From Eminent Victorians to The Daily Show: The Art of Biography

I’ve finished re-reading Eminent Victorians and sit here in a fog of spice cookies and lemon glaze to make my report. I’ll begin by saying that twenty years ago my first reading of this wonderful series of biographical sketches was impoverished by the fact that I had no idea Strachey’s brand of biography was in the least unusual. And that, dear reader, is what I’d like to talk about today.

Strachey’s subjects are four Victorian notables, people who accomplished remarkable things in their lives, and who were models of probity and seriousness. I imagine that before Strachey came along these sorts of notables were written about as exemplars of virtue, as heroes. And although Strachey did see them this way, his contribution to the art of biography is that he also found all that energy and probity amusing and he wasn’t afraid to say so.

His piece on Florence Nightingale, the one woman in this group, is my favorite because he manages to give us her story straight and with sympathy and also to get across just how terrifyingly efficient and single-minded she was. This comes across throughout the sketch, but it gets particularly funny when Strachey talks about the period late in her life when Nightingale became interested in philosophical and theological questions or, as Strachey puts it, “Having set right the health of the British Army, she would now do the same good service for the religious convictions of mankind.”

And so she did, but in her own unique way. Here’s what Strachey has to say about that: “Yet her conception of God was certainly not orthodox. She felt towards Him as she might have felt towards a glorified sanitary engineer; and in some of her speculations she seems hardly to distinguish between the Deity and the Drains. As one turns over these singular pages, one has the impression that Miss Nightingale has got the Almighty too into her clutches, and that, if He is not careful, she will kill Him with overwork.”

The Victorian age also saw the conversions of Newman and Manning to Catholicism, a serious enough topic. What’s wonderful about Eminent Victorians is that Strachey finds the ecclesiastical establishment as amusingly hypocritical as Trollope did. Here’s a description of Cardinal Manning’s machinations in Rome, as he maneuvered himself closer to power by ingratiating himself with the Pope’s private secretary, Monsignor Talbot. It’s a long passage, and I don’t want to just dump it on you, but it’s worth reading, because it’s very typical of the sort of thing Strachey does so well:

“Monsignor Talbot was a priest who embodied in a singular manner, if not the highest, at least the most persistent traditions of the Roman Curia. He was a master of various arts which the practice of ages had brought to perfection under the friendly shadow of the triple tiara. He could mingle together astuteness and holiness without any difficulty; he could make innuendoes as naturally as an ordinary man makes statements of fact; he could apply flattery with so unsparing a hand that even Princes of the Church found it sufficient. . . . With such accomplishments, it could hardly be expected that Monsignor Talbot should be remarkable either for a delicate sense of conscientiousness or for an extreme refinement of feeling, but then it was not for those qualities that Manning was in search when he went up the winding stair. He was looking for the man who had the ear of Pio Nono; and, on the other side of the low-arched door, he found him. Then he put forth all his efforts; his success was complete and an alliance began which was destined to have the profoundest effect upon Manning’s career, and was only dissolved when, many years later, Monsignor Talbot was unfortunately obliged to exchange his apartment in the Vatican for a private lunatic asylum at Passy.”

This is a description worthy of Mark Twain, who was a master of the deadpan moment at the end of a passage, and of the deployment of the rhetoric of seriousness to show just how utterly ridiculous a person or idea really was. The only thing is, Eminent Victorians is not fiction. And that’s Strachey’s achievement: he chose to be biting and amusing in a genre that, before he arrived, just didn’t do that kind of thing, or at least not as far as I know. It was as though he’d showed up at a society wedding wearing a swimsuit.

Although that was shocking then, we’ve pretty much come to see this sort of thing as the norm now, almost 100 years later. (Eminent Victorians came out in 1918.) There are, of course, outposts of high mindedness that could do with a little infusion of wit: academic writing (and no, I’m not talking about our academic friends like litlove, dorothy, ms. make tea, kate, the hob, my friend Catherine) and children’s textbooks, come immediately to mind. My own work writing about the law also calls out for more recognition of the ridiculousness of the human condition.

Okay, so here’s where I get to The Daily Show. If I had to point to someone who I think is a descendent of Strachey, I’d choose Jon Stewart (for those who don’t know: Jon Stewart is the very funny anchor of The Daily Show, the Comedy Central send-up of network news programs so good that many people use it as their primary source of television news.) Jon Stewart’s appeal is that he’s working in a medium that demands its subjects be treated with gravity, and he refuses to deliver that. He gives us something better, of course: he gives us the raised eyebrow.

