Lytton Strachey is one of the key figures in the cultural life of the twentieth century and his letters are a literary treasure-trove of the man and his world, as well as a record of the startling and poignant love-affair between himself and the painter Dora Carrington. ... Read more
The breadth of his correspondence is breathtaking, going from precocious childhood letters to those written when he was a member of the secret Cambridge Apostles, and from letters to Leonard and Virginia Woolf, to Maynard Keynes and other members of the Bloomsbury Group, to love letters to Dora Carrington and Duncan Grant. The thousands of letters he wrote retain their vitality to this day, discussing changes in morals, the writing of history, literature and philosophy, politics, war and peace, and the advent of modernism.
Strachey believed that one only really comes to know a writer by reading his correspondence, and if these playful, provocative, and eminently sensible letters attest to anything, it is to the soundness of this belief.
Customer Reviews (4)
I'm not quite sure what I can say here to someone considering this volume and not already a devotee of that rum Bloomsbury lot.I should say this collection is, by turns, tedious and droll.Also, as to editor Paul Levy, while he performs admirably in his assiduous task of indentifying all the now forgotten personages in these letters, he also makes clear his own viewpoints: He thinks that Strachey should like Joyce's Ulysses, but Strachey doesn't.He thinks Strachey shouldn't like Bertrand Russell, Strachey does, etc. - It's not exactly disinterested scholarship in which Levy indulges himself herein. - Also, especially in the early going here, there is much ado about buggery and more buggery (I think I can get away with mentioning this fact, so stated, in an American review.)Just, you know, be forewarned.
As one would expect from the author of Eminent Victorians, there are some succulent bon mots here:
The economist John Maynard Keys is described thusly: "That there should be anyone in the world so utterly devoid of poetry is sufficiently distracting;" The younger "Great War" poems and writers are given this flip evaluation: "It seems appropriate that they should all have such watery names, these young fellows.There's Brooke and Drinkwater and De la Mare - what can one hope from such an assemblage? - Except that they'll be patronized by a Marsh!"
But, on the whole, this selection of missives has left me rather flat.It seems to me that one learns much more about Strachey by reading Eminent Victorians than by reading these quotidian, sometimes rebarbative, letters.I feel, having spent a week reading this lengthy collection, almost exactly as Strachey says he does in a letter to Lady Ottoline Morrell after reading a book about "The Souls", a now forgotten group of 19th Century wits: "As usual, it struck me that letters were the only satisfactory form of literature.They give one the facts so amazingly, don't they?I felt when I got to the end that I'd lived for years in that set.But oh dearie me I'm glad that I'm NOT in it!"
The original slacker
Lytton Strachey, largely forgotten now, was once famous for his biographical sketches, which today look like crude caricatures; for his style, which today seems mechanical and gimmicky; and for his literary criticism, so perverse it is as entertaining now as it has ever been.One of his heroes was Pope (not the Holy Father, but the 18th century English poet who has since slipped into oblivion and will not be troubling us again).
In this volume, Paul Levy provides succinct, useful and not overly tendentious annotations for the letters he has selected from Strachey's voluminous correspondence.The letters themselves are disappointing, consisting mostly of bland gossip interspersed with feeble ("yo mama") put-downs that do nothing to enhance Strachey's reputation for fearsomeness.In fact, when fame and fortune descend on Strachey mid-way through this volume he begins to mellow out and in time becomes almost sweet.But with the advent of the sinister Senhouse the letters become disturbing, and remain so, right to the bitter end.
If one takes these letters at face value, Strachey is forever going to parties in order to subject himself to the conversation of imbeciles and terrible bores.(He seems to get huge enjoyment out of making nasty remarks about anyone and everyone--surely a dangerous occupation for a valetudinarian bookworm who resembles nothing so much as a grasshopper.Small wonder he is so out of sympathy with his doppelganger, Aldous Huxley!)He pretends to despise the upper classes and the rich, whose hospitality he regularly accepts.(In a letter to his mom, he gleefully boasts that he is off for "a weekend at the Duchess of Marlborough's!")
In these letters, Strachey shows himself to be thoroughly bourgeois, whether he is bemoaning the loss of his custom-tailored shirts, being exasperated at the servants, gloating over his book sales or luxuriating in his grand new bed in his comfortable country home.
