The Letters of Lytton Strachey

The Letters of Lytton Strachey edited by Paul Levy. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005, 720 pages; $40


Lytton Strachey is one of the key figures in the cultural life of the 20th Century, and his letters are a literary treasure trove of the man and his world, as well as a record of the startling and poignant love affair between himself and the painter Dora Carrington. The breadth of his correspondence is breathtaking, going from precocious childhood letters to those written when he was a member of the secret Cambridge Apostles, and from letters to Leonard and Virginia Woolf, to Maynard Keynes and other members of the Bloomsbury Group, to love letters to Dora Carrington and Duncan Grant. The thousands of letters he wrote retain their vitality to this day, discussing changes in morals, the writing of history, literature and philosophy, politics, war and peace, and the advent of modernism.

Strachey believed that one only really comes to know a writer by reading his correspondence, and if these playful, provocative, and eminently sensible letters attest to anything, it is to the soundness of this belief.


Publishers Weekly: A complete edition of Lytton Strachey's letters would total six volumes, testament to the ferocious epistolary energy of the author of the classic Eminent Victorians, which ridiculed the hapless inhabitants of that era as priggish, canting hypocrites and revolutionized the biographical form. Levy, a Strachey trustee and editor of The Really Interesting Question and Other Papers, has selected the best of them, no easy task given that letter writing was Strachey's natural mode of communication.


Lytton Strachey (1880-1932) was a member of the Bloomsbury Group and the author of several classic biographies, including Queen Victoria and Elizabeth and Essex. His Eminent Victorians, published in 1918, inaugurated a new style of biography distinguished by irony, wit, and irreverence.


When we talked, the hour was early evening. Mr. Levy was in his home outside London, where he, an American born in Kentucky in 1941, lives with his English wife. Mr. Levy, whose British accent has covered over every trace of the colonies, has lived in England for more than 30 years. It was that time of evening, that "slow dusk," as English poet Wilfred Owen had it, for "the drawing down of blinds"; we chatted and gossiped about Lytton Strachey, his family and his friends in the Bloomsbury circle, until Mrs. Levy drew her husband away for dinner. Mr. Levy is an important member of the Lytton Strachey Trust. I asked, "What is the Lytton Strachey Trust?"

"Well, in 1972 Alix Strachey, Mrs. Strachey, the widow of James Strachey [Lytton's youngest sibling], who, like James, was a Freudian analyst, and who, like him, had been analyzed by Freud, was the legatee of virtually everything. The Stracheys had been so prolific in her husband's generation and now had new children. Alix was trying to think of some use to which she might put this voluminous correspondence that existed and all the books. The estate was considerable and she knew that it was increasing in value."

Alix Strachey therefore founded a charity, the Strachey Trust, and Mr. Levy was appointed one of the co-executors and founders of the charity. When Alix died, the Strachey Trust became owner of the copyrights of books written by other Stracheys.

"What charities does the Trust support?"

"It is a literary charity. The first project that we embarked upon was the location register of manuscripts -- to catalog, or to try to find the whereabouts of literary manuscripts of the 20th Century.

"Michael Holroyd [Lytton Strachey's first great biographer] and I had suffered from the absence of such a project. And I may pat us on the back and say we did have the foresight in the early '70s to realize that this had to be done with computers. Online things didn't actually quite exist then, but the idea of this material being held in some mechanically retrievable form was one that occurred to us very, very early on.

"It was a huge success. The Strachey Trust gave, as it were, the feed money for the project and it was then extended to 19th Century and now the 18th Century.

"It's been published in volume form as well. We are well into a new project, a register of copyright owners, another thing that we found to be elusive. So it all makes sense when you think about it, because it's all part and parcel of what I'd had to do in making this edition of Lytton's letters."

"Could you explain what has, for so long, fascinated Americans about what we call 'the Bloomsbury Group'?"

"It's the same thing that has fascinated the British. It's the fact that they were the first modern people. They were more like us than our own grandparents were. They had a touch of the bohemian, a touch of the artistic, a touch of the intellectual, a touch of the leftwing political, a touch of the civilized and highly cultured, a touch of bon vivant . They enjoyed their food and they enjoyed their wine. But they weren't the traditional food-enjoying, wine-enjoying classes. [Mr. Levy has been author and coauthor of books on food and eating.]