Stewart’s subjects, of course, aren’t anything like the Victorians, people who, though flawed and full of themselves, had some sense of ethics, and the public good. Instead, Stewart’s material includes people like George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld, people about whom there is no greatness, just banal and tragic incompetence. I suppose that might explain the absence of linguistic wit on the Daily Show. Words aren’t really necessary in the face of people like these. A laugh is guaranteed simply by repeating what they’ve said or done in public, and then raising an eyebrow and looking straight into the camera. Night after night, all Jon Stewart has to do to get a huge response is show someone from the Bush administration speaking and then ask, did he really say that?

So here’s my final thought.  One wonders: if Jon Stewart had different subjects with which to work, might he be able to rise above the eyebrow and really exploit his talent for wit, as Strachey did? As it is, ours does not appear to be the time for words, but a time when the raised eyebrow and the straight look are more than enough, because words are both too much and too little for the un-eminent figures of our new century.

Imminent Victorians

Okay, for starters, I know it’s Eminent Victorians. But it’s next up on my list of books to write about and so …. you know. (Sorry. Nothing is un-funnier than a pun somebody tries to explain.)

I’ll begin by saying that Eminent Victorians is part of a larger reading plan for this month, a month when I’d like to re-read a few things I first read in my twenties. I wonder how well those books will have worn twenty years later. I did this a bit over the spring and summer, and even gave it a name: the Madeleine Project. But I haven’t done as much of it as I’d like, and since it’s cold outside these days, and the fireplace looks so warm, and I’m taking things a little slower, it seems like an ideal month to re-read.  (In fact, I’ve just noticed I’m in great company:  Dorothy and Danielle have both written about books they’d like to re-read.)  

And now, on to the book: Eminent Victorians, for those who don’t know, is a series of biographical sketches written by one of the Bloomsbury notables, Lytton Strachey. I’ve always wondered how his last name is pronounced, so I googled it. It’s strakey, which rhymes with flakey. (As in, doesn’t post on a regular schedule, doesn’t stick to the same topic and has been known to make really stupid jokes.)

When I read Eminent Victorians twenty years ago, I loved the piece on Florence Nightingale (I even wrote down something about how Nightingale saw God as a glorified sanitary engineer and so she felt free to boss him around just like she bossed everybody else in Victorian England around.) And I had no idea things went so badly for General Gordon, having never heard of General Gordon and not knowing the British military had such a hard time of it after the American Revolution.

I was also unaware at the time that these sketches were considered sort of shockingly modern, something I’ve since discovered, mostly through reading about Strachey in the context of Virginia Woolf, who thought at one time she might marry him. (Good thing that passed, is all I can say.)

The copy I’ve got this time around is illustrated, so there are interesting pictures of the notables Strachey writes about. They certainly look stuffy –especially the ecclesiastical figures he spends a good part of the book talking about. Or maybe the pictures were chosen to emphasis all the Victorian stuffiness that Strachey was reacting against.

The question I’d like to answer is this: just exactly what did Strachey think “un-stuffy” looked like? Strachey, at least from his photographs and the things I’ve read about him in Virginia Woolf’s diaries, was a bit of a piece of work himself. So how he goes about kicking aside the traces really interests me.

I hope it interests you, too, because that’s what I’m devoting my next post to. (By the way, the sketch of Strachey you see at the beginning of the post is on the cover of his letters, which look quite interesting.)

Another Modernist Masterpiece

I love driving across the Bay Bridge under the following conditions:

  • there is so little traffic you suddenly think there’s been a nuclear conflagration further back and so everyone who lives in Orinda has decided to stay home for the day — or better yet, you’ve been transported to 1952 (except of course the problem there is that you’d be staying home for the day too, making tuna mousse in your flowered apron and wondering if it’s too early to start watching television)
  • it’s so clear you can see Japan or, if you’re a less romantic sort, Marin County
  • there’s something good playing on KFOG, a radio station where the people who speak into the microphone in the morning don’t yell things at you
  • you don’t have too much work waiting for you when you arrive and, possibly, there is the hope of a good lunch.

A few days ago, all those things, with the exception of nuclear conflagration and time travel, happened. (Which is good, because Orinda is where my friend Debby’s from, and where Maria and Lisa and Lisa’s lovely daughter in law and nice son with the new baby all can be found!) I took my camera out and pointed it in the general direction of the sky and there was the bridge, a modernist masterpiece if I’ve ever seen one. And no, it won’t sharpen a pencil or dispense tape, like its younger siblings (the ones that have been featured here for the last couple of weeks.) It is a stirring sight — you come out of a tunnel and there they are, these huge, beautiful spans for which the word “soaring” is actually accurate.

But I don’t think I’ll be trying to simulataneously steer my car and aim a camera again. The no- traffic thing is unlikely to be repeated under these same conditions in my lifetime.

I hope for all of you a workday that involves some patch of clear weather, or good music, or a nice lunch, or not too much to do when you sit down to do it.