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.)

The Madeleine Project: Tennyson’s Ulysses

Here’s a quiz for you: name one contemporary politician who inspired you to read a poem in its entirety.

For me: Ted Kennedy. It’s not a route to poetry I’d taken before (or since), but Kennedy’s invocation of Tennyson’s great dramatic monologue, Ulysses, at what was a clearly a watershed moment in Kennedy’s life, made a huge impression on me when I was twenty years old.

It was Tennyson to whom Kennedy turned in his keynote speech at the 1980 Democratic convention, a speech in which it was clear he would never be president, having failed to gain his party’s nomination. This is what he said:

“And someday, long after this convention, long after the signs come down, and the crowds stop cheering, and the bands stop playing, may it be said of our campaign that we kept the faith. May it be said of our party in 1980 that we found our faith again.

And may it be said of us, both in dark passages and in bright days, in the words of Tennyson that my brothers quoted and loved, and that have special meaning for me now:

I am a part of all that I have met
Tho much is taken, much abides
That which we are, we are –
One equal temper of heroic hearts strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

For me, a few hours ago, this campaign came to an end. For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”

I know there are a lot of things you can say about Kennedy, but when I was twenty I didn’t know anything about his many weaknesses. When I heard him speak, I understood that he was bidding farewell to some idea of himself and embarking on a new course, one he both welcomed and feared. And I think I also knew even then that I was listening to one of the last political figures who could comfortably refer to a long-dead poet in a significant speech. That he did so without apology or fanfare, as though this was the proper way to go about explaining himself, is something I have never forgotten. When I was twenty, one of my fears was that I would not be a good enough reader, surrounded as I was by a university full of practiced, confident readers. Kennedy seemed to be saying that one need not feel that way. That poetry belongs in a lot of places, not just in the academy. And from this, I came to see that we can trust our reactions to poetry; that there is no reason why we may not find our own meanings in what we read, without fear that we are not sophisticated enough to read properly.

Tennyson wrote this poem after the death of a loved friend. And it’s possible to hear, in the voice of Ulysses, Tennyson’s own struggle with loss and death. It’s also possible to misread the poem as nothing more than an exhortation to “carry on” in the face of sorrow. But there’s more than that going on. Ulysses is old and his life is nearing its end. His son is carrying on business in Ithaca. That all voyages take you closer to death is something Ulysses understands quite well. And he knows his next journey won’t take him back to Ithaca. He welcomes it anyway, celebrates it even — knowing that this is what it means to be human, hard as that can be to bear. And I think the poem suggests, and certainly it suggested to Kennedy, that although we leave behind ambitions and loved ones, they are still part of who we are.

What I found, after reading this poem, quite slowly, because that’s how you have to read it to really get it, is that the poem moves me still. Twenty years ago, the poem was about something I didn’t quite understand. Now? Well, it makes me want to read the Odyssey again. And it makes me admire Ted Kennedy, a terribly imperfect man, who’s held fast to some things that matter to him, including Tennyson and poetry’s power to console us and teach us how to behave in life’s difficult moments.

Here’s the poem:


It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match’d with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.

I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: all times I have enjoy’d
Greatly, have suffer’d greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone; on shore, and when
Thro’ scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vest the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honour’d of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers;
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!
As tho’ to breath were life. Life piled on life
Were all to little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle-
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and thro’ soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.

There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toil’d, and wrought, and thought with me-
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads- you and I are old;
Old age had yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in the old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal-temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1842)

The Madeleine Project: A Visit to the Meta-Towers

The Madeleine Project is the name for my effort to go back and see if that which gave pleasure in the past still resonates when it’s revisited. The only rule is that it can’t be expensive to relive the past. For me that means you have to be able to check the past out from the library, rent the DVD, or get the ingredients for it at Safeway.

So far, I’ve looked at poetry (Donne’s St. Lucy’s Day). I’ve been meaning to re-experience my favorite green pasta with fake Parmesan, but haven’t gotten around to it.

Trollope is the next installment in the Madeleine series. About twenty years ago, while I was studying for the California bar exam, I spent the summer reading Trollope. I loved Barchester Towers, in part because it was so good at skewering an institution that takes itself so seriously. In the case of Barchester Towers, that institution is organized religion. Twenty years ago, I was worried about entering an institution sort of like the church, an institution that seemed to take itself awfully seriously, the law. In fact, the law and the church were two professions often chosen by sons who weren’t first in line for the family title. As the fourth child, and with no family title for anybody, it seemed like a good choice. Back then, I suspected I wasn’t going to be very good at my new job, the one I was due to start after the bar exam. I hadn’t liked law school. There weren’t enough stories. The interesting ones were buried in the case books and nobody ever wanted to really talk about them.

What Trollope did was demonstrate that people in power, the people I was a little afraid of, can be utterly ridiculous. I went on to read the Palliser novels, a series that took on politics. And then individual great novels like Can You Forgive Her? and the Eustace Diamonds. The last two are well worth reading again. I’ve never forgotten that thing about people in power often behaving in utterly ridiculous ways. The Palliser novels were a bit of a slog. Other people like them very much, so you might want to check them out too.