"So, in that sense they were more like contemporary people -- they were certainly more like us than they were like the rest of the people in the world at their time."

"They believed being was as important as doing."

"That's a very, very good characterization of something that I suppose they got from G.E. Moore, the mother of my books [Mr. Levy is author of the celebrated G.E. Moore and The Cambridge Apostles ]. That's a neat characterization I think of what they took from Moore. It's certainly true."

"They had the luxury of free time."

"They were leisured in a way that we aren't. Though we don't have servants, we do have washing machines. But the trouble is that the things that make our domestic life possible have multiplied and turned into necessities and getting them now takes up so much time that we don't have time to read."

"Isn't it amazing how many letters Lytton wrote?"

"Well, it's not quite so amazing when you realize that there weren't telephones. And later in life he hated the phone. It gave him a fright. Also, when I first moved to England [1962], there was still only one telephone per house."

"There was no privacy."

"No, there wasn't any privacy, but also it just wasn't quite so common to use. First of all, in a big old drafty house, like the one that I'm in at the moment, you would have had to have left whatever part of the house you were at and run to get the phone. Lots of people would have been in the habit of letting it ring 20 times to get an answer. So it wasn't convenient.

"The postal services were remarkable. There were three posts a day in London, so you could in the morning send an invitation for somebody to come for a tea and before tea time have got back a response. Even here in the country, until 15 years ago, we had two posts per day. It's in fairly recent times that we're down to one post a day.

"So the post was efficient, it was effective, and since it was used in many of the ways that we now use the telephone, the letters are more immediate, more vibrant, and they more accurately reflect the tone of voice."

Mr. Levy wondered if e-mail were not bringing back letter writing. "Because I certainly correspond now, with some friends, not daily, but once a week, long letters."

"How did you get interested in Lytton and the Apostles?"

"Initially, I learned about the Bloomsbury Group when I was an undergraduate at the University of Chicago where I first started in 1959. I learned about the Bloomsbury Group because I was the first, and probably only ever undergraduate, taught by Saul Bellow. When he came back to Chicago he went into something called The Department of Social Thought, a graduate program. I was allowed to take his seminar and we became pals. He was writing Mr. Sammler's Planet, in which the Bloomsbury Group figures. So, he set me to reading Virginia Woolf."

"What an odd duo they would have been -- Lytton and Virginia."

"Wouldn't they? Wouldn't they? But in the end, what actually happened was that I then came to London to study philosophy, then went back to Harvard, studied philosophy there, doing a Ph.D. I ended up transferring to do a Ph.D. in English in the English Department, where a wonderful professor told me that I had best go back to England and write about G.E. Moore. I thought that was a very odd thing. Besides, they were funding me to do this. I'll never forget our conversation. I said, 'It's not an odd subject?' And he said, 'The English Department of Harvard University has a capacious bosom.' That was why I went off to do G.E. Moore and it took an awfully long time.

"Moore was difficult and also there were too many papers. It took me about ten years; the papers were doled out to me piecemeal rather than all at once, and I could never get a handle on it, so it did take me a very long time. And to be honest, it had to wait until his widow died because the last of the papers, and in a way the key to the whole thing, which I think was his attitude to World War I, were in fact papers she hadn't given me. So, it was mostly my fault and lack of imagination."

"And being young."

"And being young and stupid. But it did take long; it was a task that had to take its time. And it did. But then, in fact, I did an edition of some of Lytton's leftovers, before I had finished writing the Moore book. That was published in '72. The Moore book was published in '79."

"My belief," I said, "is that Lytton altered the way it was possible to write biography."

"Michael Holroyd made an even stronger claim the other day when we were doing one of the literary festivals. I was very impressed by it and thought about it and thought, 'Maybe he's right.' What he said was what Lytton actually did was to alter the practice of writing nonfiction. He affected the writing of history, making concision important, making the explanation of motives important, and of course, the one thing that one always forgets, and that is he was the first person to apply Freud to biography. One never thinks of him in that connection, but Freud did.

"There's a letter from Freud confirming it. Lytton had a more pervasive effect than one thinks of now. He knew the secret as Virginia did too, of the concrete and the particular -- how important that is, and how in the end, it's the only thing that we're interested in when we read about people and places and things, it's not the abstract relationships and whether they exemplify Platonic ideals that captures our attention as readers. We may be interested in big ideas, but our attention is caught by small details."

