Giles Lytton Strachey, whose iconoclastic reexaminations of historical figures changed forever the course of modern biographical writing, was born in London on March 1, 1880, the eleventh child of a distinguished upper-class family. His father was an elderly lieutenant-general in the army who had spent much of his career in India. Strachey's upbringing was supervised primarily by his mother, a strong-willed young Scotswoman well versed in English and French literature. He was educated in a series of private schools and attended University College, Liverpool, before entering Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1899. A member of the secret Cambridge Conversazione Society, better known as the Apostles, he made lasting friendships with Clive Bell, Leonard Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, and other intellectuals who rejected Victorian mores and later formed the core of the illustrious Bloomsbury group. Thwarted in his attempts to pursue an academic career, Strachey returned to London in 1905. There he found work as an essayist for various journals and became drama critic for The Spectator. The favorable reception of his first book, Landmarks in French Literature (1912), bolstered his commitment to writing.
Strachey's next work, Eminent Victorians (1918), caused a succès de scandale, establishing him as a leader of the reaction against the Victorians that followed World War I. "Lytton Strachey's chief mission . . . was to take down once and for all the pretensions of the Victorian Age to moral superiority," noted Edmund Wilson. "In Eminent Victorians he stripped forever of their solemn upholstery the religion, the education, the statesmanship and the philanthropy of the society which had brought it about." His biographer Michael Holroyd agreed: "Evangelism, liberalism, humanitarianism, education, imperialism—these were Strachey's targets: and he struck them beautifully." Cyril Connolly deemed it "the work of a great anarch, a revolutionary textbook on bourgeois society," and it is reported that Bertrand Russell laughed out loud while reading Eminent Victorians during his imprisonment for antiwar activities.
Strachey scored a triumphant success with his next biography, Queen Victoria (1921). Although he set out to reveal the mediocrity of Victoria's character, critics agree that instead Strachey became totally enraptured by his subject. "Queen Victoria is an achievement of genius, and it has revolutionized the art of biography," wrote E. M. Forster. "Strachey did what no biographer had done before: he managed to get inside his subject. Earlier biographers, like Macaulay and Carlyle, had produced fine and convincing pictures of people; Lytton Strachey makes his people move; they are alive, like characters in a novel. . . . A whole society and its inhabitants rise from the grave, and walk about. . . . Queen Victoria is a masterpiece." Virginia Woolf agreed: "Victoria is a triumphant success. . . . In time to come Lytton Strachey's Queen Victoria will be Queen Victoria, just as Boswell's Johnson is now Dr. Johnson. The other versions will fade and disappear."
Strachey pushed the boundaries of biography still further in Elizabeth and Essex (1928). Sometimes considered a historical drama rather than a formal biography, it presents a compelling Freudian analysis of Queen Elizabeth. Though the book was attacked by many critics for its lurid portrayal of the monarch's sexuality, Sigmund Freud praised Elizabeth and Essex in a letter to Strachey. "As a historian you show that you are steeped in the spirit of psychoanalysis," he wrote. "You have approached one of the most remarkable figures in your country's history, you have known how to trace back her character to the impressions of her childhood, you have touched upon her most hidden motives with equal boldness and discretion, and it is very possible that you have succeeded in making a correct reconstruction of what actually occurred."
Portraits in Miniature (1931), the last volume that Strachey published during his lifetime, comprises a series of biographical "silhouettes" written throughout the 1920s. Edmund Wilson said of it: "In Portraits in Miniature, which seems to me one of Strachey's real triumphs, he gives glimpses, through a series of thumb-nail sketches of for the most part minor historical and literary personages, of the evolution of modern society from the Elizabethan to the Victorian Age."
Lytton Strachey died at Ham Spray House, his home in Berkshire, on January 21, 1932. Characters and Commentaries, a collection of his literary criticism, appeared the following year as a companion volume to the earlier Books and Characters (1922). His other posthumously published books include The Collected Works of Lytton Strachey (1948), Ermyntrude and Esmeralda (1969), Lytton Strachey by Himself (1971), and The Shorter Strachey (1980). In assessing his achievements biographer Leon Edel noted: "What Strachey understood, for all his abrasiveness, was the principle of human volatility; he knew that the ego seeks at all costs its basic defenses; and he knew what other biographers had not learned—that a biographical subject is consistently ambiguous, irrational, inexplicable, self-contradicting; hence, it truly lends itself to irony and to delicacies of insight and sentiment. . . . Lytton Strachey had dared to do what other biographers feared: to interpret his materials courageously, to say what things meant."
Virginia Woolf agreed: "The figure of Lytton Strachey is so important a figure in the history of biography that it compels a pause. For his three famous books, Eminent Victorians, Queen Victoria, and Elizabeth and Essex, are of a stature to show both what biography can do and what biography cannot do. . . . The anger and the interest that his short studies of Eminent Victorians aroused showed that he was able to make Manning, Florence Nightingale, Gordon, and the rest live as they had not lived since they were actually in the flesh. . . . In the lives of the two great Queens, Elizabeth and Victoria, he attempted a far more ambitious task. Biography had never had a fairer chance of showing what it could do. For it was now being put to the test by a writer who was capable of making use of all the liberties that biography had won."