Lytton Strachey : Biographer with Special Reference to Queen Victoria

    It is almost an axiomatic truth that biography is a very difficult from of art. A biographer, unlike a historian, has to collect all the relevant and necessary documents and facts. He should construct his biography in such a way that it ultimately assumes the status of an art-form. Johnson has very pertinently observed: “History can be formed from permanent monuments and records: but lives can only be written from personal knowledge, which is growing everyday less, and in short time is lost forever.”

It is a strenuous and uphill task, indeed to collect all the requisite materials for a biography. Again, compared to other genres of Literature i.e. drama, fiction, etc, biography is too young. Its origin dates back to 18th century. The simple reason for this belated origin of biography is that until 18th century, there was a death of genuine interest in and a becoming curiosity about the private lives of eminent personalities. It was not until 18th century that a combined operation of this curiosity and interest produced this new genre of art. It was only in the 19th century that the biography attained a full-fledged growth. A biographer has to work under several taboos, restrictions and obligations. He does not command the liberty of a novelist. Within the orbit of very much restricted liberty, a biographer has to work out. He does not dare to flout the facts or intersperse it with imagination simply because he has a constant fear that at any deviation his characters may be labeled as fictitious. This explains why most of the Victorian biographies were panegyrics. The biographers had so satisfy all by waxing eloquent on the virtue of their characters and also by covering up or omitting the shortcomings or disqualification. Thus almost all the Victoria biographies are: “Wax figures now preserved in Westminster Abbey, which were carried in funeral procession through the street-effigies that have only a smooth superficial likeness to the body in the coffin.”

Lytton Strachey
But in the 19th century a distinction and a considerable freedom were accorded to the biographers. The reading public started looking into the biographies with reawakened consciousness. Unlike the 18th century biographers who used to maintain that their painted characters were exclusively infallible, a host of nineteenth century biography-writers like Froude and Sir Edmund Gosse proclaimed that even the eminent and esteemed personalities were subject to faults and short-comings. Thus Froude’s Carlyle in not the portrait of a man painted rosy red during the early years of the present century; Lytton Strachey emulated the tradition and pattern set forth by Froude and Sir Edmund Gosse.

Lytton Strachey (1880-1932) was diffident about his imaginative fecundity and inventive ability. Still, he desired to become a poet or a dramatist. But subsequently he realized that he would be able to show his creative power should he plunge into the realm of biography. Thus Strachey’s biography proved it to be a very befitting alternative which well accorded worth his genius and did suit his inventive power. Strachey concentrated his attention on the Victorian age which was marked for the existence of eminent figures and celebrated dignitaries in the annals of human civilization. The majority of these celebrities have been disfigured by the effigies created by the so-called biographers. Hence Strachey set himself to task of re-creating them and showing them as they really were. He under took the function of removing the legendary hearsays and attributing the aura of real glory to his chosen personalities or characters. He came to biography with his characteristic adherence to truth. But to rebuild the image in a completely new light, shrouding over them the colour of his profound imagination without compromising with truth, is a stupendous task which demands qualities and powers analogous to those of poets and novelists.

While wielding his prolific pen for Queen Victoria, he encountered a great practical difficulty. Aught bulk of documents, information and credentials which had been ready before his hands posed formidable problems. He had to move about within the bounds of available facts and information. There was hardly any scope for inventing anything. He utilized the method of pick and choose and the device of selection and incision. And the result has become unique. Victoria has appeared as a living, breathing, and palpitating figure-true to the kindred points of the Queen herself.

Strachey was aware of the imposition which a biographer must on front while painting so popular a portrait as that of Queen Victoria. He neither yielded to the free play of his imagination nor fluttered the wings of his fancy within the narrow and restricted range of factuality. Thus Strachey wrote: “The first forty two years of the Queen’s life are illuminated by a great and varied quantity of authentic information. With Albert’s death, a veil descends” Now then with the descending of the veil and the death of Albert, the biographer saws before his vision a new horizon.

The Stracheyan biography has distinctive flavor of its own. It aims at revealing the illustrious persons of history as real and lively specimens of humanity. He has not portrayed mere incarnations of moral values. His world is not peopled by the embodiments of virus alone. He has tried to hold the mirror up to nature.” Strachey was a scientific student proof truth. He rescued English biography from the tedium of panegyrics and decked it with living characters. He has to maintain a freedom with regarded to the essential sprit of the age. He has never compromised with the truth. If, in any case, some truthful revelation appears to be devastating, it is not Strachey’s fault. He has mingled facts with fiction so artistically as to produce an appeal equivalent to that of a drama. This explains why Virginia Woolf has described him as a ‘frustrated dramatist’. Strachey adopted a pioneering novel method of writhing biography. He called “gossips and hear-says and anecdotes and then wove them into a narrative full of irony and wit and imagination, and thus created a personality which, if not lifelike, was certainly living.”

Ref: 1. Microsoft Students’ Encarta
 2. Movements in English Literature- C. Gillie      
  3. A Survey of English Literature-O Elton