• Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

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."

  • Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

More from SDReader


Sign in to comment

Win a $25 Gift Card to
The Broken Yolk Cafe

Join our newsletter list

Each newsletter subscription means another chance to win!