Queen Victoria

by Lytton Strachey. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1921. 8vo, xii + 434 pp. $5.00.
HERE is a delicious book. If it were only the triumph of cleverness which it is, its publication would be a notable event in contemporary letters. But it is much more than clever. It illustrates with peculiar brilliancy a method of biography. This is the method of saturating one’s self with ‘material’ and then proceeding to deal with it,not after the accepted fashion of letting the subject ‘tell his own story’ in the presentation of liberal extracts from letters and journals, but rather through carrying much further the selective process on which even this method is based, and then through liberating upon one’s pages only the most clearly distinctive and significant shafts of autobiographical light, blended — yes, and tinted — by the interpretations and settings which the biographer provides. This is far the more difficult method of biography, for it calls, in the first place, for a higher degree of saturation, and in the second, for the possession of a personality and powers justifying the largest conceivable injection of the author’s individuality into his work.
In his Eminent Victorians Mr. Strachey revealed dearly the qualities required for the successful practice of this method. Here he displays them on a scale that would have been unmanageable in his treatment of the four subjects to which his earlier book was devoted. This, indeed, is by no means an extensive biography, when the scope and importance of the matters with which it deals are considered. But the historical plays of Shakespeare and the historical novels of Scott are slender works as measured by the historian’s yardstick; yet they have made enormous contributions to a general apprehension — not quite to say knowledge — of history. A much closer analogy to Mr. Strachey’s new book may be found in Thackeray’s Four Georges, in which a Victorian was writing of an earlier Georgian period. Now a later Georgian — and Mr. Strachey is that to the finger-tips — writes of the Victorian age. The two chroniclers are by no means lacking in points of resemblance, both in temper and in technique. It is immensely to the neo-Georgian’s credit, that, with all the ironic wit which is perhaps his most salient characteristic, he does essential justice to Victoria and the age to which she gave a name now popularly touched with something more than a shadow of humorous reproach.
It was the novelist in Thackeray that made The Four Georges just what it is; and it is very much as a novelist that Mr. Strachey deals with the characters in his book: Lord Melbourne, the ‘autumn rose,’ Lord Palmerston, Gladstone, Disraeli, and many another of the Victorian company. The Prince Consort and the Queen herself are of course the hero and heroine, and it is really as such that they emerge from the author’s fundamentally humorous, yet fundamentally sympathetic, analysis of their characters and lives. Victoria, the embodiment of everything Victorian, becomes far more than a target for a cynic wit. Albert, perhaps the clearest re-creation of the biographer, stands forth at last as ‘the real creature, so full of energy and stress and torment, so mysterious and so unhappy, and so fallible and so very human.’
Scores of quotations might be made to illustrate Mr. Strachey’s extraordinary gift of phrase. The ‘neatness’ with which he employs it, especially in the final touch upon one passage after another, is a constant delight. Take, for a single instance, the sentence with which a description of the Prince Consort’s statue in the Albert Memorial is brought to an end: ‘It was rightly supposed that the simple word “Albert,” cast on the base, would be a sufficient means of identification.’
The author is apparently conscious that the book is one of those which the Queen would have defined as ‘not discreet.’ With more discretion Mr. Strachey would have rendered the Queen, her husband, and her age a less notable service — to say nothing of the post-Victorian reader.