Session 59: Eminent Victorians at One Hundred
A Session of the 2018 Conference of the Modern Language Association, jointly organized by the Division on Life Writing and the Division on Victorian and Early-20th-Century English Literature
Anyone with a passing knowledge of twentieth-century literature is well aware of the tremendous changes that both poetic and novelistic writing experienced in the wake of World War I: the fragmentations of form; the reassessment of aesthetics; the struggle to express the shattering loss of confidence that had shaken the western world. One is likely to be less aware, however, of the parallel transformation that took place in the genre of biography — a revolution spearheaded by a single
iconoclastic volume. In its reinvention of form, in its acerbic critique of the pious follies of the century that preceded it, and in its refusal to lament the twilight of the fallen order, Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians changed the genre of biography as forcefully and irrevocably as Ulysses and The Waste Land transformed theirs. Despite his tremendous influence on literary history and life writing in our time, Strachey has not been the subject of an MLA session since 2004. 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of Eminent Victorians, and the centennial affords a unique opportunity to reflect upon the book, its author, and the Bloomsbury group at large as indispensable agents in the process by which life writing came of age. Co-sponsored by the MLA Divisions on GS Life Writing and on LLC Victorian and Early-20th-Century English, and moderated by Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer John Matteson, “Eminent Victorians at 100” observes Strachey and his contemporaries in a richly diverse variety of contexts, understanding him in his relation to the emergent literary theory of his time; in the deep resonances between his nonfiction and the biographically inspired fictions of Virginia Woolf; in his conflicted assessment of that most indispensable of Victorians, the queen herself; and in his powerful influence on continental letters through the work of his great French admirer, André Maurois. The session also looks at Strachey through the newly acquired but distorted lends of the Trump presidency, comparing Strachey’s understanding of truth with Trump’s constructed world of “alternative facts.”
The session will consist of four 15-minute presentations. It will commence with “Reconstituting Democracy: Strachey, Woolf, and Modernist National Biography.” In a paper that both navigates and subtly redraws the boundaries of genre, Ryan Weberling examines Woolf’s and Strachey’s ironic responses to the task, so diligently pursued by their fathers’ generation, of making the life of the British nation publicly legible through biography. Mr. Weberling argues that Strachey’s fictionalization of biography and Woolf’s infusion of biographical tropes and strategies into her novel Orlando were both undertaken expressly to challenge the nationalistic aspirations of biography, giving voice to interests that are pointedly feminist, foreign, undignified, and idiosyncratic. Professor Floriane Reviron- Piégay then takes Strachey’s influence in a continental direction in her paper “Lytton Strachey and André Maurois: Eminent Modernists in Search of the Biographical Truth.” Probing the friendship and intellectual interplay between Strachey and Maurois, Professor Reviron-Piégay sees Maurois as an indispensable conduit through which Strachey’s sense of irony and satire crossed the Channel and transformed life writing in French life writing between the wars.
Our third paper, Gretchen Gerzina’s “Aging Backwards: From Strachey’s Victoria to the Modern Queen” moves the reconsideration of Strachey to a less frequently considered work, his eponymous biography of Queen Victoria.
Ryan Weberling is a doctoral candidate in the English department at Boston University, where he is also completing a graduate certificate in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.
Professor Gerzina sees in Queen Victoria a refinement of the author’s approach to life writing, a reinvention that sets aside some of the author’s penchant for acerbic wit in favor of a more nuanced and sympathetic psychological understanding. Professor Gerzina suggests that it is Strachey’s understanding of Victoria and her time that has principally informed the recent spate of cinematic depictions of the queen, such that Strachey’s Victoria is now essentially our Victoria.
Our session concludes with a gesture toward our own disconcerting political moment, as Mallory R. Cohn presents “Strachey’s Alternative Facts: Life Writing in the Face of Modern Catastrophe.” Ms. Cohn reassesses Eminent Victorians by examining his exchange of the typical strategies of a biographer for those of a novelist. Viewing Eminent Victorians through the lens of Georg Lukacs’s Theory of the Novel, Ms. Cohn observes how both Strachey and Lukacs decry the deadening force of bourgeois cultures that reduces any gesture of heroism to comedic futility. Turning her attention to the present day, Ms. Cohn will consider ways of retaining a Strachey-like approach to historical criticism, preserving a relation to truth that, while skeptical, does not descend into a post-factual nihilism.
Taken together, these papers raise compelling questions that span from the psychological to the political, from the cinematic to the sociological. They offer an invigorating new look not only at Lytton Strachey, but also at the worlds of life writing and critical thought that have been brought into being by the children’s children of his generation.
As this proposal was being finalized, word was received that Georgia Johnston, who served as chair of GS Life Writing in the year just concluded, has passed away after a long and courageous struggle with cancer. Professor Johnston, an expert on Virginia Woolf and Bloomsbury, had been especially looking forward to this session on Strachey at MLA 2018. This proposal and the proposed session are respectfully dedicated to her memory.