From Eminent Victorians to The Daily Show: The Art of Biography

I’ve finished re-reading Eminent Victorians and sit here in a fog of spice cookies and lemon glaze to make my report. I’ll begin by saying that twenty years ago my first reading of this wonderful series of biographical sketches was impoverished by the fact that I had no idea Strachey’s brand of biography was in the least unusual. And that, dear reader, is what I’d like to talk about today.

Strachey’s subjects are four Victorian notables, people who accomplished remarkable things in their lives, and who were models of probity and seriousness. I imagine that before Strachey came along these sorts of notables were written about as exemplars of virtue, as heroes. And although Strachey did see them this way, his contribution to the art of biography is that he also found all that energy and probity amusing and he wasn’t afraid to say so.

His piece on Florence Nightingale, the one woman in this group, is my favorite because he manages to give us her story straight and with sympathy and also to get across just how terrifyingly efficient and single-minded she was. This comes across throughout the sketch, but it gets particularly funny when Strachey talks about the period late in her life when Nightingale became interested in philosophical and theological questions or, as Strachey puts it, “Having set right the health of the British Army, she would now do the same good service for the religious convictions of mankind.”

And so she did, but in her own unique way. Here’s what Strachey has to say about that: “Yet her conception of God was certainly not orthodox. She felt towards Him as she might have felt towards a glorified sanitary engineer; and in some of her speculations she seems hardly to distinguish between the Deity and the Drains. As one turns over these singular pages, one has the impression that Miss Nightingale has got the Almighty too into her clutches, and that, if He is not careful, she will kill Him with overwork.”

The Victorian age also saw the conversions of Newman and Manning to Catholicism, a serious enough topic. What’s wonderful about Eminent Victorians is that Strachey finds the ecclesiastical establishment as amusingly hypocritical as Trollope did. Here’s a description of Cardinal Manning’s machinations in Rome, as he maneuvered himself closer to power by ingratiating himself with the Pope’s private secretary, Monsignor Talbot. It’s a long passage, and I don’t want to just dump it on you, but it’s worth reading, because it’s very typical of the sort of thing Strachey does so well:

“Monsignor Talbot was a priest who embodied in a singular manner, if not the highest, at least the most persistent traditions of the Roman Curia. He was a master of various arts which the practice of ages had brought to perfection under the friendly shadow of the triple tiara. He could mingle together astuteness and holiness without any difficulty; he could make innuendoes as naturally as an ordinary man makes statements of fact; he could apply flattery with so unsparing a hand that even Princes of the Church found it sufficient. . . . With such accomplishments, it could hardly be expected that Monsignor Talbot should be remarkable either for a delicate sense of conscientiousness or for an extreme refinement of feeling, but then it was not for those qualities that Manning was in search when he went up the winding stair. He was looking for the man who had the ear of Pio Nono; and, on the other side of the low-arched door, he found him. Then he put forth all his efforts; his success was complete and an alliance began which was destined to have the profoundest effect upon Manning’s career, and was only dissolved when, many years later, Monsignor Talbot was unfortunately obliged to exchange his apartment in the Vatican for a private lunatic asylum at Passy.”

This is a description worthy of Mark Twain, who was a master of the deadpan moment at the end of a passage, and of the deployment of the rhetoric of seriousness to show just how utterly ridiculous a person or idea really was. The only thing is, Eminent Victorians is not fiction. And that’s Strachey’s achievement: he chose to be biting and amusing in a genre that, before he arrived, just didn’t do that kind of thing, or at least not as far as I know. It was as though he’d showed up at a society wedding wearing a swimsuit.

Although that was shocking then, we’ve pretty much come to see this sort of thing as the norm now, almost 100 years later. (Eminent Victorians came out in 1918.) There are, of course, outposts of high mindedness that could do with a little infusion of wit: academic writing (and no, I’m not talking about our academic friends like litlove, dorothy, ms. make tea, kate, the hob, my friend Catherine) and children’s textbooks, come immediately to mind. My own work writing about the law also calls out for more recognition of the ridiculousness of the human condition.

Okay, so here’s where I get to The Daily Show. If I had to point to someone who I think is a descendent of Strachey, I’d choose Jon Stewart (for those who don’t know: Jon Stewart is the very funny anchor of The Daily Show, the Comedy Central send-up of network news programs so good that many people use it as their primary source of television news.) Jon Stewart’s appeal is that he’s working in a medium that demands its subjects be treated with gravity, and he refuses to deliver that. He gives us something better, of course: he gives us the raised eyebrow.

Stewart’s subjects, of course, aren’t anything like the Victorians, people who, though flawed and full of themselves, had some sense of ethics, and the public good. Instead, Stewart’s material includes people like George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld, people about whom there is no greatness, just banal and tragic incompetence. I suppose that might explain the absence of linguistic wit on the Daily Show. Words aren’t really necessary in the face of people like these. A laugh is guaranteed simply by repeating what they’ve said or done in public, and then raising an eyebrow and looking straight into the camera. Night after night, all Jon Stewart has to do to get a huge response is show someone from the Bush administration speaking and then ask, did he really say that?

