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Eminent Victorians and History

ISSUE:  Summer 1980
Swindon. I can’t believe it! What will history say? Burgoyne. History, sir, will tell lies, as usual…
The Devil’s Disciple

In an essay called “English Prose between 1918 and 1939” (1944), E. M. Forster takes some trouble to describe Lytton Strachey’s method as an historian. He worked from within, says Forster, and so brought his characters psychologically alive. By managing to get inside his subjects he was able to bring whole societies to life, and in so doing he revolutionized the art of biography. According to Forster, Strachey was implacable in his pursuit of truth.

But which truth and whose? Forster acknowledges that Strachey was uninterested in politics—no doubt a serious flaw in an historian; and he admits that Strachey must have gotten some of his biographical subjects wrong—most likely, General Gordon.

As usual, Forster himself is wrong; for if Strachey ever got anyone right, it was General Gordon. Certainly there is little else that he got right in Eminent Victorians. As Leon Edel has remarked of Strachey, “One may expect that the reverse of what he says is usually the truth”; his most characteristic vein is that of “malice and subterfuge.” Strachey’s motive in Eminent Victorians was to mock, to startle, to debunk—and to make himself famous. All of these things the book managed to do. But it did not manage to become history. Strachey got only a second in the historical tripos at Cambridge. He had wanted to be a history don but was considered by his examiners not good enough. He got even with them by making a farce of historiography. The readers of Eminent Victorians (1918), emerging wearily from a war brought about largely, so they thought, by the bungling and blundering of their fathers and grandfathers, were perfectly content, as Edel says, “to overlook [Strachey’s] mannerisms, his inaccuracies, his wantonly imagined details. . . . It was too easy to laugh at the past. And it was too easy to take shortcuts with documents.” The result was “skillful collage and pastiche” — but not, certainly, history.

It has been suspected for many years that Strachey was not a dependable historian. The questions worth asking and answering now are—what exactly did he do to the historical record, and why did he do it?

Strachey’s disinterest in the facts of political history was a reflection of one of Bloomsbury’s most obvious traits. (One night at dinner Vanessa Bell turned to the gentleman seated next to her, a friend of J. M. Keynes, and asked him if he were interested in politics. The gentleman’s name was Asquith, and he was Prime Minister of England. ) Surely Virginia Woolf is right when she says (in her essay “The Art of Biography”) that Strachey succeeded when he treated biography as a craft and failed when he treated it as an art. Biography, says Mrs. Woolf, “imposes conditions, and those conditions are that it must be based upon fact. And by fact in biography we mean facts that can be verified by other people beside the artist. If he invents facts as an artist invents them—facts that no one else can verify—and tries to combine them with facts of the other sort, they destroy each other.” The biographer, she says—reaching a conclusion very different from Strachey’s— is not an artist; at least, he shouldn’t be.

Strachey’s method as biographer, to use Mrs. Woolf’s terms, is that of an artist rather than that of a craftsman. Bloomsbury’s ideas about “significant form” govern his approach to history. His work is less objective than “autonomous,” a work of art with its own internal coherence and logic but with only some relation to what lies outside it—in this case, historical truth. Just as Roger Fry believed that paintings need express only themselves—need not, above all, be representational—so Strachey’s biographies are less representational, less reproductions of exterior reality, than artistic creations, like novels, true only to themselves and to what the artist sees. Strachey’s own philosophy of historiography (set forth in an essay in The Spectator in 1909) allows the historian to be—indeed, declares that he must be—an artist. Art, Strachey says here, is the great interpreter; through the artist’s personal revelation only may bare facts be transformed into readable history. History, he says, is less a science than a branch of literature; good history writing is as personal as poetry and requires literary method.

All this talk about art is palaver. Strachey wrote about history as art, but he wrote history as polemics. His very personal approach to his subjects assured the destruction of “pure” historiography. He did not believe in placing historical facts before the reader and letting him form his own conclusions. His method rather was to select his presentable facts in order to force the reader to reach the same conclusions he himself had reached before he began to write. He usually had in his head the plan of a book, including what he was going to say, long before he began reading and research on his topic. He took more interest in his characters than in their milieux and unfairly, I think, applied to them and to older customs and beliefs the modern standards of a less reverent age. In his books the events of past history often seem little more than a series of farcical imbecilities, trivial eccentricities, bigotries, and crimes resulting from a human nature consistently imperfect. In Strachey’s tendency to focus too much on personality and too little on the outside forces shaping personality, we can once again see the influences of Bloomsbury’s theories of form. For if Bloomsbury was anything, it was antihistorical. Strachey’s biographies are chiefly interesting as an expression of his age’s perception of others—whether the English Renaissance, as in Elizabeth and Essex, or the 19th century, as in Queen Victoria and Eminent Victorians.

