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Strachey, Lytton (1880-1932)  

The English biographer and essayist Lytton Strachey spoke openly of his homosexuality to his Bloomsbury friends, but his openly gay works were published only after his death.

Giles Lytton Strachey was born in London on March 1, 1880, one of thirteen children of Richard Strachey and Jane Maria Grant. The large discrepancy in his parents' ages (thirty years) resulted in Lytton being much closer to his mother than his father. At Cambridge, he found his niche and made lasting friends, including those who would later form the nucleus of the Bloomsbury Group. It was in this milieu that Strachey wrote about and spoke openly of his homosexuality.

Two essays, not published during his lifetime, are explicitly homosexual. The first is an Arabian Nights inspired tale titled (appropriately) "An Arabian Night." It is a very light king-falls-in-love-with-shepherd-boy story (reprinted in The Really Interesting Question).

The other essay is a thinly veiled defense of homosexuality probably inspired by the Oscar Wilde trial; here Strachey remarks:

but I perpetually wonder what an immoral act is ... whether it is immoral to embrace, whether it is immoral to make a seminal discharge, and whether it is immoral to copulate in a somewhat unusual manner.... Why, I wish to know, is it perfectly moral for me to copulate with a personage whose sexual organs are different from my own, and perfectly immoral for me to copulate with a personage whose sexual organs are not different? (reprinted in The Really Interesting Question)

But Strachey is noted most for being a biographer and critic. He had a Dorothy Parker-like wit, sharp tongue, irreverent sense of humor, and did not suffer fools gently. It was this new approach to writing biography (as evidenced in Eminent Victorians, Queen Victoria, and Elizabeth and Essex), which is considered--almost universally--as "revolutionary."

His goal was to shatter the myths set up by Victorian society, expose the hypocrisy, and end the hagiography. This he did. Aspects of Queen Victoria read like a dish article in any current gay publication. In an essay on the Cambridge master John North, Strachey leaves the reader with an image of this once prim and proper professor (who after an illness takes up the bottle and a penchant for naughty stories) with an apparent moral about-face (reprinted in The Shorter Strachey).

His sharp tongue is evidenced in his review of Elizabeth Lee's translation of La Bruyère and Vauvenargues. "And if Miss Lee has failed with Vauvenargues it was not to be expected that she would succeed with La Bruyère. This would have required a special talent, a fine instinct, and a reverent mind ..." (reprinted in Literary Essays).

In his diary, Strachey writes about the loneliness of the Liverpool years, the desire for love, and of the unhappiness with his looks--thinking his face too oddly shaped. He grew his trademark beard for added character.

Lasting love proved elusive for Strachey. He did, however, have one person totally devoted to him, the painter Dora Carrington. Carrington knew Strachey was gay but was still hopelessly in love with him--even to the exclusion of several well-meaning suitors. She committed suicide after Strachey's death. Lytton Strachey succumbed to cancer in 1932.

Lee Arnold


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   Related Entries
literature >> Overview:  Bloomsbury

The Bloomsbury circle's open acceptance of erotic license and hostility toward social convention are important elements in the history of homosexuality among the English upper classes in the first half of the twentieth century.

social sciences >> Overview:  Cambridge Apostles

The Cambridge Apostles, founded in 1820 as a secret society at Cambridge University, is significant for the glbtq cultural legacy because it fostered frank discussions of homosexuality, promoted Platonic love, and helped establish Bloomsbury.

literature >> Overview:  English Literature: Nineteenth Century

From its beginning, the nineteenth century in England had a purposeful homosexual literature of considerable bulk, both male and female, though it was fettered by oppression.

literature >> Overview:  English Literature: Twentieth-Century

Homosexuality, both male and female, has a rich, divergent, and increasingly open expression in the literature of the twentieth century.

literature >> Overview:  Modernism

Despite the widespread homophobia in the Modernist movement, several of its practitioners were homosexual; some of them wrote openly about homosexuality, and the groundwork was laid for the gay liberation movement.

social sciences >> Overview:  United Kingdom I: The Middle Ages through the Nineteenth Century

The United Kingdom has a rich and vibrant legacy of queer cultural expression despite a long history of severe legal sanctions against male-male sexual acts and other manifestations of sexual and gender deviance.

social sciences >> Overview:  United Kingdom II: 1900 to the Present

Twentieth-century efforts to reform British law and public opinions about homosexuality met with mixed results, but at the beginning of the twenty-first century the United Kingdom has emerged as a leader in recognizing the rights of its glbtq citizens.

arts >> Carrington, Dora

English painter, designer, and decorative artist Dora Carrington is best known for her long relationship with gay writer Lytton Strachey, but she had affairs with both men and women, and her work has recently gained recognition.

literature >> Dickinson, Goldsworthy Lowes

Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, a Cambridge classicist and friend of E. M. Forster, is significant for the glbtq legacy as the author of an immensely popular book on ancient Greece and a posthumously published, surprisingly frank autobiography.

literature >> Lehmann, John

One of the most distinguished and discerning British men of letters of the mid-twentieth century, John Lehmann is best known as an editor and publisher.


Holroyd, Michael. Lytton Strachey: The New Biography. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994.

Spurr, Barry. Diabolical Art: The Achievement of Lytton Strachey. New York: Mellen, 1994.

Strachey, Giles Lytton. Elizabeth and Essex: A Tragic History. London: Chatto & Windus, 1928.

_____. Eminent Victorians: Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale, Dr. Arnold, General Gordon. London: Chatto & Windus, 1918.

_____. Literary Essays. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1949.

_____. Queen Victoria. London: Chatto & Windus, 1921.

_____. The Really Interesting Question and Other Papers. Paul Levy, ed. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1972.

_____. The Shorter Strachey. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980.


    Citation Information
    Author: Arnold, Lee  
    Entry Title: Strachey, Lytton  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated October 10, 2005  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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