When Lytton Strachey was asked to propose a toast to his Eminent Victorians, he quoted an eminent Victorian biographer: “When I hear men called ‘judicious’ I suspect them; but when I hear them called ‘judicious and venerable,’ I know they are scoundrels.” Strachey amended this to describe his own credo: “When I hear people called ‘Victorians,’ I suspect them. But when I hear them called ‘eminent Victorians,’ I write their lives.”

Strachey wrote their lives to expose them, to reveal the private lives behind their public façades, the private vices that belied their public virtues. His book, published toward the end of the First World War, was his personal declaration of war (he refused to serve in his country’s war) against the Victorian pieties and hypocrisies, as he saw them, which still governed society—and which also governed the...

 
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