Sizzle, spice and not very nice: 100 years of the tell-all biography

Lytton Strachey’s explosive biographies demolished reputations – not even Florence Nightingale escaped his wrath. But what is his impact on life writing?

A hundred years ago, Lytton Strachey published Eminent Victorians, a sequence of four biographical essays whose elegance belied their punkish intent. Strachey’s subjects, although “targets” might be more accurate, were Florence Nightingale, General Gordon, Thomas Arnold and Cardinal Manning. These four eminences – the founder of modern nursing, the British empire’s most honoured military man, the reforming headmaster of Rugby School and Protestant England’s most prominent Catholic churchman – were simultaneously knocked down, duffed up and left looking slightly ridiculous. With language sharpened to a scalpel, Strachey cut away the fatty layers of celebratory bluster to reveal these heroes of Victorian Britain as deluded narcissists whose achievements depended on the ruthless exploitation of those around them. Gordon drank, “was particularly fond of boys” and slapped his ...