To be fair to him, though, his complacency and superciliousness do now and again give way to an acute consciousness of his limitations, as a writer and as a person.And the reader who can endure the tedium and soldier on to the end of the book will find it difficult not to feel some sympathy for a man who, convinced deep down he was unlovable, so desperately longed to be loved.
Fascinating correspondence by one of Bloomsbury's most eloquent and interesting members
These letters by Lytton Strachey, writer and member of the Bloomsbury group of artists, reveal much about the man, the time in which he lived, and the circle of artists with which he surrounded himself. I've read several reviews about this book in which Strachey is described as an old maid of a man spending his time doing nothing but reading books and complaining about his health. However, this collection of his personal correspondence reveals him to be much more complex than that.
In several ways he seems to be a very tragic figure. For one, he is deeply in love with someone with whom, due to his homosexuality, he will never be sexually compatible - Dora Carrington - and he is sexually compatible with a series of people with whom the love part of the relationship never quite comes off. Although his many letters to Carrington often talk about his travels and the practical matters of the household that they shared for 15 years, there are at least three or four that are genuine love letters uncomparable to any that he wrote to any of his lovers, including Roger Senhouse, with whom he was involved the last six or so years of his life.
The other great tragedy of Strachey's life was the misdiagnosis of his final illness, a stomach cancer that grew until it ultimately perforated his colon and killed him in 1932. According to his letters, he began to have signs of this illness starting in 1929, but his various physicians always attributed his vague symptoms to a series of minor ailments, usually prescribing such things as suppositories and doing nothing more to properly diagnose and treat the problem. Strachey did suffer bouts of illness throughout his life, and perhaps the fact that he had never suffered from anything serious before caused his physicians to not take him seriously when he did finally become gravely ill.
Strachey is at his best in his correspondence when he is pouring out his heart about something for which he cares deeply. For example, he writes some very elegant prose on his attitudes toward the first World War, why he was against it, and why he was willing to go to jail rather than serve its cause. I only wish that more of his correspondence had been about current events in England during his lifetime. His approach to the whole matter of refusing to serve in the war effort was a risky one, since he refused to be dishonest and just say that he was against all wars - he wasn't. He was simply adamantly opposed to this one particular war. On top of that, he was asking for a medical exemption based on his poor health that would find him completely unfit for service, even a desk job on the home front.Miraculously, he pulls this off and is found totally medically unfit, although the exact diagnosis of the military doctors is not given in his correspondence. This leads to one of the great conundrums of Strachey's life - how could someone who claimed to be so ill and who also convinced the military of this manage to travel throughout Europe as he often did and even embark on strenuous walking tours such as the one he took with Dora Carrington in Wales the same year he was exempted from military service?
Strachey has an intriguing and very often mischievous writing style whether he is gossiping about the personal lives of the other members of Bloomsbury, talking about his own work and his feelings toward its quality, or giving his opinion about the artistic works of the other members of Bloomsbury. If you are the least bit interested in the Bloomsbury group of artists, about Lytton Strachey himself, or the times in which Strachey lived, I highly recommend this collection of letters.
More Insight into the World of Bloomsbury
This is quite an interesting collection of Strachey's letters, covering the entire period of his life (1880-1932), but most were written after 1900.Today, Strachey is most familiar as a result of Holroyd's fine biography and the film "Carrington." But as I have mentioned in other Amazon reviews, reading a subject's letters to me is the best way to really understand the person, whether it be Henry Adams, Hannah Arendt, or Justice Holmes. The collection is replete with letters to such Bloomsbury personages as Virginia Woolf, Keynes, Ottoline Morrell, James Strachey, Duncan Grant, E.M. Forster, Vanessa Bell, Desmond MacCarthy, Clive Bell, and of course Dora Carrington. Along the way we learn much about the Cambridge Apostles, Strachey's working patterns, and his sexual proclivities. The editor (author of the fine biography of G.E. Moore and co-executor of Strachey's literary estate) has a definitive command of the personalities involved, the larger context of England during this first third of the 20th century, and the intellectual world in which Strachey functioned. His notes crisply identify ambiguous references in the letters and add a lot to the enjoyment of the volume.A very useful addition to the literature on Bloomsbury.
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