Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians offers a superlative example of comparative biography. First published in 1918, Strachey's account of four Victorian lives anticipates the First World War, and thereby constitutes a look back in anger at an idealistic and superstitious period in British history; Strachey, however, never states an official theme beyond form: he aims to revitalize biography, and paints his subjects in hues of faith-fueled vanity. The author also demonstrates that the Victorian moral ethos failed to free his four subjects from the peculiar eccentricities that often accompany powerful men and women. The book begins with Cardinal Manning--an Anglican convert to the Roman Church, and a man who abandons his Anglican patriotism out of fear of modernity. Florence Nightingale and Doctor Arnold receive kinder treatments, though Strachey's pen retains a distrustful style, even for these two populist saints. Strachey ends his book with the violent life and death of General Gordon, a British officer and Christian mystic whose force of personality draws him towards a violent and foolish death in the deserts of Sudan. In a rare moment of analytic weakness, Strachey understates the brutality of Gordon's involvement in the Taiping Rebellion; in human terms, the war cost more lives than any civil war in history. Twenty to thirty million individuals perished either from plague, famine, or violence, and yet Strachey's account sounds a little too tidy--Gordon escapes the conflict with little more than a nickname: "Chinese Gordon." Surely the scale of the violence Gordon witnessed as a young man influenced his later actions elsewhere in the British Empire.
Strachey's book remains an entertaining read. His use of biography--cradle to grave for each of the four--naturally attracts the human mind and modern attention. He portrays ambition, violence, and political intrigue not as a game of chess, but as a great wave that crashes over all of England, and leaves but a few human beings standing, and all of humanity soaked. Eminent Victorians remains a necessary book in the 21st century due to the usefulness of its comparative structure, as well as its probative psychological insights into the Victorian mind.
I hope that an enterprising editor might attempt to add footnotes and historical references to the book--Strachey assumes a familiarity that modern readers cannot possibly posses. Such difficulty should not dissuade readers from attempting to read the 'classic' editions of the book. But it probably will. Publishers: hire an editor and give the book another run.