Lytton Strachey

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It is not [the biographer's] business to be complimentary; it is his business to lay bare the facts of the case, as he understands them...dispassionately, impartially, and without ulterior motives.

Giles Lytton Strachey (1 March 188021 January 1932) was an English biographer, critic and leading light of the Bloomsbury group. He is seen by some as the founder of the modern "debunking" school of biography.


  • To us, with our broader outlook, our more complicated interests, our more elusive moods, their small bright world is apt to seem uninteresting and out of date, unless we spend some patient sympathy in the discovery of the real charm and the real beauty that it contains.
    • Landmarks in French Literature (1912), ch. 4.
  • [His reply to the chairman's other stock question, which had previously never failed to embarrass the claimant: "Tell me, Mr. Strachey, what would you do if you saw a German soldier trying to violate your sister?" With an air of noble virtue:] "I would try to get between them."
    • Reported in Robert Graves Good-bye to All That (1929), ch. 23.
    • Said during the First World War to a military tribunal assessing his claim to be treated as a conscientious objector. Variants along the lines of "I should try to interpose my body" are also sometimes quoted.
  • If this is dying, then I don't think much of it.
    • Reported in Michael Holroyd Lytton Strachey (1967–68) Vol. 2, part 2, ch. 6.
    • Said on his deathbed.
  • 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.
    • Preface.
  • The art of biography seems to have fallen on evil times in England. … With us, the most delicate and humane of all the branches of the art of writing has been relegated to the journeymen of letters; we do not reflect that it is perhaps as difficult to write a good life as to live one.
    • Preface.
  • It is not [the biographer's] business to be complimentary; it is his business to lay bare the facts of the case, as he understands them...dispassionately, impartially, and without ulterior motives.
    • Preface.


  • Madame, I am the civilization they are fighting for.
    • Supposedly said by Strachey in response to a woman who demanded he "fight for civilization" in World War One.

See Martin Ceadel, Pacifism in Britain:The Defining of a Faith. Oxford University Press, 1980 (p. 45) and Holroyd, Michael (1967). Lytton Strachey: A Critical Biography, 2 vols., London (vol.I, p. 416). The actual quote, in a slightly different form, was said by H. W Garrod: " Madam, I am the civilization they are fighting to defend".See Bartlett's Book of Anecdotes, eds. Clifton Fadiman & André Bernard (1985; Little, Brown & Co., 2000), (p. 228).

Quotes about Strachey

  • In a recently published volume—the most trenchant and brilliant series of biographical and historical studies which I have read for a long time—Mr. Lytton Strachey, under the modest title 'Eminent Victorians', has put on his canvas four figures (as unlike one another as any four people could be), Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale, Dr. Arnold, and General Gordon. None of the four can be said to have contributed much of permanent importance to the literature or art or science of their time; but each of them, in his or her day, was a prominent and potent personality; and perhaps one may be allowed to say that they are in less danger than ever of being forgotten, now that they have been re-created for the English readers of the future (not in a spirit of blind hero-worship) by Mr. Strachey's subtle and suggestive art.
  • I would not have his books in my house.
  • One observed a number of discordant features – a feminine sensibility, a delight in the absurd, a taste for exaggeration and melodrama, a very mature judgement and then some lack of human substance, some hereditary thinness in the blood that at times gave people who met him an odd feeling in the spine. He seemed almost indecently lacking in ordinariness.
    • Gerald Brenan, "Bloomsbury in Spain and England", in S. P. Rosenbaum (ed.), The Bloomsbury Group (1995), p. 347
  • Whether or not its immediate success may be ascribed the post-war disillusionment with formerly accepted values and institutions, Eminent Victorians rapidly and solidly established itself as a biographical classic. Rarely, if ever, had psychological penetration, a talent for dramatic depiction of character, and a brilliant style been employed together to better effect. In the space of two hundred pages, by what Asquith called his "subtle and suggestive art," Strachey succeeded in re-absorbing English biography into the realm of literature. Not that the chorus of acclaim was unanimous or wholehearted. Almost everyone, then and now, was and is willing to grant Strachey stylistic excellence. But in the forty years since the first appearance of Eminent Victorians, the book has been under more or less continuous and vehement attack; and has, in turn, been no less vigorously defended.
    • John Clive, 'More or Less Eminent Victorians: Some Trends in Recent Victorian Biography', Victorian Studies, Vol. 2, No. 1 (September 1958), p. 7
  • To mark a man's faults and failings was, for Johnson, to indicate where he had diverged from his true relation to God; for Strachey it was an agreeable intellectual pastime, which flattered his sense of superiority both to his subject and to the illusion-ridden mob.
  • I've been reading Eminent Victorians... It seems to me downright wicked in its heart.
    • Rudyard Kipling, quoted in Charles Carrington, Rudyard Kipling: His Life and Work (1955; 1970), p. 553
  • Felt the virtues of the Victorian times so condemned by Mr Strachey. The simple honesties can always be made a butt by the impish unrealiabilites.
    • Ramsay MacDonald on Strachey's biography of Queen Victoria; diary entry (23 April 1921), quoted in David Marquand, Ramsay MacDonald [1977] (1997), p. 246
  • I remember how those who had appreciated only the wittily destructive portions of Eminent Victorians rubbed their hands in delighted anticipation of Queen Victoria. Now, the cynical Mr. Strachey would fairly let himself go, with the real Aunt Sally for his target. Mr. Strachey did nothing of the kind. If ever a great character was handled tenderly, with an insight tempered by affection, it was the Queen Victoria of his biography. His beautiful final paragraph was but the culmination of an attitude he had steadily maintained. And it is surely not too much to say that he changed the mind not only of his contemporaries but of his seniors about the central figure of a great era.
  • Pass a person through your mind, with all the documents, and see what comes out. That seems to be your method. Also, choose them, in the first place, because you dislike them.
    • Walter Raleigh, letter to Lytton Strachey, May 8, 1918. Published in The Letters of Walter Raleigh (1879-1922) (1926) Vol. 2, p. 479
  • I consider the whole Bloomsbury group—excepting only J. M. Keynes—to be the most overrated literary phenomenon of our times. Above all, Lytton Strachey: Strachey who has recently been accorded a two-volume biography, and whose only achievement was to trivialize history, to empty it of its real content and meaning, in order to raise a few complacent titters from the radical chic of his time.
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