So here’s my final thought.  One wonders: if Jon Stewart had different subjects with which to work, might he be able to rise above the eyebrow and really exploit his talent for wit, as Strachey did? As it is, ours does not appear to be the time for words, but a time when the raised eyebrow and the straight look are more than enough, because words are both too much and too little for the un-eminent figures of our new century.


13 thoughts on “From Eminent Victorians to The Daily Show: The Art of Biography

  1. What a wonderful contrast of two ages. The age of wonderful words and the age of inventive imagery. The only point I would disagree with you on is the status of the Bush Regime. You write of them, “people about whom there is no greatness, just banal and tragic incompetence.” This is indeed the public face and, tragic though it may be, the putative leader does indeed exude incompetence. Yet behind it all I sense an evil and malignant presence.

  2. Brilliant of you to associate Strachey and Stewart. I think it is certainly true that, when necessary, Stewart can also raise his verbal browbeating to the superb ironic and understated levels of Strachey. It would be fun to find out if he’s read the EVs. I wonder if his staff googles on his name and will find your essay. Thank you.

  3. Hello Archie — You know, I think you’re right. It’s hard not to look at the results of these incompetent actions and the persistence of the Bush administration in pursuing them and not conclude something very bad is happening.

    My dear Smokey, Well, their names do start with the same letter. I’m so fond of that moment when Jon Stewart looks nto the camera that I sometimes don’t even listen to what he might be saying. I’ll pay more attention to it, though!

  4. Funnily enough, in the UK we lived in a reclaimed Victorian asylum called Florence Court, where the developers swore to us that the saintly Florence had actually nursed. It was a lovely place to live (high ceilings, sash windows, whiff of madness), and is still home to the much-esteemed author Hilary Mantel who I never managed to meet despite hanging out in the car park near her Audi, dropping library books out of my backpack.

    But I digress … thanks for the insights into the history of biography Bloglily. I’ve never watched The Daily Show, but I’ve heard it’s very funny.

  5. Florence Court sounds like a great place to set a novel… one about a young woman who’s desperately trying to meet a great writer and goes to unusual lengths to do so!

  6. I like your phrase “the deployment of the rhetoric of seriousness” a lot. Chunky!

    That’s a wonderful association you bring together of the proper Victorians and our degenerative chaos today.

    Do you ever watch the Colbert Report after The Daily Show? I think Colbert surpasses Stewart. He looks like he should be a pipe-smoking suburban dad from the ’50s, but instead he’s an insane mind satirizing people like Bill O’Reilly.


  7. Wonderful post, Bloglily! In an odd moment of coincidence I saw the Jon Stewart show on TV last night – I’d never even heard of the guy before, and even from that brief viewing, I know just what you mean. However, I feel (in my cynical little way) that we just don’t have the kind of great reforming characters to call upon the way Strachey did. The people in the news are all too often pointless ‘celebrities’. I noticed he did have serious topic spokespeople on, and I saw that he was approaching what they did from a whole other angle, but now I wish I’d watched it more closely!

  8. Hey Lily!
    I’ve been reading a great book by a Victorian author — North & South by Elizabeth Gaskell. I’ve really enjoyed it — have you read any of her novels? She was married to a UU clergyman (I think); there is a real social consciousness in her work.

  9. Lily, I was going to put a comment here, but alas, the comment grew so large I deemed it to be post worthy. You can find it here. Sorry I’ve been away recently. The move consumed most of my free time.


  10. Jeff, I enjoyed your post. There’s something about these times that makes you wonder how anyone can react simply with words.

    Hello Julie– I loved North & South and was thrilled to discover Gaskell, just when I thought there were no more good, big 19th century novels. (And if I’m remembering right, I think Nice Work (david lodge) is full of allusions to it.)

    Uh-oh, Dorothy, now I’m wondering if I’ve led you to think Strachey is a laugh a minute — he’s not. But more entertaining than I’d thought.

    Dear Litlove, I’m so glad to hear that Jon Stewart’s made his way across the Atlantic. He’s one of my great favorites. I download him from iTunes, hoard up the episodes and then have a huge gorge of snark, and cynicism, and sarcasm and feel oh so much better for a little while.

    Fencer — Noone’s ever called anything I’ve written CHUNKY before. I’ll have to remember that!! Colbert cracks me up — I really like that little baton tossing thing he and Stewart do when the Daily Show ends, right before colbert begins.

    Yes, Lucette, it’s great being able to read things without having to be held to account for them. Even writing this post about Strachey was a little too much like being a student again for my tastes. I think I’m going back to food and silliness for a while.

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