"THE history of the Victorian Age will never be written; we know too much about it. For ignorance is the first requisite of the historian—ignorance, which simplifies and clarifies, which selects and omits, with a placid perfection unattainable by the highest art. Concerning the Age which has just passed, our fathers and our grandfathers have poured forth and accumulated so vast a quantity of information that the industry of a Ranke would be submerged by it, and the perspicacity of a Gibbon would quail before it. It is not by the direct method of a scrupulous narration that the explorer of the past can hope to depict that singular epoch. If he is wise, he will adopt a subtler strategy. He will attack his subject in unexpected places; he will fall upon the flank, or the rear; he will shoot a sudden, revealing searchlight into obscure recesses, hitherto undivined. He will row out over that great ocean of material, and lower down into it, here and there, a little bucket, which will bring up to the light of day some characteristic specimen, from those far depths, to be examined with a careful curiosity.
Guided by these considerations, I have written the ensuing studies. I have attempted, through the medium of biography, to present some Victorian visions to the modern eye. They are, in one sense, haphazard visions—that is to say, my choice of subjects has been determined by no desire to construct a system or to prove a theory, but by simple motives of convenience and of art. It has been my purpose to illustrate rather than to explain. It would have been futile to hope to tell even a precis of the truth about the Victorian age, for the shortest precis must fill innumerable volumes. But, in the lives of an ecclesiastic, an educational authority, a woman of action, and a man of adventure, I have sought to examine and elucidate certain fragments of the truth which took my fancy and lay to my hand.
I hope, however, that the following pages may prove to be of interest from the strictly biographical, no less than from the historical point of view. Human beings are too important to be treated as mere symptoms of the past. They have a value which is independent of any temporal processes—which is eternal, and must be felt for its own sake."
NOTE: A few days ago I finally took Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians down from my bookshelf. I began reading it at the start of my two-day “cleansing fast” and found it extremely stimulating and entertaining as hunger delirium came to visit and decided to stay. The Cardinal Manning section was hugely valuable, reminding me of history I’d forgotten, and also about my profound ineptitude (as opposed to lack of interest) in complex theological matters. Getting straight to the fundamentals was one reason I became a Quaker, but when you examine (if you choose to) the history of Quaker schisms, you find that Friends’ simplicity can also be deceptive.
Strachey’s introduction is wonderful and much of his prose is memorable, sharply funny and moving. As for the author’s statement later in the introduction that he wrote without “ulterior intentions,” everyone has his own axe to grind. That and the fresh and novel treatment of his subjects’ lives are what makes Eminent Victorians worth reading still.
The top photograph shows Lytton Strachey’s bedroom at Ham Spray as it was arranged and decorated by Dora Carrington. A photo of the house taken across the downs appears in second place and below that the Harrods real estate ad for the place, which I believe Strachey ultimately purchased for 2,300 Pounds. A pretty 1921 Dora Carrington painting of a Farm at Watendlath follows, and finally Carrington’s famous portrait of Strachey from 1916, which seemed necessary to include. So did the Kinks song link below both for its Englishness and for the way it parallels Strachey’s pose and (if you could see me now) my own current posture.
The Kinks: Sitting On My Sofa (Link)