Both Leonard and Virginia Woolf perceived the extent to which their generation was writing against preceding generations. Of his circle of friends at Cambridge (Strachey was one), Leonard Woolf wrote: “We were part of a negative movement of destruction against the past.” In “How It Strikes A Contemporary,” Mrs. Woolf said:

We are sharply cut off from our predecessors. A shift in the scale—the war, the sudden slip of masses held in position for ages—has shaken the fabric from top to bottom, alienated us from the past and made us perhaps too vividly conscious of the present. Every day we find ourselves doing, saying, or thinking things that would have been impossible to our fathers. . . . No age can have been more rich than ours in writers determined to give expression to the differences which separate them from the past and not to the resemblances which connect them with it.


“Je n’impose rien; je ne propose rien: j’expose,” says Strachey in the preface to Eminent Victorians. Like almost everything else in the book, this is pure fabrication. Strachey got some of his facts right (principally in the account of General Gordon), but most of the rest of the time he distorts or simply changes what he knows to be the truth. Certainly he understands Cardinal Manning’s cruelty, cunning rigidity, megalomania, and hardheartedness. Equally well does he understand Florence Nightingale’s passion for medical reform, her hatred of bureaucracy and bungling, her genius for organization. In both of these studies he perceives the ways in which simple human affection and warmth have been obliterated by the cold ambition of aspiring natures. But he wants us to laugh at Victorian earnestness and devotion to duty, and in order to get us to do this he revises and flattens many of the facts of the lives of both. The account of Dr. Arnold is fabrication from first to last. The story of Gordon is brilliantly incisive—though even here Strachey was unable to resist some distortion of history.

Eminent Victorians is an attack upon Victorianism—more than anything else upon fanatical evangelicalism, which Strachey and many of his contemporaries felt had been chiefly responsible for making the Great War possible. It is for this reason that Eminent Victorians begins with a study of a famous Victorian cleric—even though the equally famous schoolmaster, Dr. Arnold, was born 13 years earlier than the Cardinal and died half a century earlier.

After a series of loaded rhetorical questions, the portrait of Manning commences its improbable, incredulous, preposterous path. Very like Butler in The Way of All Flesh (much more than G. E. Moore’s Principia Ethica, the Bible of Bloomsbury), Strachey is so eager to condemn that he sometimes forgets to do the most important thing of all in satire— that is, to bring his subject-target to life through plausible description. No one could have been as diabolical as Manning is said to be here; no one, not even Machiavelli’s Prince, could always be so prescient, so politically astute.

Of course the details of Strachey’s story are tailored to fit the protagonist. According to Strachey, Manning consciously blotted all memory of his wife from his mind after her death, destroying in the process every memento of their married life. The fact is that on his deathbed Manning pathetically produced from under his pillow his dead wife’s pocketbook and a bundle of her letters and committed them to the care of a friend. But it is Strachey’s account of Manning’s conversion that has caused the most controversy, especially Manning’s famous meeting with Pius IX. In fact, there was nothing mysterious about the reasons for the meeting; Manning had been asked by Sir Charles Trevelyan to deliver personally to the Pope a British government pamphlet recounting English activities undertaken to relieve the starving population of Ireland (this must have been one of history’s briefest pamphlets, since the English, under Trevelyan’s heartless direction, were engaged at this time in systematically starving the Irish to death). But in Strachey’s hands Manning and the Pope are transformed into cunning coconspirators, whispering secret ambitions to one another. Strachey assumes that Manning’s decision to convert was based purely on political considerations, including his assessment of the clerical job-market. Nowhere does he allow for the possibility of a reason beyond that of secular ambition. There is no account of any spiritual struggle, doubting, worry about heaven and hell. Having no interest in religion himself, Strachey could not believe that such a thing as a spiritual dilemma might be brought about by theological uncertainty. And yet the 19th century in England was, in fact, an age of doubt. Lyell’s Geology, the discovery of new fossil remains, the writings of Darwin, the growth of new sciences, the so-called “higher criticism”—these things battered the citadel of Victorian faith and forced many a man and woman to worry, to doubt, to wonder. Religious conversion was in the air; and the Anglican establishment was in trouble, especially in the latter half of the century. In 1850 roughly half of the undergraduates at Oxford and Cambridge were studying for holy orders; by the 80’s the churches of England were half empty. Nowhere does Strachey suggest that Manning’s struggle with his Anglican faith was an historical and cultural phenomenon of the 19th century, as well as a personal one; he writes of it as of a rhetorical or dramatic exercise. For Manning, in fact, the rites and the protectiveness of the Roman Catholic Church were appealing and soothing, the liberalized Anglicanism of his time hard to swallow. His was indeed a conservative nature. But for Strachey all religions were forms of fanatical superstition—which, happily for his own purposes, lent themselves to satirical presentation. Himself an atheist, he could not credit that his grandfather’s generation might find itself buffeted by genuine spiritual uncertainty, nor that a man might be concerned about believing the wrong set of dogma and thus going to hell instead of heaven.

