Today in Literary History – March 1, 1880 – Lytton Strachey is born

Lytton Strachey, the author, critic and biographer was born on March 1, 1880, in London. He was a founding member of the Bloomsbury Group and an intimate friend of many of the leading intellectuals of the early 20th century.

He is best remembered today  for his biographies: Eminent Victorians, in which he profiled four Victorian heroes in iconoclastic fashion; his biography of Queen Victoria herself; and Elizabeth and Essex, his examination of Queen Elizabeth I’s relationship with the Earl of Essex.

painting by Vanessa Bell

Strachey’s biographical tactics were usually based on his understanding of psychology and the hidden motivations in individuals.(He was an early admirer of Sigmund Freud.) His aim was more to humanize his subjects than to catalogue their achievements.

His portraits are humorous and slightly skeptical, providing a fast-paced “modernist” perspective rather than the prevailing grand manner of more academic biographers.

I read Eminent Victorians years ago and loved Strachey’s style and levelling effect. Even when I later discovered that he was not always correct in all of his facts or judgements I still felt that I “knew” his subjects better through Strachey’s instinctual reading of their basic personalities and drives than through more rigorous studies.


Strachey’s father, Sir Richard Strachey, was a Lieutenant General in the British Colonial Army and his mother, Jane, was a leader of the woman’s suffrage movement, and a lover of literature.

Strachey was thin and sickly and was often bullied as a child. He was also gay and grew to be secretive and socially anxious during his years at Cambridge University, where he excelled academically.

It was at Cambridge that he met Clive Bell, Leonard Woolf and the Stephen sisters (whom Bell and Woolf would marry making them Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf). He also became close friends with Bertrand Russell, E.M. Forster, John Maynard Keynes and others who would become formally or informally associated with the Bloomsbury Group.

with Virginia Woolf

Apart from their literary and intellectual impact, the Bloomsburys were also noted for their sexual entanglements. Virginia Woolf apparently fell in love with Strachey, who was sleeping with or trying to seduce other male members of the group.

He led a complicated sexual life and when his letters were published in 2005 they revealed a taste for sadomasochism.

Strachey died of stomach cancer in 1932 at the age of fifty-one. His last words are said to have been “If this is death I don’t think much of it.”


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