I love letters. Maybe it’s an innate snoopiness, maybe it’s that people tend to be more unguarded in their private communications, but I find that reading the letters of interesting characters from literature and history is often much more enlightening (and entertaining) than reading their biographies.
And Lytton Strachey’s are some of the best. Strachey pioneered a new form of biography with Eminent Victorians, with a subtly snarky style that pilloried the era’s sacred cows. These days his work doesn’t stand up quite as well as that of some of his better known friends like Virginia Woolf. Still, Strachey was one of the fathers of Bloomsbury, and when it came to the group’s incestuous relationships, he seemed always to be right in the middle of it. He was a lover of the artist Duncan Grant (who later fathered a child with Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf’s sister), and he once proposed to Virginia (she accepted but quickly rescinded, to the relief of both). Economist John Maynard Keynes recorded his liaisons with Lytton in his notorious logbook of past lovers, but Maynard and Lytton also competed for Grant’s affections. It goes on.
Suffice it to say that all of this interpersonal drama makes for some revealing letters, especially since Lytton and his friends wrote well, openly, and frequently. Lytton addressed current issues of the day, such as his legal proceedings as a conscientious objector in World War I, with characteristic self-absorption. Few of his friends and acquaintances escaped his snide observations - Aldous Huxley (“produced a very long and quite pointless poem for me to read”), Robert Graves (“curiously oafish sense of humor”), John Maynard Keynes (“sits like a decayed and amorous spider . . . weaving purely imaginary webs, noticing everything that happens and doesn’t happen and writing to me by every other post”), T.S. Eliot (“rather American”).
Lytton had his sensitive moments too. His letter to Clive and Vanessa Bell about his infatuation with George Mallory, the handsome mountaineer who would later die on Everest, is written with classic Strachey understatement:
“Mon dieu! - George Mallory! When that’s been written, what more need be said? My hand trembles, my heart palpitates, my whole being swoons away at the words - oh heavens! heavens! I found of course that he’d been absurdly maligned - he’s six foot high, with the body of an athlete by Praxiteles, and a face - ah, incredible - the mystery of Botticelli, the refinement and delicacy of a Chinese print, the youth and piquancy of an unimaginable English boy . . . For the rest, he’s going to be a schoolmaster, and his intelligence is not remarkable. What’s the need?”
There are poignant moments too, especially in the letters involving his relationship with his last lover, Roger Senhouse, and his tragic relationship with Dora Carrington, who committed suicide after Lytton’s death.
Strachey himself, in a letter to Lady Ottoline Morrell, sums up best my feelings after reading his letters:“As usual, it struck me that letters were the only really satisfactory form of literature. They give one the facts so amazingly, don't they? I felt when I got to the end that I'd lived for years in that set. But oh dearie me I am glad that I'm not in it!”