Much of what Strachey says about Manning is credible. He was a very hard old man, he was ambitious, he was often unprincipled. Someone observed that Manning’s famous magnificent forehead was in fact due to the fact that he had no face—an exaggeration, but certainly he does resemble the insatiable swooping eagle of Strachey’s description.

Strachey’s portrait of Newman here is absurd, written entirely for dramatic effect to carry forward the account of the uneven battle between the eagle and the dove. Newman was about as much like a dove as Palmerston was. Strachey was forced to admit later that his portrait of Newman was sentimentalized. It is more than that, however; it is, like the portrait of Dr. Arnold, a fabrication from first to last. Newman was famous among other things for his violent temper; one of his biographers says he had a tongue that could clip a hedge. Newman was impatient, unforgiving, and a good hater. But, as Michael Holroyd has pointed out, Strachey needed a passive, sweet man as a foil to Manning’s hardness, and so Newman was screwed into the role. The account Eminent Victorians gives of Newman’s return to Littlemore, for example, is wholly an invention of Strachey’s.

Strachey was interested in Manning less as a real man than as a representative as Holroyd has written, of “certain abhorrent aspects of Victorianism, particularly the fanaticism and adherence to a rigid code of behaviour.” A more accurate account of Manning’s life would have emphasized the struggle in the man between his desire for earthly advancement on the one hand and his yearning for spiritual peace on the other. But, instead of any sense of inner torment, we are given a caricature of a man who, for Starchey, represented everything unlikable about the previous generation.


To Strachey, Florence Nightingale was less objectionable than Manning, but again in his account of her he used those aspects of her character he found repellent to illustrate characteristics of the age he abhorred. He attacks her for repressing her erotic feelings and for her indifference to human relationships while he praises the energy with which she fought, all of her life, bureaucracy and convention. Strachey’s picture is that of a sort of Amazon whose humanitarianism was based on a system rather than real feeling, whose sexual instinct became sublimated in good works. As so often in Strachey’s biographies, there is some truth in this picture, but again a good many facts are wrong—because of deliberate distortion or careless historiography. One result of his distortions has been to turn a genuine 19th-century epic into a 20th-century mock-epic. For Florence Nightingale was a great woman; in Strachey’s hands she appears less great than eccentric.

It is not true, as Strachey says, that in childhood Florence Nightingale practiced nursing methods on her dolls. The famous dog with the wounded paw is another fabrication. And so on throughout the memoir. Strachey’s Florence is demonic, a megalomaniac whose psychosis took the form of a desire to heal all of mankind. He emphasizes the violence of her compassion, her pitiless philanthropy. His description of her work at Scutari, vivid as it is, is written largely to support the theme of a being possessed. As Holroyd has said, Strachey simply distorts the facts. He calls the hospital orderlies who assisted Florence Nightingale in the Crimea a “miserable band of convalescent soldiers”; in fact, they were mostly ablebodied NCO’s. He says she appointed herself purveyor of clothing to all the hospitals; she did not. He says the report she published after the Crimean War became “the leading authority on the medical administration of armies”; in fact it was privately published, little read, and entirely out of print by the time Strachey wrote Eminent Victorians. He says she continued to write voluminous memoranda even while she was flat on her back with exhaustion after the war; in fact, she wrote practically nothing.

Strachey’s manic treatment of Florence Nightingale, so arranged as to throw into relief the deficiencies of her personality, transforms her in Eminent Victorians into what Holroyd has called “a schizophrenic monster, a female Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, at one moment a saintly crusader in the cause of hygiene, at the next a satanic personality, resorting to sardonic grins, pantomine gestures and sudden fits of wild fury.” As in Manning’s story, what changed Strachey’s account from history into polemics was his hatred of the age she represented; in her as a real person he had next to no interest. He makes her into a symbol of the Victorian matriarchy that, he felt, emasculated men and bred neuroses—an embodiment of the woman who sublimates her sexual feelings in her pursuit of power over men. His suggestion that by her continued demands for reform and action she murdered both Sidney Herbert and Arthur Clough is absurd. His account of Herbert’s death is another fabrication (he doesn’t even get his governments right; in 1862, when Herbert died, the Prime Minister was Palmerston, not Gladstone). The story of the post-Scutari years is also largely made up.

