Lytton Strachey

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Lytton Strachey
Carrington - Strachey.jpg
A study of Strachey's face and hands by Carrington
BornGiles Lytton Strachey
(1880-03-01)1 March 1880
Died21 January 1932(1932-01-21) (aged 51)
Ham, Wiltshire
OccupationAuthor, critic
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Lytton Strachey
Carrington - Strachey.jpg
A study of Strachey's face and hands by Carrington
BornGiles Lytton Strachey
(1880-03-01)1 March 1880
Died21 January 1932(1932-01-21) (aged 51)
Ham, Wiltshire
OccupationAuthor, critic

Giles Lytton Strachey (/ˈlz ˈlɪtən ˈstri/;[1] 1 March 1880 – 21 January 1932) was a British writer and critic.

A founding member of the Bloomsbury Group and author of Eminent Victorians, he is best known for establishing a new form of biography in which psychological insight and sympathy are combined with irreverence and wit. His 1921 biography Queen Victoria was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.

Life and career[edit]


Strachey was born on 1 March 1880, at Stowey House, Clapham Common, London, the fifth son and the eleventh child of Lieutenant General Sir Richard Strachey, an officer in the colonial British armed forces, and his second wife, the former Jane Grant, who became a leading supporter of the women's suffrage movement. He was named "Giles Lytton" after an early sixteenth-century Gyles Strachey and the first Earl of Lytton, who had been a friend of Richard Strachey's when he was Viceroy of India in the late 1870s. The Earl of Lytton was also Lytton Strachey's godfather.[2] The Stracheys had thirteen children in total, ten of whom survived to adulthood, including Lytton's sister Dorothy Strachey.

When Lytton was four years old, the family moved from Stowey House to 69 Lancaster Gate, north of Kensington Gardens.[3] This would be their home until Sir Richard Strachey retired twenty years later.[4] Lady Strachey was an enthusiast for languages and literature, making her children perform their own plays and write verse from early ages. She thought that Lytton had potential to become a great artist so she decided that he would receive the best education possible to be "enlightened".[5] By 1887 he had begun the study of French, a culture he would admire during his entire life.[2]

Strachey was educated at a series of schools, beginning at Parkstone, Dorset. This was a small school with a wide range of after class activities, where Strachey would exceed the other students' acting skills, being particularly convincing when portraying female parts. He would even tell his mother how much he liked dressing as a woman in real life so as to confuse and entertain others.[6] Lady Strachey decided in 1893 that her son should start a more serious education, sending him to the Abbotsholme School in Rocester, Derbyshire where students were required to do manual work on a daily basis. Strachey's fragile physique couldn't take it and after few months he was transferred to Leamington College, where he would be victim of savage bullying.[2][7] Sir Richard was tired of his son's delicate personality, so he told him to "grin and bear the petty bullying".[8] Strachey did eventually adapt to the school's life, becoming one of its best students. His health also seemed to improve during the three years he spent at Leamington, although various illnesses continued to plague him.[9]

When in 1897 Strachey turned seventeen, Lady Strachey decided that her son was ready to leave school and go to university, but because she thought he was yet too young for Oxford she decided that he should first attend a smaller institution – the University of Liverpool. There Strachey befriended his Professor of Modern Literature, Walter Raleigh, who, besides being his favourite lecturer, also became the most influential figure in his life before he went up to Cambridge. In 1899 Strachey took the Christ Church scholarship examination, wanting to get into Balliol College, Oxford. The examiners determined that Strachey's academic achievements were not remarkable. Moreover, they were struck by his "shyness and nervousness".[10] They recommended Lincoln College as a more suitable institution for Strachey, advice that Lady Strachey took as an insult, deciding then that her son would attend Trinity College, Cambridge instead.[11]

Sons and daughters of Sir Richard Strachey and Lady Strachey. Left to right: Marjorie, Dorothea, Lytton, Joan Pernel, Oliver, Dick, Ralph, Philippa, Elinor, James.


