March 1, 1880– Lytton Strachey:
“Discretion is not the better part of biography.”
I consider it my own experimental period, and like so many other lesbians attending small liberal arts colleges in the 1970s, I went through a Bloomsbury Group thing when I was studying at my university. I read everything by and about this fascinating circle of friends and lovers. They were a fascinating, influential group of English writers, intellectuals, philosophers and artists. The best known members included novelist Virginia Woolf, economist John Maynard Keynes, gay writer E. M. Forster, art critic Clive Bell, painters Vanessa Bell, Roger Fry, and Duncan Grant, journalist Desmond MacCarthy, and writer Leonard Woolf. The loose collective of friends worked or studied together near the Bloomsbury neighborhood of London, during the first half of the 20th century. Its members denied being a group in any formal sense, but they were united by an abiding belief in the importance of the arts. Their philosophy and their works deeply influenced modern literature, aesthetics, criticism, and economics as well as attitudes about feminism, pacifism, and even sexuality.
Lytton Strachey was at the heart of the group and he enjoyed a 3-way relationship in the Victorian era, when nobody imagined people doing such things, especially in England. Painter Dora Carrington lusted after Strachey, who lusted after her husband, Ralph Partridge. Strachey is a writer best known for establishing a new form of biography where psychological shrewdness and sympathy were mixed with wickedness and wit.
Strachey found his niche and his lasting friends at Cambridge University, and they became the major players of the Bloomsbury Group. It was in this circle of pals that Strachey was brave enough to write and talk openly of his gayness.
From 1904 to 1914, he wrote book and theatre reviews for The Spectator Magazine, plus he published poetry, and he composed an important scholarly work of literary criticism, Landmarks In French Literature (1912), still used as a textbook today.
During WW1, Strachey was a conscientious objector and spent most of his time with others of the same political bent who he dubbed “Bloomsberries”.
His first great success and most famous achievement is Eminent Victorians (1918), his collection of short biographies of Victorian era heroes. He followed this tome with a biography with the nutty title, Queen Victoria (1920). With deep drollery, Stachey focused on the human failings of his subjects and the hypocrisy of Victorian morality.
Strachey spoke openly about his homosexuality with his Bloomsbury friends. He had a romantic relationship with the world’s most noted economist, Keynes, which was not publicly revealed until the late 1960s in a tell-all biography of Keyes by Michael Holroyd.
Perhaps the most free-thinking of the Bloomsbury Group, Lytton introduced the use of first names among his Cambridge friends ( at the time, people, even friends were addressed as Mr. Mrs. or Miss), and he first approached the taboo subject of sex by pointing at a stain on Vanessa Bell’s dress and asked: “Semen?”.
Strachey was decidedly gay, but his most lasting intimate relationship was with Carrington, who loved him deeply and lived with him from 1917 until his death in 1932. They were often joined by Carrington’s husband, Ralph Partridge. He also had a long sexual relationship with Duncan Grant who was his cousin. Soon after Lytton died of cancer when he was just 52 years old, Carrington committed suicide, unable to bear life without him.
Strachey was portrayed, smartly, in the film Carrington (1995), by Jonathan Pryce, with Emma Thompson as Carrington. Pryce won Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival for his performance. Check it out; it’s a most excellent film.