"Lytton didn't come into money, did he, until late in life?"

"No, he didn't. He was not the oldest or the youngest. Marjorie and James were younger. But he never wanted for anything as a child. He was of these big Victorian families, and though they weren't rich they were well off -- they were proper middle class. He was looking forward to moving from Central London to the outer fringes of Hampstead, which he regarded as a 'jungle' at the time, because he thought that there they could manage without a butler.

"He was looking forward to that because he didn't like the butler much. Every family had servants then. In an ordinary house, in the old days when that house was built at the turn of the last century, you would have had two servants to produce the hot water and the heating, as well as keeping it clean."

"That wasn't even getting started with dinner."

"Exactly. Even lower-middle-class people had servants. However, Lytton didn't have money of his own, and it was a big family, and the parents were long-lived. So, there wasn't any money to go around. He didn't earn money. Having failed to get a Cambridge fellowship, he had no source of income except the allowance that his parents made him, which was small.

"Even writing book reviews made a big difference. I lived the same way when I was in my late 20s. Only for me, it was more icing on the cake. Whereas for him it was the flour -- writing book reviews. He didn't have a good time of it. Finally, he did make a bit of money in journalism, but it was only with the success of Eminent Victorians that he became well off. But, my goodness, how well off he became."

"You noted that in today's money, Eminent Victorians, published in 1918, would have earned $232,000."

"It was a huge amount, wasn't it? I learned such a lesson about that, that these things don't mean anything unless they're translated. And what does worry me is the best figures I could get were for 2002. I'm worried about whether in 10 years that will make any sense. But still."

"How did Lytton manage to convey his sexual preference without finding himself in legal trouble and social isolation?"

"I don't think he had any problem. He lived in a largely homosexual atmosphere. From Cambridge on, it was sort of vogue. The campy language and all that. It was the fashion and the style, and then it carried over from Cambridge. It was the style in the Apostles. Moore tolerated it. Bertie Russell didn't, but he, on the other hand, was brutish in his own heterosexual way. I don't think they had much of a problem about that because they all talked as though they were gay and some actually were. In fact, when Lytton did finally sleep with Carrington, his main concern was not to let anybody know. He was slightly embarrassed."

As to his letters, said Mr. Levy, "clearly Lytton meant to publish them. I felt all along, in fact, there were little P.S.'s that were notes to me. In one of the letters, which I can only quote from memory, Lytton writes to, I think Leonard Woolf, Virginia's husband, 'I wonder what our editor will make of this.' He seems to imply to Leonard that the editor would be American, Jewish, and from New York. Well, I'm only two-thirds of that. But he does seem from time to time to have been writing occasional notes to me."

"Would you explain for Americans who the Apostles are?"

"The Apostles were a secret society that was at Cambridge, that began in 1820 as a debating club; they were theologically minded, at first, as everybody at the universities were. Tutors and such were still in Holy Orders. So that was natural. It was only later on that you could hold a fellowship without accepting the 39 articles."

"The 39 Articles Of Faith?"

"Yes." (Thirty-Nine Articles, set of doctrinal statements generally accepted in the Anglican Communion as having primary doctrinal significance. The articles are not officially acknowledged as a binding creed or confession of faith, but they do record the doctrinal foundations on which Anglican tradition grew. -- Microsoft Bookshelf Encyclopedia, 1998.)

"That was something they wrestled with quite a lot in The Apostles. I don't know exactly why they were called The Apostles [founded in 1820 as The Cambridge Conversazione Society]. It might be because there were 12 to start with, but after the early days, there were never 12 again. Tennyson, Arthur Hallam were the great famous ones. All the Victorian worthies tended to be members, including lots of Stracheys and lots of Stephens [Virginia Woolf was born a Stephen], and Leonard Woolf, who would marry Virginia." (Other Apostles were Charles Darwin's brother, Erasmus; Roger Fry; Bertrand Russell; Winston Churchill's private secretary, Eddie Marsh; G.E. Moore; E.M. Forster; John Maynard Keynes; Rupert Brooke; Ludwig Wittgenstein; spies Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt.)

"Was Virginia's father an Apostle?"

