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Returning to Lytton Strachey

February 27th, 2006 (10:40 am)

The book which I've waited 23 years to finish was Elizabeth and Essex by Lytton Strachey. Reading the first couple of chapters, I can see why my twelve-year-old self put the book down. Strachey's prose, certainly in the earlier parts of the book, is high-flown; his writing combines deep historical insights with the kind of speculation that has no basis beyond Strachey's imagination and his identification with the leading figures. He's fascinated by late Elizabethan politics as a combination of intellectual fencing-match, literary circle and above all cult; Elizabeth is a kind of deity and Essex is her chief votary.

Strachey's style is supremely self-conscious. There's no doubt that he identifies with Elizabeth and with her male courtiers; he teases the reader with the idea that he, and we, might feel more at home there than in his present, yet at the same time is repelled by the brutality of late sixteenth-century English life: "Who can reconstruct those iron-nerved beings who passed with rapture from some divine madrigal sung to a lute by a bewitching boy in a tavern to the spectacle of mauled dogs tearing a bear to pieces?" For Strachey, Essex is both that bewitching boy in the tavern, a young man revelling in the display of a vital and colourful masculinity, and the bear who will in due course be torn to pieces by other animals. He understands Elizabeth as someone who made the most of her indecisiveness and heartfelt reluctance to do anything that might upset a delicate balance of power at home and abroad, in doing so challenging what I suspect was, in 1928 when the book was published, a still dominant whig interpretation of her as a triumphant, Armada-crushing, parliament-trusting, Imperial sovereign. Yet he's fond of the bald statement which, when I was twelve, would have alienated me, and perhaps still does. "In Elizabeth's case," Strachey tells his reader, "there was a special cause for a neurotic condition: her sexual organisation was seriously warped." By this I would have assumed that he meant there was a physical obstacle to Elizabeth having sexual relations. I realise now that this is only an element in Strachey's thinking; he goes on to detail what I think of as the old ground of Elizabeth's early childhood, where her father had her mother beheaded, and the period in her teens where Thomas Seymour "romped" with her in her bedroom. Strachey enjoys presenting Elizabeth as an androgynous figure, presenting herself as a paragon of feminine beauty but also as a king; he fantasizes that it was in her kingly form that she loved Essex, seeing herself as Hercules to Essex's Hylas.

Strachey's Elizabeth and Essex is apparently seen as a landmark text in the application of Freudian psychoanalysis to historical subjects. I don't know Freud's work at all, but am led to believe that Freud is present in much of Strachey's Elizabeth, the product of sexual repression presiding over a court where sexual desire is channelled into service to the sovereign.

More later, I hope, including some comments on the edition itself.


Posted by: malaheed (malaheed)
Posted at: February 27th, 2006 12:41 pm (UTC)

I read Strachey's E&E once. Or rather I read some of it. I think towards the end of my reading endurance (about 1/3 through) I was reduced to making Fruedian observations about Strachey as I felt the book told me far more about Strachey than Essex and Elizabeth. In summary. Give me the facts. Give me opinion. But don't tell me that opinion disguised as fact.

Posted by: pyotr_stolypin (pyotr_stolypin)
Posted at: February 27th, 2006 07:26 pm (UTC)

I was wondering what the abandoned text would turn out to be!

Your summary of Freud's influence on the book sounds about right.

There's no particular reason why the application of Freud - or Marx, for that matter - to historical writing shouldn't lead to new insights, clarifications, interesting new pathways etc.; more difficult to explain why it doesn't, yet in both cases it leaves the reader the inescapable sense of something having been artificially tacked-on. Strachey thought Queen Victoria the obvious subject of some form of anal fetishism, but even were he right, somehow it fails to enlighten.