Notoriously fanatical on the subject of sunshine and fresh air, Florence Nightingale, according to Strachey, lay for 50 years in a dark stuffy room; downstairs, supposedly, hundreds of dignitaries milled around begging for a chance to meet her. In fact, her biographers agree, her rooms, which had large windows without curtains and were painted white, faced south and were always light and airy. Visitors came to the house by appointment and never were kept waiting.

“You can feel reading the book,” Duff Cooper says, that Strachey “is pleased that Miss Nightingale grew fat and that her brain softened.”


“Nowhere,” Dr. Arnold once said, “is Satan’s work more evidently manifest than in turning holy things to ridicule.” Strachey’s “caricature essay” (the phrase is Edel’s) on Thomas Arnold isn’t even remotely accurate. It is not only inaccurate—it is irresponsible and malicious. Strachey’s dislike of Arnold undoubtedly stems in part from his own unpleasant school experiences at Abbotsholme, in part from his dislike of the pious biography of Arnold by Dean Stanley and of the more popularized account of Rugby given by Thomas Hughes in Tom Brown’s Schooldays, a best seller of the 1850’s. Strachey’s response was to exclude all documentary evidence from his discussion of Arnold and to construct a caricature rather than a portrait. Strachey’s defenders betray their ignoranee of the facts when they try to justify the portrait of Arnold. Holroyd thinks that Strachey was right to label Arnold a mediocre educational thinker and reformer; that far from improving the curriculum of the public schools, Arnold discounted intellectual achievement in favor of good form; that he therefore changed nothing at all. In short, says Holroyd, Arnold “asked for it.” This is nonsense, as any investigation of the historical record would have revealed to Strachey’s otherwise industrious biographer. Half of the things Strachey says about Arnold here are inventions, and his historical judgment of the man is nil. He admitted that he made up the fact that Arnold’s legs were too short for his body. If they weren’t, “they ought to have been,” he told a friend. His statement that Arnold hated democracy and wanted to rule Rugby like Jehovah over the Chosen People is pure rubbish. “If the King of Prussia were as sincere a lover of liberty as I am,” Arnold wrote in 1829, the year after he took over Rugby, “he would give his people a constitution—for my desire is to teach my boys to govern themselves—a far better thing than to govern them well myself.” Bruce Haley has said: “His most influential reforms included turning the sixth form into a disciplinary body by making prepositors of. . .its members; eliminating fagging by restricting the privilege. . .using other sorts of persuasion than flogging; and quickly expelling troublemakers from the school. It was this series of. . .changes and the philosophy underlying them that gave Rugby its special character.” Asa Briggs has reached a similar verdict: “He refused to rule as a tyrant or a jailer, preferring to delegate authority to the. . .oldest, strongest, and cleverest boys in the sixth form. Such delegation insured a regular government among the boys themselves and avoided the evils of anarchy, in other words, of the lawless tyranny of physical strength. From 1829 onwards he and the senior boys met from time to time, almost as equals, to consider ways of improving the school.” It was Arnold’s purpose in all of this to avoid wherever possible rule by the physically strong and aggressive in his school.

Frederick W. Farrar’s Eric, or Little by Little (1858), another best-selling schooldays story (24 editions by 1889), does not mention Arnold by name but has this to say on the monitorial system:

Ill indeed are those informed who raise a cry, and join in the ignorant abuse of that noble safeguard of English schools. Any who have had personal and intimate experience of how schools work with it and without it, know what a Palladium it is of happiness and morality; how it prevents bullying, upholds manliness, is the bulwark of discipline, and makes boys more earnest and thoughtful, often at the most critical periods of their lives, by enlisting all their sympathies and interests on the side of the honourable and just.

So much for Jehovah and the Chosen people. Equally ridiculous, as we may gather from the foregoing, is Strachey’s charge that the boys at Rugby often left the place without ever having spoken to the Headmaster (in fact Arnold kept a flag flying outside his study to indicate when he was free to speak to pupils—which was most of the time).

Above all Strachey is dead wrong to say that Arnold adhered to the old system of education, leaving it even more firmly entrenched in the public schools than when he accepted the headmastership of Rugby. These things are not just distortions; since Strachey had at hand the material that would have refuted such charges, they are deliberate lies. (One can only suppose that Strachey’s distinguished biographer, in defending his portrait of Dr. Arnold, is indulging in a little Stracheyesque biographying of his own. ) As we know, Strachey was writing at a time when it was fashionable to take the Victorians apart. The disillusionment of postwar England found one of its voices in mocking what then seemed the useless pretensions, the moral earnestness, the high seriousness, of the previous two generations. Arnold was an easy target. After World War I, as I have said, the Victorians seemed, by their priggish blundering and their passion for Empire, to be largely responsible for the holocaust then just over. In more recent years we have looked back upon the 19th century with more nostalgia and more affection—wishing, perhaps, that some of that idealism, that faith, that duty, could become part of our lives as they were so much a part of the lives of the Victorians. Surely this is one explanation of the tremendous explosion of interest in the 19th century and especially in the Victorian novelists that began just after World War II.

