Queen Victoria. New York: Blue Ribbon Books, 1921.

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