MR. LITTON STRACHEY has leapt at one bound into fame by the four distinguished portraits which make up his little gallery of " Eminent Victorians." Mr. Asquith paid him indeed an almost too generous compliment in his Romanes Lecture by saying that
" the prominent and potent personalities " who were the subjects of his art—that is to say, Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale, Dr. Arnold, and General Gordon—were now in less danger of being forgotten. It can hardly be said that they were in serious danger of being forgotten before, even in a much preoccupied generation, but undoubtedly Mr. Strachey by his vivid pictures has given flesh and blood to what may have been in many instances only a vague tradition. Such is the power of a keen eye, an artistic method, and vigorous brush-work.
The reader need go no further than the Preface to this volume to discover that Mr. Strachey has a style of his own, which appears to be the expression of the man himself. He speaks of the perspi- cacity of Gibbon, and we should judge that it was from that master that he had studied, his own method, which appears to owe to Gibbon not only a thoroughness of inquiry, and the power of marshalling his facts with force and lucidity, but also a vein of irony, more French than English, which loves especially to play about the theme of religion. Mr. Strachey compares himself to a scientific explorer rowing out over the waters of the Victorian age, and bringing up hero and there specimens of its fauna to be examined with a careful curiosity. Perhaps the simile hardly does justice to the element of free will in his selection of subjects. It is noticeable that all his major specimens are religious persons, and in no case does Mr. Strachey find their religion to their advantage. We know of painters who seem to possess the.faculty of discovering the less worthy qualities of their sitters, and to this group we should assign Mr. Strachey. Not that he sees the evil only. He is not like the Satan of Hebrew mythology ; but he has much of the temper of an advocates dieboli, whose business it is to supply con- siderations on the other side in the ease of candidates for beatifica- tion. If we may suggest a malicious translation of the motto he chooses for himself, Je n'impose rice. ; je ne propose riot : j'expose, we should say that his aim is to " expose " the subjects of his study.
When we stand in a portrait gallery, and admire " this man's art and that man's scope," there is a question that sometimes obtrudes itself, though the mere artist may rule it out as irrelevant ; namely, do the portraits give us the real characters of the historical personages represented ? We confess that we feel a good deal of uneasiness about the verisimilitude of some of Mr. Strachey's portraits. Admitting the distinction, the vivacity, the skill in composition, the excellence in technique, can we feel sure that the human beings themselves were as they are described ? The portrait that suggests the most doubt is that of Dr. Arnold of Rugby. (If the misstatements about Lord Cromer are the worst thing in the book, Lord Cromer is introduced, after all, not as a principal study but only as a foil to Gordon.) Arnold is known to this generation mainly by his son's picture of him in " Rugby Chapel" ; and by the impression ho evidently made on such different types of men as. Tom Hughes, Dean Stanley, and Arthur Clough. Could Mr. Strachey's Arnold have made any lasting impression on anybody ? In this case the material before the essayist was comparatively small, and it is possible to examine how he has used it. To begin with, the " puzzled ex- pression " in the Doctor's face, of which much is made, seems duo to the defects of the reproduction from the engraved portrait. Puzzle-headedness was no characteristic of the man, who, as Mr. Strachey himself points out, made a serious effort to regulate his life and opinions by general principles, and applied them with much self-confidence. In his attempt to state what these general principles were, Mr. Strachey fails chiefly from the absence of any comparison with the principles most in vogue at the time, from which Dr. Arnold, for one reason or another, dissented. It gives, for example, an entirely false impression to represent Dr. Arnold as obsessed in his government of the school, and his teaching there, by the principles of the Old Testament. The point Arnold made against the Bibliolatry of his day was that the importance of the Old Testament lay not so much in the history as in the principles of Divine government which underlay the history. Similarly his schemes for the recognition of Nonconformists as members of the Church of England arose from his hatred of sectarianism and his conviction that the Christian Church was intended to be the ani- mating power in the State, leavening it with right principles of conduct, and not a mutual admiration society of respectable people. The details in Mr. Strachey's essay may all be correct—though we should like to know his authority for the serious charge that Arnold ".held up to scorn and execration Strauss's ` Leben Jesu ' without reading it "—but the perspective is all wrong. And the result is caricature.
• Eminent Victorians.: By Lytton btrachey. London:. Chatto and Wincing. ROB. Sd. net.)
- Another portrait in the volume to which exception must be taken is that of Clough. Clough presents himself to Mr. Strachey in the ridiculous light of a man who spent his life in hunting for his lost faiths and doing up brown-paper parcels for his relative, Miss Nightingale. It is worth recalling that he was a man who won the admiring friendship of Carlyle, who was not fond of feeble creatures.
As to Lord Cromer, our correspondence columns have borne witness to the nature of the slander. This is how the essay on " The End of General Gorden " concludes : " At any rate, it had
all ended very happily—in a glorious slaughter of twenty
thousand Arabs, a vast addition to the British Empire, and a step in the Peerage for Sir Evelyn Baring." After what Mr. Strachey has himself said about the " appalling orgy of loot, and lust, and slaughter " which followed the Dervish victory at Berber, and the " still more terrible " fate of Khartum, it is improper merely for the sake of an epigranunatic close to insinuate that the Dervishes defeated at Omdurman were innocent children of the desert butchered to extend the British Empire ; it is also " worse than a theft, no less than a traducement," to give no hint at all of the valuable and public-spirited work which Lord Cromer accomplished not only in Egypt but during his nominal retirement.
But these and a few similar qualifications being made in the interest of biographical accuracy, it remains to acknowledge the brilliant success of the greater part of Mr. Strachey's book. The
pictures of Cardinal Manning and Florence Nightingale are as dis- tinguished as they are unconventional, and the story of the long
tragedy of the mission and death of Cordon is a very fine piece of his- torical writing. But it is the picture of Miss Nightingale to which we should award the prize. Manning's character has been depicted already by several eminent hands, and Mr. Strachey throws no fresh light upon its essential elements. But the Florence Nightin- gale here shown, " the thin, angtdar woman, with her haughty eye
and her acrid mouth "—(Mr. Strachey has been singularly fortunate,
or unfortunate, in finding photographs which show his subjects on their least pleasant side)—" the terrible commander who drovo
Sidney Herbert to his death "—the woman " possessed by is Demon "—this is not the popular conception of the " lady of the lamp." And the picture would be intolerable if were not relieved by Mr. Strachey's whole-hearted enthusiasm for the objects to which this indomitable will was directed, and which it achieved.
Of the smaller sketches to be found scattered through the pages of the volume, perhaps the most delightful, as it is the kindest., is that of Newman ; the most vigorous and the most unkind that of Gladstone. But there are many others—Lord Acton, Cardinal Wiseman, Lord Hartington, Lord Pannutre—which prove that Mr. Strachey has an eye for character, and a hand capable of ex- pressing what he sees. We shall look forward with eagerness to Mr. Strachey's second series of biographical essays ; and if to the
many excellences he has learned from Gibbon he adds something more of that great writer's detachment from personal and party prejudices, and sense of responsibility for the truth of his historical portraits, it will be a still greater success.