1993-05-02: Eminent Victorians

Eminent Victorians

by Lytton Strachey (1880-1932)

This book was identified by Paul Johnson (Modern Times) as the beginning of a deliberate attempt to undermine the values of the Victorian Age, and to replace them with G.E. Moore’s ideas of “non-responsible hedonism based on personal relationships”. He does so using the vehicle of biographical essays on four prominent Victorians.

The essay on Cardinal Manning describes the conversion of a prominent cleric from the Anglican church to the Roman Catholic. In detailing the social context of the conversion, Strachey raises many points (the words and actions of various people of the time, and the Oxford Movement for correcting the errors of the Anglican church) which must have created doubts in his readers of the legitimacy of the established church.

There is considerable detail about doctrine which might lead to a good case study of the memetics behind the differences between the two churches, though Strachey was certainly selective with the material. The straw that apparently broke Manning’s faith was the Royal Supremacy over the Anglican church. The fact that a board of lawyers, empowered by “an Act of Parliament, passed by Jews, Roman Catholics, and dissenters” could overturn a clerical decision meant to him that the Anglican church was a mere convenience for the Monarch, and not a legitimate path for the transmission of the Christian faith.

After his conversion, Manning’s path to the highest Roman Catholic position in England is described with all the attendant political machinations (which in fact began beforehand). That church was at the time divided into the Old Catholics and the flood of converts (many quite prominent) fromthe Oxford Movement. The political side of the church can hardly have inspired the same faith as its theology.

Strachey mentions the official Roman adoption of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, but spends a great many more words on the question of Papal infallibility. Again, the description of the political and diplomatic maneuvering appears calculated to cast the entire question, and the motivations for entertaining it, in the worst possible light.

The effect of the essay must have been to reduce respect for both the Anglican and Roman churches in England, portraying them as collections of little fiefdoms, jealously protected by the established temporal powers.

The essay on Florence Nightingale begins by describing the difficulties she had in breaking out of the social constraints imposed on an independent-minded woman in the early 1800’s. By the age of 33 she had broken down her own family’s resistance and was working as a nurse. Shortly thereafter she was on her way to the military hospitals of the Crimean War. Her efforts there are mainly described in terms of her limitless energy in fighting against the bureaucratic obstacles of the military and political establishments. Many anecdotes describe the self-serving stupidity of individuals and bureaucracies. After her return to England, though very ill, she continued to fight for the indisputably good end of effective health care against the self-interest of the political establishment. In describing in some detail the personalities and particulars of these battles, Strachey imbues the establishment representatives with the indisputably bad motives of self-interest and class prejudice. The essay ends with Nightingale’s own decline, but points up the effectiveness of myth on the public mind, and the power of public opinion over politicians and bureaucrats.

The result of the essay should have been to make its readers doubt the motives behind the actions of the military and political bureaucracies, and of the individuals occupying them. It should also have somewhat generated sympathy for the poor foot-soldier whose welfare (particularly once he was wounded) was made to seem a matter of disinterest to the military commanders.

The essay on Dr Arnold describes the career at Rugby of the man who transformed the English public-school system. Before Arnold, the typical school was run by liberal use and threat of the whip, to maintain discipline among boys who no doubt saw little point in learning Latin and Greek. Arnold, a devout and pious man, took a high moral tone and led by example. He delegated actual discipline to Sixth-form boys, and seems to have succeeded in changing the attitude of boys at Rugby and, by example, elsewhere. Indeed nothing Strachey says about Arnold seems in the least negative, except that he seems to have been too pious for Strachey, and did not introduce enough reforms in the curriculum.

It is not until the last paragraph of the essay that Strachey criticizes by implication. He points out that the system of allowing the senior boys to discipline the younger has the weakness of the disciplinarians themselves. It often degenerates into arbitrary autocracy, and led to the emphasis on personal loyalty among the boys, reverence for the school colors and the tyranny of athletics. Whether Stachey himself suffered from the effects of the system we don’t know, but by implication these emphases are the ones that motivated Victorian gentlemen and officers, and therefor go some way to explain how England got into such a stupid war in 1914.

In the essay on General Gordon, Strachey describes the politics, bureaucracy and misguided motives of imperial policy, using the debacle of Khartoum as his example. Gordon’s career is described, giving the impression of a completely unsuitable person to have been sent to evacuate Khartoum, but who was sent anyway. The reaction of British politicians and civil servants to Gordon’s actions and ¬the predicament he created for himself are described in sufficient detail to condemn them. In the end, Britain did what Gordon tried to get them to do, to the glory of other men. In the process, he paints an unflattering portrait of the hero Gordon himself.

The effect of the essay ought to have been to undermine public opinion in the rightness of the motives behind Britain’s imperial actions, and the entanglements created between British governors and the corrupt native administrations they dealt through. In the aftermath of the war, these doubts could easily be justified in the light of the terrible waste of the war.

Strachey’s four essays address four aspects of British society: religion, the military health bureacracy, education and the bureaucracy of imperialism. Taken together, they must have acted to erode public confidence, not just in the men and policies they represented, but in the institutions which they represented, and which were still powerful influences in Britain. Followed by a group of skillful propagandists, the Cambridge men and women around Strachey, as they seem to have been, these essays could drive a wedge between the memes of the Victorian age and the people living in post-war England, and some other Western societies. The gap so formed could then be filled with the memes of the propagandists, supporting their own philosophies of public and private life. The effect seems to have been a weakening of public will to enforce the Treaty of Versailles, allowing the German build-up and leading to the 1938 war.


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