In case you’re curious, here are the things I know about Trollope. His mother made much needed money by writing. She was pretty good and pretty popular. Trollope didn’t have a patron, unless you count the postal service, which is where he worked, as an administrator for a good part of his life. Money was a worry for him. He is credited with inventing the post box, that wonderful British icon.

He is also one of the great 19th century novelists and Barchester Towers is probably his most well known novel. It’s the story of a lovely, leafy town in England and the shenanigans that happen among the clerical set when a new bishop and his odious wife and assistant come to town. The novel is full of men and women whose business it is to bring the Church of England to the world. (I say women because, although women obviously weren’t preaching from pulpits, one of the novel’s greatest characters, Mrs. Proudie, does her utmost to run things from behind the scenes.)

There are wonderful things here, very funny looks at how foolishly people behave. For that alone, this novel should be read more than once. It will cure you of pomposity and stubborness — at least while you’re reading it. Afterwards, well, that’s up to you.

The thing I kept noticing this time around, though, is something I don’t remember from reading it before. It’s the narrative voice. It’s a third person narrative, but the narrator (who is never named and not a character) has a personality. He’s a chatty guy. And every once in a while, he breaks in and tells you what’s really going on. It’s a little like the moment in film when a character turns and addresses the camera, except in this case the narrator isn’t a character. That moment, by the way, has seldom worked for me (too self-conscious, too hip, too meta). But this narrator really does. And he proves that Trollope had a light hand with the meta-stuff. (I’m just guessing, and I hope you Dear Reader will correct me if I’m wrong, but a meta-something is just a comment on the way that something works. A meta-novel draws attention to itself as a novel, for example.)

Here’s an example. One of the subplots in the novel concerns a woman named Eleanor Bold. She is that most wonderful of characters in English fiction: the rich, beautiful widow. Naturally, a lot of people are interested in whom she’ll marry next. (There’s no question she’ll marry again. The funny thing is that she’s the only one who’s utterly unaware of the speculation around what she’ll do. She’s too busy spoiling her young son to see much of this.) The worst thing that could happen, in the eyes of many (including her father, sister and brother in law) is that she’ll marry the horrible greasy curate, Snope, and bring the odious Mrs. Proudie into their circle and basically ruin their lives. And then there’s Bertie Stanhope, a ne’er do well fortune hunter who’s also trying to worm his way into her affections. Nobody really cares that these two men would be bad for Eleanor, they just don’t want her to chose someone they don’t like. I admire Trollope for recognizing how deeply self-involved we all are. And although he laughs about it, he sees this as a universal weakness rather than an individual character flaw — and that’s because he’s a generous novelist.

So how does he handle the suspense about Eleanor’s future? He tells you not to worry about it:

“But let the gentle-hearted reader be under no apprehension whatsoever. It is not destined that Eleanor shall marry Mr. Slope or Bertie Stanhope.”

He goes on to explain that this kind of suspense isn’t to his taste as a novelist:

“And here, perhaps it may be allowed to the novelist to explain his view on a very important point in the art of telling tales. He ventures to reprobate that system which goes too far to violate all proper confidence between the author and his readers, by maintaining nearly to the end of the third volume a mystery as to the fate of their favourite personage.”

Not for him, these kinds of mysteries. He points out that your friends are likely to tell you what happened anyway, or you can just turn to the last page to find out what happens. And then he says something I just love, which is, essentially, that a good story isn’t held together by keeping a reader in suspense:

“…take the last chapter if you please — learn from its pages all the results of our troubled story, and the story shall have lost none of its interest, if indeed there by any interest in it to lose.

“Our doctrine is, that the author and the reader should move along together in full confidence with each other. Let the personages of the drama undergo ever so complete a comedy of errors among themselves, but let the spectator never mistake the Syracusan for the Ephesian; otherwise he is one of the dupes, and the part of a dupe is never dignified.”

I do so like that idea: A writer’s job is to make the reader feel like she’s been taken into his confidence. And what that means is that the writer will never deceive the reader as he tells his story. At its most basic, that simply means that the writer’s job is to be honest with the reader, to convey as carefully and accurately as he can the truth of the story he is telling. That doesn’t preclude humor or wit or even the occasional surprise — it means that the writer’s essential promise to the reader is that the writer will tell the best story he knows how to tell.

Twenty years later, that’s a wonderful thing to hear. I give Barchester Towers ten madeleines, ten being the highest on the madeleine scale.

The Madeleine Project: John Donne

When Proust dipped his much-discussed madeleine into a cup of lime tea, his pleasure in the madeleine and the tea were the same then as they were when he was a child. Whenever someone mentions this moment in literature, I wonder (a) what kind of madeleine was it (surely not the type they sell in cellophane packets at Starbucks?) and (b) what forgotten things would give me the same pleasure now as they did then? And why is that? Continue reading