"No. Oddly he wasn't, nor was her brother Toby. And, of course, Clive Bell wasn't, and it rankled Clive, it rankled him a lot. J.K. Stephen, Virginia's cousin, was, and his father Fitzjames Stephen was, and Arthur Strachey was. But later on, it got very, very introverted, and they worried a lot about who was fit to be a member and that sort of thing. That's when they get tedious and a bit boring."

"Does it still go on, The Apostles?"

"It does. It certainly does."


"It is amazing, isn't it? Mind you they've admitted women since the 1970s, I think. I think they might have run out of talent if they hadn't done that. The last time I'd heard anything about them, they were discussing town planning and related issues. I don't know what they do now. I'm completely out of touch."

"Lytton would have a fit, town planning."

"He wouldn't have liked that."

Now that Mr. Levy had spent so many years with the so-called "Bloomsberries" and more so with Lytton Strachey, did he like Lytton more or less?

"If you had asked me, oh, say two years ago, 'Do you like him as much as when you started work?' I might have said, 'No.' There was the matter of anti-Semitism to deal with. Frances Partridge said to me -- I had discussed this with her endlessly, as you can imagine -- practically every Christmas for years. She said to me one day, 'You just have to realize that we cannot read these letters without the knowledge of Hitler and the consequences of anti-Semitism.' But Lytton died in 1932 and had no notion of this. Well, yes, that's a valid point. Her other point was that Lytton, like Virginia, was so close to one particular Jew, namely Leonard, that it gave them a sort of 'street cred.' I'm not sure I entirely buy that."

Levy's book has in it a letter from Lytton to Virginia that has never been published.

"Mind you," said Mr. Levy, "I had to do the equivalent of open heart surgery to get that letter in the book, and my note that goes with it, without changing the pagination. The note is not as full as I would have liked it to have been. But with The Road into the Open by Schnitzler -- I did manage to get a copy of the book and to read it -- it does seem to me that the mere fact of Lytton's having read it and thought it worth calling to Virginia and Leonard's attention, shows that there is something to the street cred argument, more than I thought. This shows him in a sympathetic light, and by extension, Virginia. So this is an important letter, this new letter. And it's good news for Bloomsbury fans."

Mr. Levy was born in Kentucky. "Yes. With the wonderful hams. We had one every Christmas. My Russian-Jewish grandfather was a farmer, and my father studied agriculture at the University of Kentucky."

"And you read Robert Penn Warren."

"I read Robert Penn Warren."

"I had never thought of your being from Kentucky. I had never thought of your being from America."

"I'm about eligible for social security. I've actually lived in England more years than I lived in America. Considerably more now. I was back and forth a lot from the age of about 21 on, until about 30."

We talked a bit about the wonders of Kentucky food when Mr. Levy was a boy. He said, "Our food at home was astonishing. It was wonderful because my mother couldn't cook."

"Can you remember on the back of the stove how there would be that little can of bacon grease?"

"I'm afraid I can't."

"You probably never went in the kitchen."

"No, I can remember it because the bacon was always drained. I think our cook, Rhoda, probably did cook with it secretly. But it was thought to be very bad for you. I'm sure she did use it."

"Do you remember black bottom pies?"

"I do, with chocolate on the bottom layer. Though we were a more pecan pie and fruitcake family."

As for this compilation of Lytton's letters, it took Mr. Levy "five years from start to finish. The most important thing about it was my wife's contribution, which was absolutely essential. She did the one sensible thing that never would have occurred to me, because I was working entirely from photocopies, which were mostly supplied by Michael Holroyd after he finished his 1996 revision. Penny, my wife, did the one thing that would never have occurred to me to do, which was absolutely crucial, and that was to number them sequentially.

"So I didn't need to spend six months putting them back in order. I must say, that's my big tip to anybody doing anything chronological, is write the number in pencil on the back of the document."

"I loved Stephen Tennant showing up in your book -- at a party."

"Oh, yes, Stephen Tennant, yes. Isn't that wonderful? And I'm longing to read the new Life of Sassoon. It apparently has the best poetry of Stephen Tennant that's ever been published."

"Tennant was absolutely mad."

"Tennant, yes, he must have been. But, apparently, in this book, you do begin to see what Sassoon found to love about him, so that will be interesting."

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