Thomas Arnold especially infuriated Strachey, and may especially appeal to us, precisely because he represents so much that we associate with Victorianism. I quote Basil Willey on this theme: “Leading men, of whom Arnold was a type, were then conscious of a destiny and a duty, whose fulfillment, whether conceived as an obligation to God or to one’s fellow-creatures, would make life significant and satisfying. This unquestioning sense that life has momentous meaning, and the “unhasting, unresting diligence” in the effort to realize it, gives to the great men of the last century a quality which inevitably overawes the present generation—a generation which has so largely lost its sense of direction and of any distinct moral summons, and yet is anxious to recover both.” Willey assumes unhesitatingly that Thomas Arnold was one of the great men of the 19th century, and I am inclined to agree with him. The fact is, despite Strachey’s feeble disclaimer, that Arnold almost single-handedly changed the face of education all through the public schools of England. An important element of his greatness, as Willey says, was his ability to translate his ideas into action, actually to get things changed for the better; and of how many men, living or dead, can that be said?

Arnold believed that the common goal of men should be good rather than truth; the former was possible to attain, the latter probably impossible. His students loved and respected him, and when he died, at the age of 47, men recognized that a great presence had disappeared from among them.

What was it, exactly, that Arnold did at Rugby to revolutionize the nine British public schools? His reforms were not so much educational as spiritual; he was interested less in how much his boys knew than in what kind of people they turned out to be. He thought it was the special opportunity of the public school to encourage moral development—inward examination and self-improvement. Despite Strachey’s sneering, we all know that we measure others less by the comprehensiveness of their book-learning than by their moral qualities as human beings.

The state of the English public schools in the 1820’s was extremely unpleasant. The boys slept about six to a bed, discipline was nonexistent, learning virtually nil. Rugby boys, said a master in the 20’s, are “the excrescence of pond life.” Anarchy prevailed. The schools were run by the biggest bullies among the boys, for whom cruel and unusual punishment of others was of course one of the great pleasures of life. Besides bullying, stealing, poaching, drinking, and sodomy flourished. By the 1850’s the public schools, having been reformed from within, were beginning to overcome many of their worst abuses—due largely to Arnold and the influence of the disciples he sent out into the world to become headmasters of other public schools such as Harrow and Repton.

Arnold believed in the character-forming role of the public schools, and it was for this reason that he introduced a curriculum which put a more strenuous demand on the minds and bodies of his students—harder work, more athletics, intense moral instruction. It mattered to Arnold whether he turned good or bad young men out of Rugby—something for which Strachey seems unable to forgive him. Arnold made “earnestness” the guiding principle in Victorian public school education, and it was “earnestness” above all that Strachey, seeing it as the chief emblem of the age he hated so much, wished to attack. Arnold’s stress on character development was a response to the failure during this period in the public schools to care about such things. He was not anti-intellectual, nor did he stress character development at the expense of learning, as Strachey suggests. He has been accused of anti-intellectualism because he did indeed believe that character development and good behavior should be the highest priorities of a public school; but he believed that these things could be acquired only through intellectual development, and he said so. Coming into a school in which the students were housed and fed in a manner inferior to that of the average early Victorian jail or workhouse, Arnold tried to give his students an ideal of responsible public service. His teaching that social duty was as important as good form was not only ambitious but also courageous (especially the latter, for the public schools of the early 19th century catered largely to the social rather than the intellectual requirements of the upper middle classes); nevertheless, he accomplished most of his goals. In fact, there is little doubt that Thomas Arnold, more than anyone else in 19th-century England, was responsible for making reform in the public schools both possible and fashionable; for his work inspired other schools to follow the example of Rugby. Indeed, in 1861 the Public Schools Inquiry Commission paid special tribute to “the personal influence and exertions of Dr. Arnold” in its report to Parliament.