Strachey was admitted as Pensioner at Trinity College, Cambridge, on 30 September 1899.[12] He became an Exhibitioner in 1900 and a Scholar in 1902. He won the Chancellor's Medal for English Verse in 1902 and was given a B.A. degree after he had won a second-class in the History Tripos in June 1903. He did not, however, take leave of Trinity but remained until October 1905 to work on a thesis which he hoped would gain him a Fellowship.[2] Strachey was often ill and had to leave Cambridge repeatedly to recover from the palpitations that would subdue him.[13]

The Cambridge period was a happy and productive one in Strachey's life. Among the freshmen at Trinity there were three with whom Strachey soon became closely associated: Clive Bell, Leonard Woolf and Saxon Sydney-Turner. With another undergraduate, A. J. Robertson, the students formed a group called "The Midnight Society" which, in the opinion of Clive Bell, was the source of the Bloomsbury Group.[14] Strachey also belonged to the "Conversazione Society," the famous "Cambridge Apostles" to which Tennyson, Hallam, Maurice, and Sterling had once belonged. The Cambridge period was also one in which Strachey was highly prolific in writing verse, much of which has been preserved and some of which was published at the time. At Cambridge Strachey also became acquainted with other men who would greatly influence him like G. Lowes Dickinson, John Maynard Keynes, Walter Lamb (brother of painter Henry Lamb), George Mallory, Bertrand Russell, and G. E. Moore. Moore's philosophy, with its assumption that the summum bonum lies in achieving a high quality of humanity, in experiencing delectable states of mind, and in intensifying experience by contemplating great works of art, was a particularly important influence.[2]

In the summer of 1903 Strachey applied for a position in the Education Department of the Civil Service. Even though the letters of recommendation written for him by those under whom he had studied showed that he was held in high esteem by those at Cambridge, he failed to get the appointment and decided to try for a fellowship in Trinity College.[2] He spent from 1903 to 1905 writing his four hundred page thesis on Warren Hastings, which was not very well received among the scholars of his time.[2]

A painting by Carrington of the "Mill House", Tidmarsh, Pangbourne, on the upper Thames, where much of Queen Victoria was written.

Beginnings of his career[edit]

When in the autumn of 1905 he left Trinity College, his mother assigned him a bed-sitting room at 69 Lancaster Gate. After the family moved to 67 Belsize Gardens in Hampstead and later to another house in the same street, he was assigned other bed-sitters.[2] But, as he was about to turn 30, family life started irritating him, and he took to travelling to the country more often, supporting himself by writing reviews and critical articles for The Spectator and other periodicals. About 1910–11 he spent some time at Saltsjöbaden, near Stockholm in Sweden. In this period he also lived for a while in a cottage on Dartmoor and about 1911–12 spent a whole winter at East Ilsley on the Berkshire Downs. During this time he decided to grow a beard, which would become his most characteristic feature.[2] On 9 May 1911, he wrote to his mother:

"The chief news is that I have grown a beard! Its colour is very much admired, and it is generally considered extremely effective, though some ill-bred persons have been observed to laugh. It is a red-brown of the most approved tint, and makes me look like a French decadent poet—or something equally distinguished."[15]

In 1911, H. A. L. Fisher, a former president of the British Academy and of the Board of Education, was in search of someone to write a short, one-volume survey of French literature. Fisher had read one of Strachey's reviews ("Two Frenchmen", Independent Review (1903)) and asked him to write a sketch in fifty thousand words, giving him J. W. Mackail's 1909 Latin Literature as a model.[2] Landmarks in French Literature, dedicated to "J[ane] M[aria] S[trachey]," his mother, was published on 12 January 1912. Despite almost a full column of praise in its honour in The Times Literary Supplement of 1 February and sales, that by April 1914, had reached nearly 12,000 copies in the British Empire and America, the book brought Strachey neither the fame he craved nor the money which he so badly needed.[2]

Eminent Victorians and later career[edit]

Soon after the publication of Landmarks, Strachey's mother and his friend Harry Norton[16] supported him financially. Each provided him with £100 which, together with earnings from the Edinburgh Review and from other periodicals, made it possible for him to rent a small, thatched cottage called "The Lacket" outside the village of Lockeridge, near Marlborough, Wiltshire. Here he established himself until 1916 and wrote the first three parts of Eminent Victorians.[2]

Strachey's theory of biography was now fully developed and mature. He was greatly influenced by Dostoyevsky, whose novels Strachey had been reading and reviewing as they appeared in Constance Garnett's translations. Also the influence of Freud would be important on Strachey's later works, most notably on Elizabeth and Essex.[2]

Jonathan Pryce as Strachey, Steven Waddington as Ralph Partridge and Emma Thompson as Dora Carrington in the film Carrington

In 1916 Lytton Strachey was back in London living with his mother at 6 Belsize Park Gardens, Hampstead, where she had now moved. In the late autumn of 1917, however, his brother Oliver and his friends Harry Norton, John Maynard Keynes, and Saxon Sydney-Turner agreed to pay the rent on "The Mill House" at Tidmarsh, near Pangbourne, Berkshire. After the success of Eminent Victorians, published on 9 May 1918, he needed no help from outside. He continued to live at Tidmarsh until the proceeds from Queen Victoria (1921) made it possible for him to buy Ham Spray House near Marlborough, Wiltshire, to which he moved in July 1924, and which was his home for the rest of his life.[2]

At Cambridge he had become close friends with non-Apostles Thoby Stephen and Clive Bell, and they, together with sisters Vanessa and Virginia Stephen (later Bell and Woolf respectively), eventually formed the Bloomsbury group. From 1904 to 1914 Strachey contributed book and drama reviews to The Spectator magazine.

