Into the abyss

The Letters of Lytton Strachey

Edited by Paul Levy <em>Viking, 698pp, £30</em>

ISBN 0670891126

Scratch the surface of a member of the Bloomsbury Group and, for all their engaging iconoclasm, you will find a core of snobbishness and hypocrisy. As this entertaining collection of Lytton Strachey's letters shows, that does not mean that he, Virginia Woolf or the rest of their high-minded coterie were dull. They pushed the boundaries of Victorian sensibility and, either side of the First World War, wittily adapted contemporary philosophical and aesthetic ideas for a cultured British audience.

Following the death in 2004 of the last of their number, Frances Partridge, their status is ripe for reassessment. On the one hand, their snook-cocking has a modern feel - a companionable stocktaking after the excesses of the fin de siecle. On the other, their approach to the world can seem introverted and ultimately ineffectual.

Almost by accident, Strachey has emerged as one of the best-known of the group. A pioneering biographer himself, his posthumous reputation was boosted by Michael Holroyd's sympathetic biography in 1971 - the book that provided the basis for the film Carrington, centring on the loving relationship between Strachey, who was predominantly gay, and the artist Dora Carrington, whom he liked to call his "niece". Finding she could not live without him at Ham Spray House in Berkshire, she committed suicide shortly after his death from stomach cancer in January 1932.

When Holroyd began his research, more than four decades ago, his task was made easier because he had access to Strachey's voluminous correspondence, kept by the latter's older brother James, best known for compiling the standard English edition of the works of Sigmund Freud. Paul Levy says he could have filled six volumes with Strachey's letters from this and other sources. His stated criteria for inclusion are a mixture of literary merit (an elusive ideal) and general interest - which largely amounted to providing new angles on the accepted canon of Bloomsbury stories.

His book provides a useful overview of Strachey's intellectual development - from early friendships with Leonard Woolf, John Maynard Keynes and the Cambridge "Apostles", through espousal of the philosophy of G E Moore (which Holroyd succinctly described as "aesthetic experience + personal relations = the good life"), to publication of the ground-breaking Eminent Victorians in 1918.

Thereafter Strachey eased his foot off the accelerator: his Queen Victoria (1921) is commendably lean, but his Elizabeth and Essex (1928), in its cult of royalty and chivalric knighthood, simply provides a new gloss on the old-style biography he had once decried. Similarly, his journey of sexual liberation petered out. At one stage, priapism was a creed. He did not flinch when Keynes came "reeking with that semen" (of his former lover Duncan Grant). He thought English literature's future lay in being able truthfully to describe sexual relations. He criticised the novels of his great friend Virginia Woolf for being too prim. But his youthful enthusiasm for erect cocks gave way to the masochistic desire to be abused and, as is graphically described in one letter, crucified by his friend Roger Senhouse.

On other levels, the letters give a sense of the excitement of participating in an intimate conspiracy against convention. They are full of amusing lines and astute observations, even if occasionally they threaten to become parodies of themselves. Presented with a "school novel" by E F Benson, Strachey describes it as "a vision into the abysses of the English soul . . . It's queer how morality is breaking up in every direction, while poor fellows like E F Benson are trying their best to film it over with a nice smooth surface and explain with uneasy smiles that it's really all quite solid and correct."

Yet for all Strachey's exhortations to "fuck the bourgeoisie", he sponged off friends such as Lady Ottoline Morrell at Garsington. And there was nothing clever about his depictions of William Robertson, the first British army general to rise from the ranks, as a "cockney" and "ex-butler". He relished describing Robertson complaining about military incompetence to the former war minister: "There's only one word for it, Lord 'Aldane, it's bloody piss."

An emotionally scarred Rupert Brooke abhorred such antics: "To be a Strachey is to be blind - without a sense - towards good and bad, and clean and dirty; irrelevantly clever about a few things, dangerously infantile about many; to have undescended spiritual testicles . . ."

Unfortunately this book is marred by slapdash editing. Some characters appear incognito when an explanation is called for, while others are noted haphazardly on several different occasions. An insight into Levy's editing logic comes in his determination to provide present-day equivalents for monetary sums mentioned in the letters (usually Strachey's earnings). These are variously calculated at 2001, 2002 and "present-day" equivalents, suggesting that his job was done three or four years ago and not updated. For future editions, the Lady Wemyss visited by Strachey in 1923 was surely not the obscure former Grace Blackburn, but the much more vital Mary, nee Wyndham, better known as Lady Elcho, muse of the Souls and lover of Wilfrid Blunt.

Andrew Lycett's most recent book is Dylan Thomas: a new life (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

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