Let us not forget that the early and middle years of the 19th century in England were years of great idealism and optimism. Arnold, after all, deserves to be judged by the standards of his own time, not those of Lytton Strachey. “In an age when Christian values were the central values of society and all deep individual problems were related to Christian morals,” Lord Briggs reminds us, “Arnold’s sense of spiritual insight was of fundamental importance.” Arnold did nothing, as Briggs points out, to place games on an equality with work at Rugby, and this part of Strachey’s attack is also spurious. “He would have disapproved of the late-nineteenth-century fetish of games on the grounds that it vulgarized intellectual labour, that it substituted self-indulgence for self-denial, and that it placed those boys in positions of command and influence who were frequently most unfit to exercise authority. Arnold. . .spurned the example of Sparta, and saw in cultivated athleticism “brutality of soul, ” not embryonic team spirit.” Arnold went out of his way to warn his boys against the notion that physical fitness was the only equipment they needed for life. Despite his association in the minds of many with that branch of 19th-century evangelicalism known as Muscular Christianity, “he never seems to have adopted a serious attitude toward games,” remarks Bruce Haley, who has studied the subject carefully. Arnold was interested in athletics only for their educative value. When he spoke about “manliness,” as he often did, he meant maturity of mind, not body; this was the ultimate goal of his system of education. Even Tom Brown’s Schooldays nowhere suggests that Arnold actively promoted games or saw any real value in them. Strachey’s attempt to make him out the patron saint of athleticism and anti-intellectualism is sheer nonsense.

One of Arnold’s most famous “reforms,” as Briggs points out, was to insist that all of his students speak the truth all of the time. He took a boy’s word as his bond, and as a result the feeling became widespread at Rugby during Arnold’s time that it was a shame to tell the Headmaster a lie, because he always believed it. Such an attitude on the part of boys in a public school was unheard of in the 1830’s, but thanks to Arnold’s influence it was widespread by the 1860’s. The novelists, Trollope especially, were fond of trying to define a gentleman, and one of the most popular definitions of the time was that a gentleman never told a lie. Here, too, Dr. Arnold’s influence may be seen at work.

Arnold’s changes at Rugby became famous and soon spread. If a boy graduated from Rugby, it was generally thought he must be a reliable, solid sort; the universities sought Rugby graduates, and the other public schools began to feel that they should make some changes, too. It had been predicted in one of Arnold’s testimonials that if he were appointed head of Rugby he would change the face of education all over England. This prophecy was fulfilled—largely, says Lord Briggs, through Arnold’s “simplicity of purpose and the force of his personality.” He improved the tone and the atmosphere of the schools by sheer force of will, purging them of their obvious abuses while retaining many of their essential characteristics. In the hands of a less capable man, such attempts at reform would have come to nothing. His son Matthew Arnold, for many years an inspector of schools, laid plans for a national system of education which was steered through Parliament by his brother-in-law W. E. Forster in 1870. The Forster Act, which established British education on modern lines, would have been impossible without the inspiration of Thomas Arnold. Strachey’s absurd criticism of him resembles an attack upon a giant by an ant.

Bonamy Price had this to say of Dr. Arnold: “Every pupil was made to feel that there was work for him to do—that his happiness as well as his duty lay in doing that work well. Hence an indescribable zest was communicated to a young man’s feeling about life. . .and a deep and ardent attachment sprang up towards him who had taught him thus to value life and his own self, and his work and mission in this world.” But perhaps Arnold’s most eloquent epitaph was that written by his son on the 15th anniversary of his father’s death. Having just finished reading Tom Brown’s Schooldays, which ends with the funeral of Dr. Arnold in the chapel at Rugby, Matthew Arnold in “Rugby Chapel” (written 1857; first published 1867) invokes the memory of his father in these terms:

And through thee I believe
In the noble and great who are gone;
Pure souls honour’d and blest
By former ages, who else—
Such, so soulless, so poor,
Is the race of men whom I see—
Seem’d but a dream of the heart,
Seem’d but a cry of desire.
Yes! I believe that there lived
Others like thee in the past,
Not like the men of the crowd
Who all round me to-day
Bluster or cringe, and make life
Hideous, and arid, and vile;
But souls temper’d with fire,
Fervent, heroic, and good,
Helpers and friends of mankind.


On Feb. 10, 1885, William Ewart Gladstone, Prime Minister of England, along with his wife, was seen attending a play in a West End theater. That same night the death of General Gordon and the massacre of the garrison at Khartoum were announced. It was largely for this failure and this insensitivity that not long afterward the British public substituted a Tory government under Lord Salisbury for the Liberal one of Mr. Gladstone. Long known as the G. O. M. (Grand Old Man), Gladstone was called instead the M. O. G. (Murderer of Gordon); the disaster at Khartoum kept him out of office for years.