During World War I he applied for recognition as a conscientious objector, but in the event was granted exemption from military service on health grounds. He spent much time with like-minded people such as Lady Ottoline Morrell and the 'Bloomsberries'. His first great success, and his most famous achievement, was Eminent Victorians (1918), a collection of four short biographies of Victorian heroes. This work was followed in the same style by Queen Victoria (1921). He died of (then undiagnosed) stomach cancer at age 51 at Ham Spray House, at Ham in Wiltshire.

Dora Carrington and Lytton Strachey at Ham Spray

Though Strachey spoke openly about his homosexuality with his Bloomsbury friends (he had a relationship with John Maynard Keynes, who also was part of the Bloomsbury group), it was not widely publicised until the late 1960s, in a biography by Michael Holroyd. He had an unusual relationship with the painter Dora Carrington. She loved him and they lived together from 1917 until his death.[17] In 1921 Carrington agreed to marry Ralph Partridge, not for love but to secure the three-way relationship.[18] She committed suicide two months after Strachey's death. Strachey himself had been much more interested sexually in Partridge, as well as in various other young men,[19] including a secret sadomasochistic relationship with Roger Senhouse (later the head of publisher Secker & Warburg).[20] Strachey's letters, edited by Paul Levy, were published in 2005.

In popular culture[edit]

Strachey was portrayed by Jonathan Pryce in the 1995 film Carrington. At the 1995 Cannes Film Festival, Carrington won the Jury Prize and Pryce won Best Actor for his performance. In the 2003 film Al sur de Granada, Strachey was portrayed by James Fleet.

Virginia Woolf's husband Leonard Woolf said that in her experimental novel, The Waves, "there is something of Lytton in Neville". Lytton is also said to be the inspiration behind the character of St. John Hirst in her novel The Voyage Out. Michael Holroyd describes Strachey as the inspiration behind Cedric Furber in Wyndham Lewis' The Self-Condemned. In Wyndham Lewis' novel The Apes of God, he is seen in the character of Matthew Plunkett, whom Holroyd describes as "a maliciously distorted and hilarious caricature of Lytton".[21] In the Terminus Note in E. M. Forster's Maurice, Forster remarks that the Cambridge undergraduate Risley in the novel is based on Strachey.


Academic and biographies[edit]

Posthumous publications[edit]



  1. ^ Lytton Strachey, Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary. Accessed 23 August 2013.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n "Lytton Strachey: his mind and art," Charles Richard Sanders. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957.
  3. ^ Since May 1959, the Strachey's old home has been part of Douglas House, the large American Forces Club which now occupies Nos. 66–71 Lancaster Gate.
  4. ^ "Lytton Strachey: A Biography," Michael Holroyd. Penguin Literary Biographies, 1971. (ISBN 0-374-52465-3)
  5. ^ "My Commonplace Book," Mary Stocks. Peter Stocks, 1970.
  6. ^ Holroyd, 72–73.
  7. ^ Holroyd, 93.
  8. ^ Holroyd, 94.
  9. ^ Holroyd, 96.
  10. ^ Holroyd, 129.
  11. ^ Holroyd, 130.
  12. ^ "Strachey, Giles Lytton (STRY899GL)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge. 
  13. ^ Holroyd, 147–153.
  14. ^ Holroyd, 136–137.
  15. ^ The Letters of Lytton Strachey (ed. Paul Levy, 2005) (ISBN 0-670-89112-6)
  16. ^ Henry Tertius James Norton, the "H.T.J.N.", to whom Eminent Victorians is dedicated
  17. ^ Holroyd, 447.
  18. ^ Holroyd, 485.
  19. ^ Frances Partridge, Bloomsbury groupie – Guardian Unlimited Retrieved on 23 December-2007.
  20. ^ "Bloomsbury's final secret",
  21. ^ Rintoul, M. C. (1993). Dictionary of Real People and Places in Fiction. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-05999-2. 
  22. ^ Google books Retrieved 23 December 2012

Further reading

External links[edit]