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[ 555 Elizabeth and Essex An unsigned review of Elizabeth and Essex: A Tragic History, by Lytton Strachey London: Chatto and Windus, 1928. Pp. 288.1 The Times Literary Supplement, 1401 (6 Dec 1928) 959 When Mr. Strachey published his Eminent Victorians there arose a myth about him which neither his earlier nor his later works have been able to dissipate.2 He was received as the mocking iconoclast of the Victorian Pantheon, a stripper of reputation, a master of the art of reducing the great to the small. Even his Queen Victoria did not succeed in correcting this impression, though it revealed clearly Mr. Strachey’s genuine passion for genuine royalty and the fact that where he destroys one romance he creates another.3 He destroyed some myths about Victorians, no doubt; but the upshot of his work was rather to replace one romantic view which had become incredible by another more suited to reception by his own generation . Irony and mockery are not Mr. Strachey’s product, but merely his tools, which he uses slyly to allow us the luxury of sentiment without being ashamed of it. The great difference, indeed, between Mr. Strachey’s methods and those of his imitators is that the latter are often limited to mere derision, whereas in Mr. Strachey there is always affection, and often strong admiration, for his prey.4 In this book there is less of the ironic or amusing than even the most intelligent reader might expect; and what little there is appears incidentally, and perhaps merely to give that flavour of realism which we like in our romance. It is a “tragic history”; and it is not only of dramatic material, but is treated with dramatic skill. So dramatic is it that we forget at times that it is history at all. Yet it has its perfectly correct historical face. Dialogue is restricted to a minimum – only words actually reported, and quotations of letters skilfully embroidered into the text. It is only occasionally, with what is one of Mr. Strachey’s characteristic devices – one which is dangerous for him and fatal foranyoneelse–thereverie,thethoughtsanddreamswhichsomeperson may be supposed to have indulged at some critical moment, as of death, that we are reminded that this is drama, of a peculiar kind, more than history. 1928 556 ] The author’s presentation of his chief figures, however, is, we believe, as near to the right historical judgment as posterity can ever arrive. The chief figures are three: the Queen, Robert Devereux Earl of Essex, and Francis Bacon.5 Like some other dramatists, Mr. Strachey is more fascinated by his villain (Bacon) than by his hero (Essex). His Bacon is the twentieth-century equivalent for the Ignatian Machiavel of Elizabethan drama.6 He appears in higher relief, and with greater economy of words, than in the essay by Macaulay.7 Baconserves,indeed,ashisexampleofhisviewoftheElizabethan character. To Mr. Strachey the Elizabethan age appears remote and strange. “With very few exceptions – possibly with the single exception of Shakespeare – the creatures in it meet us without intimacy; they are exterior visions, which we know but do not truly understand” [8]. This inscrutability Mr. Strachey is too wise to try to explain, and is content to insist upon. Human beings, no doubt, would cease to be human beings unless they were inconsistent; but the inconsistency of the Elizabethans exceeds the limits permitted to man. Their elements fly off from one another wildly; we seize them; we struggle hard to shake them together into a single compound ,andtheretortbursts.Howisitpossibletogiveacoherentaccount of their subtlety and their naïveté, their delicacy and their brutality, their piety and their lust? Wherever we look, it is the same. By what perverse magic were intellectual ingenuity and theological ingenuousness intertwined in John Donne? Who has ever explained Francis Bacon? How is it conceivable that the puritans were the brothers of the dramatists? [9] Now it is quite true that at this distance the actions of Elizabethans appear often more inconsistent than our own. It is also true that in Elizabethan drama, even in the plays of Shakespeare, consistency of conduct in characters was obviously of much less importance to the dramatist and to the audience than it is to our contemporaries. As Mr. Mario Praz has pointed out in his admirable essay on the Machiavellian tradition in England, inconsistency and contrast were admired more than consistency and unity.8 But it is necessary to draw a distinction between fundamental differences of human nature at different times...


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