Every book on the history of biography that I have read has pointed to Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey as the first modern work of the literary form. Strachey shocked the book world and cultured society with this book that was not laudatory of the dead. He is credited with giving biographers the charge to sketch out characters instead of chronicle all their deeds and to tell the truth. Of course, the truth was a problem for Strachey, too, as his methods and exclusions have been questioned ever since. Imperfect as the book is, the historians agree, he changed the form and tone of biography.
Strachey wrote Eminent Victorians during World War I, and it was published about four months before the end of the war. "The End of General Gordon" doubles as biography and a criticism of the British military. Other chapters portray three other seemingly random British citizens of the Victorian era. In his introduction, Strachey indicates they were just people who interested him.
The first chapter profiles Henry Edward Manning (1808-1892) who left a prominent position in the Church of England to ultimately become a Roman Catholic cardinal and important person in both London and Rome. Strachey describes Manning as mostly a political figure who was not especially concerned about theology. On two occasions Manning betrays his close friend John Henry Newman, who also became a cardinal. Newman dies a somewhat forgotten figure.
The second chapter profiles Florence Nightingale (1820-1910). Strachey tells how she could manipulate people and influence public policy, but he actually seems to admire her. He tells much about her youth and her years after the Crimean War.
Strachey does not admire Thomas Arnold (1795-1842), who is famous as a Victorian historian and educator. The author describes Arnold as a headmaster of Rugby School who had very little interaction with his students other than his lengthy Sunday sermons. For his students, he rejected the study of physical science and modern languages and did not think the archaeology of Pompeii significant or interesting. Moral and religious education was all that mattered. He sounds a dullard.
The last chapter tells the story of General Charles George Gordon (1833-1885) who died in Khartoum after a long siege by Sudanese warlords wishing to expel the British and Egyptians. The chapter seems to really be more history than biography, as we learn little about Gordon other than his imperialistic attitude, overwhelming confidence in British forces, and feeling of guilt for executing two unsuccessful Egyptian officers.
Strachey says in his introduction that readers know very much about the Victorian era and wrote with that assumption. Of course, ninety years later that is no longer true. Twenty-first century readers will get lost in some sections, as they have little idea of what Strachey writes. Skim or skip. When the author gets to the action the stories become lively.
Eminent Victorians will be enjoyed by "Great Books" readers.
Strachey, Lytton. Eminent Victorians. New York: Oxford World Classics, 2003. ISBN 0192801589