eminent victorians

Nobody told me Lytton Strachey was brilliant and funny. Well, okay, fine, plenty of people did tell me exactly that, but I never paid them any attention; he was just one of those overprivileged Bloomsbury Setters that made my abortive PhD on Virginia Woolf such an unbearable ordeal, from which I fled with considerable gratitude into the welcoming arms of Ireland and many many pints of Guinness with Jameson’s chasers.

Anyway, the wheel goes around, I become fascinated with British adventures in late-nineteenth-century Egypt, and I repent of my youthful idiocy. Of General Gordon, quietly occupying himself in England after his feats of derring-do in China, Strachey has this to say:

He was particularly fond of boys. Ragged street arabs and rough sailor-lads crowded about him… he helped them, found them employment, corresponded with them when they went out into the world. They were, he said, his Wangs.

The original Wangs were the rebel army Gordon fought in China, making this passage either less funny or much funnier than it sounds; I suspect the latter. Strachey is superb on Gladstone, the Grand Old Man and Murderer Of Gordon, summing up the gist of the entire (wonderful) Jenkins biography in this glimpse of the Eye of Sauron:

He adhered to some of his principles – that of the value of representative institutions, for instance – with a faith which was singularly literal; his views upon religion were uncritical to crudeness; he had no sense of humour… His very egoism was simple-minded: through all the labyrinth of his passions there ran a single thread. But the centre of the labyrinth? Ah! the thread might lead there, through those wandering mazes, at last. Only, with the last corner turned, the last step taken, the explorer might find that he was looking down into the gulf of a crater. The flame shot out on every side, scorching and brilliant; but in the midst there was a darkness.

Strachey is terrific, too, on Sir Evelyn Baring, the British consul-general in Cairo:

His views were long, and his patience was even longer. He progressed imperceptibly; he constantly withdrew; the art of giving way he practised with the refinement of a virtuoso.

The whole passage on Baring’s role as intermediary between Gordon in Khartoum and the Gladstone government is astonishing in its perceptiveness and subtlety:

Though, as a rule, he found it easy to despise those with whom he came into contact, he could not altogether despise General Gordon. If he could have, he would have disliked him less. He had gone as far as his caution had allowed him in trying to prevent the appointment; and then when it became clear that the Government was insistent, he yielded with a good grace. For a moment, he had imagined that all might be well; that he could impose himself, by the weight of his position and the force of his sagacity, upon his self-willed subordinate; that he could hold him in a leash at the end of the telegraph wire to Khartoum. Very soon he perceived that this was a miscalculation. To his disgust, he found that the telegraph wire, far from being an instrument of official discipline, had been converted by the agile strategist at the other end of it into a means of extending his own personality into the deliberations at Cairo. Every morning Sir Evelyn Baring would find upon his table a great pile of telegrams from Khartoum – twenty or thirty at least; and as the day went on, the pile would grow. When a sufficient number had accumulated, he would read them all through, with the greatest care. There upon the table, the whole soul of Gordon lay before him – in its incoherence, its eccentricity, its romance; the jokes, the slang, the appeals to the prophet Isaiah, the whirl of contradictory policies – Sir Evelyn Baring did not know which exasperated him most.

There is your Victorian Twitter. I have been both the loose cannon at the end of the Net link, and the frustrated functionary trying to interpret missives from said loose cannon into a coherent narrative for consumption by the vacillating institution behind us both. So for once I sympathize with monochromatic, clever, competent, frightening Baring, that chilling incarnation of the British Empire.

Gordon, in any case, comes through Strachey’s account as a dangerous lunatic who would be perfectly at home in the Bush Administration. Eminent Victorians was published in 1918, twelve years after Heart of Darkness; the resemblances between Kurtz and Strachey’s Gordon are hard to miss. Gordon dies on a spear and his head ends up on a pike, the eyes pecked out by hawks. In 1898 Kitchener retakes the Sudan.

At any rate, it had all ended very happily – in a glorious slaughter of 20,000 Arabs, a vast addition to the British Empire, and a step in the Peerage for Sir Evelyn Baring.

As various anti-humanities snots have asked me over the years, whyever do I bother with these dusty old tomes? Where is the relevance to our lives today???

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