It has been said, and with some justice, that while Gladstone could persuade most people of most things, above all he could persuade himself of almost anything. There can be no doubt that Gladstone deserved much of the blame for what happened at Khartoum. He accepted the suggestion of Gordon’s appointment without taking the trouble to find out what sort of man or soldier he was, and this despite the fact that shortly before Gordon left for the Sudan, as Strachey points out, Gordon had published in the Pall Mall Gazette (Jan. 8, 1884) an inflammatory interview on the situation in Africa. Gladstone had always hated the idea of imperialism. This was largely because Empire was a concept dear to the heart of the Conservative party, and especially its late chief Disraeli, and to Queen Victoria, who loved to hear herself referred to as the Empress of India. The Queen hated Gladstone, and he never liked her. Nor did Gladstone’s highminded theories of political liberty accord well with the principle of British dominion over subject peoples. During these, his later years, Gladstone was interested in little except Ireland; he thought that God had put him on earth to settle the Irish question. Needless to say, Gladstone was wrong. (Indeed, no British statesman has ever succeeded in anything undertaken in connection with Ireland. ) Rigid, dogmatic, inflexible, Gladstone was a religious fanatic, with no sense of humor and little common sense. Unbelievably, he had no interest in foreign policy, which he left mostly in the hands of others. It was this lack of attention to detail that brought his government crashing down and so prevented him, as he thought, from saving Ireland.

Within Gladstone’s government, however, there were men who wished to see Britain’s imperialist ventures broadened, despite the instinctive hatred of Empire harbored by their chief. These people were instrumental in the appointment of General Gordon, as Strachey suggests. Sir Evelyn Baring (later Lord Cromer), who had known Gordon in China and understood perfectly what sort of man he was, opposed the appointment to the end. Wolseley and Granville had no understanding whatever of Gordon’s character. By taking no interest in the matter himself, Gladstone made possible—indeed, made inevitable—the famous disaster at Khartoum. To send such a man as Gordon only to ascertain the facts of the situation at Khartoum and to manage, if necessary, the retreat of the garrison there, was asking for trouble—as Sir Evelyn Baring knew very well. The government picked for this job a fanatic who had never been able to follow orders. It was like asking a mouse to retreat from a piece of cheese. On this Strachey is very incisive indeed:

The whole history of [Gordon’s] life, the whole bent of his character, seemed to disqualify him for the task for which he had been chosen. He was before all things a fighter, an enthusiast, a bold adventurer; and he was now to be entrusted with the conduct of an inglorious retreat. He was alien to the subtleties of civilised statesmanship, he was unamenable to official control, he was incapable of the skilful management of delicate situations; and he was now to be placed in a position of great complexity, requiring at once a cool judgment, a clear perception of fact, and a fixed determination to carry out a line of policy laid down from above.

If Gladstone hadn’t the vaguest idea of Gordon’s character, Gordon, though he never really understood the Prime Minister either, understood enough of him and of the way governments work generally to assume that the expeditionary force sent to save him would arrive just too late. Strachey’s brilliantly written version of Hartington’s role in this disaster of timing is also largely accurate. The famous account of Hartington’s slowness is among the best prose passages Strachey ever wrote:

Lord Hartington was slow. He was slow in movement, slow in apprehension, slow in thought and the communication of thought, slow to decide, and slow to act. . . . The fate of General Gordon, so intricately interwoven with such a mass of complicated circumstance. . .was finally determined by the fact that Lord Hartington was slow. If he had been even a very little quicker—if he had been quicker by two days. . . but it could not be. The ponderous machinery took so long to set itself in motion; the great wheels and levers, once started, revolved with such a laborious, such a painful deliberation, that at last their work was accomplished—surely, firmly, completely, in the best English manner, and too late.

“The history of failure in war can be summed up in two words: Too late,” Douglas MacArthur once observed. It is typical of Gladstone that several years later (1888), looking back on Hartington’s performance at the War Office during the Sudanese crisis, he remarked to Lord Granville: “I don’t think he ever came to any sharp issue.”

As usual, Strachey exaggerates some things, and his prejudice against any kind of religious conviction is as virulent as ever, but in the main he captures accurately the spirit of the events that led up to the tragedy at Khartoum. Indeed, “The End of General Gordon” is probably his finest piece of writing—better even than the chapters on Melbourne and Disraeli in Queen Victoria (1921), and certainly better than anything in Elizabeth and Essex (1928). To send a Christian fanatic to Africa to effect the retreat of Christians from the onslaught of Moslem fanatics must be one of the greatest pieces of political stupidity of all time. Even Lord Morley, Gladstone’s admiring biographer, admits that “to dispatch a soldier of this temperament on a piece of business. . . needing vigilant sanity and self-control was little better than to call in a wizard with his magic.” Gordon was the last man in the world to hold himself bound by official—or any other—instructions.

