Ostentatiously sat on a light blue air cushion, apparently necessary due to his fear that the wooden bench on which he sat might worsen his piles, the slight, bespectacled and bearded figure proceeded to spread a tartan rug over his legs.
‘I understand, Mr Strachey, that you are a conscientious objector to all wars?’‘ In his typically affected manner, he replied, ‘Oh, no…not at all. Only this one.’ The interrogation continued, ‘Then tell me, Mr Strachey, what would you do if you saw a German soldier attempting to rape your sister?’ After slowly and deliberately looking at every one of his sisters who sat in the public gallery, he earnestly answered, ‘I should try and interpose my own body.’
The politician Philip Snowden later claimed that those who questioned Lytton Strachey had, ‘enough sense to realise that it would be useless to try to make this man into a soldier, so he was granted exemption as a political conscientious objector. This, I believe, was the only case where exemption was given on political grounds.’
Born Giles Lytton Strachey into a military family in London in 1880, Lytton was one of the 13 children of Lieutenant-General Sir Richard Strachey and his second wife Jane, 10 of whom survived to adulthood. At the age of 13, the young Strachey was sent to Abboltsholme School, were manual tasks were part of the curriculum, an environment wholly unsuited to his delicate constitution. Consequently, he was moved to Leamington College where he was severely bullied, an experience that only enhanced his innate awkwardness.
First gaining a place at Balliol College, Oxford it was later decided that he should go up to Trinity College, Cambridge instead, when his mother Lady Strachey took umbrage after Balliol suggested her son was more suited to Lincoln College. It was at Cambridge, first as a member of the Apostles, then as a leading light amongst the Bloomsbury Group, that Strachey not only felt a sense of belonging, he became someone who was both admired and emulated. Nevertheless, Strachey’s attempts to make a career for himself as a writer after leaving Cambridge were to prove disappointing; he continued to rely upon his family financially, living with his mother at 6, Belsize Park Gardens in London.
Strachey’s appearance before the Hampstead Tribunal received a fair amount of contemporary attention, however, a detailed account remained elusive until the publication of Michael Holroyd’s 1967 biography. On the 7th March 1916, Strachey had appeared before an Advisory Committee, and declared his objection to conscription, he was then summoned to appear at a public tribunal at Hampstead Town Hall on the 16th. Not only were several prominent members of the Bloomsbury Group in attendance, a character witness was provided by the Liberal MP, Philip Morrell, the husband of socialite Lady Ottoline Morrell.
The Military Service Act (1916) stipulated that single men from 18 to 41 who were not widowers or members of a religious order, could be conscripted into armed service, this was later extended to include married men and the age limit raised to 51. Those who sought exemption had their request evaluated by a Military Service Tribunal. Strachey’s objection was far from unique within his own circle. Both the writer David Garnett and painter Duncan Grant (Strachey’s cousin, with whom he had briefly engaged in a passionate affair) sat before the Ipswich Tribunal and were granted non-combatant army service before moving to Charleston Farmhouse in Sussex, with Vanessa Bell and her children Julian and Quentin. Clive Bell worked at the Morrell’s farm, Garsington Manor near Oxford and Leonard Woolf was exempt from service after his wife Virginia’s doctors recommended against it on account of her sometimes precarious mental health and his own trembling hands.
In contrast to his fellow Apostle, Rupert Brooke, a close friend of Strachey’s younger brother James, Strachey had been unenthusiastic about the outbreak of war in 1914. Indeed, Brooke’s pre-existing hatred of Lytton, based on his belief that he had orchestrated the affair between the poet’s former lover Ka Cox and the painter Henry Lamb, was magnified by both Strachey and Bloomsbury’s ambivalence towards the war. In his poem Peace, written shortly after the declaration of war, by which time he had already received his Royal Navy commission, Brooke denounced them as ‘half-men’ with ‘sick hearts that honour could not move.’
Exemption was adjourned until Strachey had undergone a medical, after which he was pronounced as unfit to fight. Several months later, in July 1916, Strachey received a letter from the War Office stating that he was to have another medical inspection by 30th September and the following year must again argue the case for his conscientious objection. He was subsequently placed on the reserve list with further examinations every six months. Recalling his experience, Strachey superciliously noted, ‘For a few moments I realised what it was like to be one of the lower classes.’
By late 1917, Strachey had moved from London, to Mill House in Berkshire with the painter Dora Carrington, and in spite of his unwavering homosexuality, she was to remain his constant and most devoted companion for the rest of his life. He threw himself into his writing, contributing to the journal War and Peace edited by Leonard Woolf and working on Eminent Victorians, which would cement his place as a writer and biographer.
The book’s aim was to provide a biographical overview of four characters Strachey believed to be instrumental in shaping the Victorian era: Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale, Thomas Arnold and General Gordon. Weeks before its publication, Strachey wrote to Ottoline Morrell, ‘my hope is that in about six weeks or so Eminent Victorians will burst upon as astonished world.’ Reviews were overwhelmingly positive and the book had nine printings within two years. Other critically acclaimed works followed, including Queen Victoria in 1921 and Elizabeth and Essex: A Tragic History in 1928. It would seem that his opposition to the war did little to impact upon Strachey’s growing critical and public acclaim and his attempt to deconstruct and evaluate the often contradictory mores of the Victorians was seen as an audacious undertaking. Yet his success notwithstanding, Strachey remained a figure of occasional derision, a relic from his days at Leamington College that he could never fully cast off.
In late 1931, at the height of his literary powers and Bloomsbury’s creative and cultural influence, Strachey began to complain of stomach pains; his health deteriorated rapidly and he died of stomach cancer on 21st January 1932. The impact of his loss upon the Bloomsbury Group was profound, and Dora Carrington was unable to come to terms with his death. Less than two months later, on 11th March 1932 she took her own life by shooting herself at Ham Spray House in Wiltshire, her and Strachey’s home since 1924.
Above: Three short films featuring Dora Carrington and filmed at Ham Spray (1929)
Soon after Strachey’s death, the American critic Edmund Wilson wrote, ‘Lytton Strachey’s chief mission, of course, was to take down once and for all the pretensions of the Victorian age to moral superiority…neither the Americans nor the English have ever, since Eminent Victorians appeared, been able to feel quite the same about the legends that had dominated their pasts. Something had been punctured for good.’ Nevertheless, Strachey always acknowledged that not only had his subjects helped to shape the ages they lived in, they too were its products.
‘Human beings are too important to be treated as mere symptoms of the past. They have a value which is independent of any temporal processes -which is eternal, and must be felt for its own sake,’ proclaimed Strachey in the Preface to his most famous work. With these words in mind, the true measure of Strachey’s character can be separated from the caricature.
Lytton Strachey – Michael Holroyd (1967)
The Letters of Lytton Strachey – Paul Levy (2005)
Lytton Strachey and the Search for Modern Sexual Identity – Julie Anne Taddeo (2012)