Literary Daybook, May 9

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors
May 9, 2002 11:00PM (UTC)
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Today in fiction

On May 9, Lusa scents honeysuckle.
-- "Prodigal Summer" (2000)
by Barbara Kingsolver

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
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Today in Literary History

On this day in 1918, Lytton Strachey's "Eminent Victorians" was published. Its four essays -- on Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale, Dr. Thomas Arnold and General Gordon -- are credited with introducing a new form of biography, as intended. "Who does not know them," Strachey wrote of the typical tome, "with their ill-digested masses of material, their slipshod style, their tone of tedious panegyric, their lamentable lack of selection, of detachment, of design?" His aim was to unstuff the Victorian armchair, replacing the comfort of unchallenged fact and hero-worship with something more stylish and critical. Strachey punched holes through the conventional portraits of his four, venerated Victorians, but he did so in an artful and highly popular way. That lord and lady such-and-such cried foul over Strachey's selectivity and cheek only added to the sales and the fun. (As did the author's eccentric personal life with painter Dora Carrington, et al. The recent film, "Carrington," is based on material from Michael Holroyd's highly-regarded biography of Strachey.)

Strachey's description of General Gordon's last stand at Khartoum portrayed his subject as a bible-thumping, brandy-bottled, Don Quixote. It cast doubt not just on Soldiering and Empire, but on such others involved as Lord Hartington, and through him on those at home less eminent but just as "curiously English":


"For indeed he [Hartington] was built upon a pattern which was very dear to his countrymen. It was not simply that he was honest: it was that his honesty was an English honesty -- an honesty which naturally belonged to one who, so it seemed to them, was the living image of what an Englishman should be. In Lord Hartington they saw, embodied and glorified, the very qualities which were nearest to their hearts -- impartiality, solidity, common sense -- the qualities by which they themselves longed to be distinguished, and by which, in their happier moments, they believed they were ... Above all, they loved him for being dull. It was their greatest comfort -- with Lord Hartington they could always be absolutely certain that he would never, in any circumstances, be either brilliant, or subtle, or surprising, or impassioned, or profound ... "

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," email Steve King.

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