When the tragedy had struck, Gladstone, in his characteristically stubborn way, refused to accept the blame. In response to an angry (and uncoded) telegram from the Queen, Gladstone wrote: “neither aggressive policy, nor military disaster, nor any gross error in the application of means to ends, has marked this series of difficult proceedings, which, indeed, have greatly redounded to the honour of Your Majesty’s forces of all ranks and arms.” Years later, when criticism of the government’s handling of the affair had turned Gordon in memory into a heroic martyr victimized by bureaucratic incompetence, Gladstone in a letter said this of Gordon: “It was unfortunate that he should claim the hero’s privilege by turning upside down and inside out every idea and intention with which he had left England, and for which he had obtained our approval. . . . My own opinion is that it is harder to justify our doing so much to rescue him, than our not doing more.” In 1898 Kitchener’s victorious Khartoum expedition dramatically avenged the death of “Chinese” Gordon, but Gladstone’s posthumous reputation has always had to shoulder the chief blame for the original debacle. Indeed, a decade after Gladstone’s death, Sir Evelyn Baring wrote in his account of the Khartoum affair that “it is improbable that the verdict of Gladstone’s contemporaries in respect of his conduct of the affairs of the Soudan will ever be reversed.”

One of Strachey’s rare virtues in Eminent Victorians is that he manages to capture and portray the stubbornness, the fanaticism, of both Gordon and Gladstone. Both were rigid and violent in their prejudices, and upon finding themselves on opposite sides of an issue which involved the potential loss of human life, blood must inevitably have been shed, Strachey for once did not have to invent; the neuroses and megalomania were there in his subjects. He did not need to change historical facts in order to indict the government of the most staunchly religious English statesman of the 19th century; that government indicted itself. “The End of General Gordon” is the best of the portraits in Eminent Victorians not only because of the brilliance of its narrative but also because of the unusually few distortions of fact. Perhaps Strachey blames Gordon a bit less than he should—for Gordon, as Holroyd says, was in truth a half-crazed romantic, a manic-depressive fatalist, high on brandy and the Bible throughout much of his life. To portray him as a 19th-century Don Quixote, both comic and heroic, a man more sinned against than sinning, is to ignore the fact that much of the trouble in the Sudan came about as a result of Gordon’s own absurdities. But of course Strachey would take the side of a rebel against Victorian authority.

The two most controversial aspects of Strachey’s version of the Khartoum disaster have been his revelation of Gordon’s unpredictable drinking habits and his portrait of Baring. Strachey is unnecessarily hard on Baring, whose published version of the Sudan campaign is very close in slant to Strachey’s own in Eminent Victorians. Surely Baring is right when he says the expedition to save Gordon was sanctioned too late because “Mr. Gladstone would not accept simple evidence of a plain fact.” As for Gordon’s drinking—for once the weight of published evidence is on Strachey’s side. Certainly what Strachey says fits what we know of Gordon’s other habits. He was a man who drank to excess occasionally—a nervous drinker, abstemious most of the time but prone to get very drunk when he drank at all. As Holroyd says, Strachey “believed that Gordon’s addiction to religiosity and to alcohol spring from the same epileptic source. In this way he could bring out Gordon’s intoxicated, muddled, transcendentalist thinking which, allied to his thirst for fame, led inevitably to his self-destruction.” As I have suggested, Strachey was equally successful with Gladstone, who has puzzled posterity as much as he puzzled his own contemporaries. Did he—a model upright man—believe everything he said, or was he a detestable arch-hypocrite? I think Strachey and Holroyd have the right answer—that Gladstone was really a sort of moral opportunist: not a hypocrite or a humbug but rather a man often self-deceived, who in the Khartoum crisis was honestly befuddled by the varying demands of conscience and policy, enemies and friends in and out of his government, and whose hatred of “Empire” prevented him from acting decisively in its defense.


Holroyd’s claim that “Strachey’s influence as a biographer has matched that of Plutarch and Boswell” is, of course, far-fetched; but controversy has kept Eminent Victorians alive for over six decades now and will probably continue to keep it alive. In his preface to the book, Strachey advocates detachment as a necessary attitude of mind for the would-be historian; we have seen that his biographies, if they lack anything, lack detachment. Still, in his philosophy of historiography, in his pronouncements upon biographical form, Strachey has had some influence, and his books undoubtedly will continue to be read if for no other reason than that they are entertaining to read.

“We are going I think to have a new age in English literature,” Gerald Brenan wrote to Strachey in 1921. “E. V. will then be on the border-line between new and old.” The passage of time has made Strachey’s age seem as remote to us as the age of Manning and Arnold seemed to him.


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