Narrative Summary of Eminent Victorians


This book is a collection of biographical sketches written in the early 20th century about four prominent figures of the Victorian Era. The author, Lytton Strachey, presents a complex and nuanced view of these individuals, revealing their motivations, struggles, and contradictions.

Each chapter focuses on a particular individual, exploring their unique story and placing it within the broader context of the Victorian age. The book goes beyond simple hagiography, providing a more critical and probing analysis of the characters’ personalities and actions.

Main Parts:

  • Cardinal Manning: This chapter traces Manning’s journey from a young man torn between secular ambitions and religious calling to his ultimate conversion to Catholicism and his rise to prominence within the Church. It explores his internal struggles, his intellectual and emotional motivations, and his relentless drive for power.
  • Florence Nightingale: This chapter focuses on Nightingale’s relentless dedication to reforming the medical and nursing practices of her time, inspired by her experiences during the Crimean War. It delves into her deep convictions, her remarkable resilience, and the complex relationships she forged with her allies and adversaries.
  • Dr. Arnold: This chapter examines the impact of Dr. Arnold’s reformist approach to public school education, his attempt to instill Christian principles and moral values in his students. The chapter explores his complex relationship with his pupils, his beliefs about the nature of education and society, and his profound influence on English public schools.
  • General Gordon: This chapter follows Gordon’s tumultuous life as a military leader and administrator, driven by a complex combination of religious fervor, moral conviction, and a thirst for adventure. The author explores Gordon’s internal struggles, his often reckless pursuit of duty, and his tragic downfall in the Sudan.

View on Life:

  • Manning: Manning believed that the world was a place of temptation and danger, where worldly success was a threat to one’s salvation. He felt drawn to a more rigorous and absolute form of faith, leading him to embrace Catholicism.
  • Nightingale: Nightingale believed that life was a journey of service, where one’s actions should be guided by moral principles and a sense of duty. She was driven by a need to improve the world, particularly in the areas of health, sanitation, and social justice.
  • Arnold: Arnold saw the world as a battleground between good and evil, where one’s duty was to combat sin and promote Christian values. He believed in a rigorous moral code and saw education as a means to cultivate Christian character.
  • Gordon: Gordon’s view of life was heavily influenced by his deeply held religious beliefs, emphasizing submission to God’s will and a constant struggle against earthly desires. He embraced a mystical understanding of the universe, often seeing his own actions as driven by a higher purpose.


  • Manning: The Oxford Movement and his eventual conversion to Catholicism.
  • Nightingale: The Crimean War and her work reforming the Army Medical Department.
  • Arnold: His role as headmaster of Rugby School and his attempt to instill Christian values in his students.
  • Gordon: The Taiping Rebellion in China, the suppression of the slave trade in the Sudan, and his final mission to Khartoum.


  • Manning: His struggle to reconcile his personal ambitions with his religious calling, the internal conflict within the Catholic Church, and his relentless pursuit of power.
  • Nightingale: The disastrous state of the military hospitals during the Crimean War, the resistance to her reforms from the Army Medical Department and the War Office, and her own fragile health.
  • Arnold: The chaotic state of public school education, the challenge of integrating religious and moral principles into the curriculum, and the tension between his progressive ideals and the conservative nature of society.
  • Gordon: The brutal realities of the Sudan, the corruption and incompetence of the Egyptian administration, the power of the Mahdi, and the vacillating policies of the English Government.


  • Manning: The conflict between his personal ambitions and his desire for spiritual fulfillment, the clash of ideologies within the Catholic Church, and the resistance from those who challenged his authority.
  • Nightingale: The conflict between her passion for reform and the resistance she faced from the traditional powers of the medical establishment and the War Office, and the internal conflicts within the nursing profession.
  • Arnold: The tension between his progressive ideals and the conservative nature of English society, the resistance to his reformist approach to education, and the conflict between his vision of Christian education and the reality of a public school environment.
  • Gordon: The conflict between his own convictions and the contradictory policies of the English Government, his internal struggles to reconcile his religious beliefs with his adventurous spirit, and the ultimate clash with the Mahdi.


  • Manning: Manning’s early life, his gradual move towards Catholicism, and his rise to power within the Church.
  • Nightingale: Her early experiences as a nurse, her efforts to reform the Army Medical Department during the Crimean War, and her long campaign for broader social reforms in health and sanitation.
  • Arnold: His life as a scholar and a teacher, his appointment as headmaster of Rugby School, and his impact on English public school education.
  • Gordon: His early military career, his remarkable achievements in China, his work in the Sudan, and his tragic downfall at Khartoum.

Point of view:

The book is written from a third-person perspective. Strachey takes a critical and sometimes ironic tone, revealing the complexities and contradictions of his subjects. His insights into the personalities and motivations of the characters offer a more nuanced understanding of these historical figures than traditional biographical accounts.

How it’s written:

Strachey’s writing is characterized by a witty and often sarcastic tone, with a focus on revealing the inner lives and motivations of his subjects. He uses vivid language, anecdotes, and historical context to bring his subjects to life, often with a touch of irony and humor.

An example is his description of Lord Panmure: “That large low head seemed to have been created for butting rather than for anything else. There he stood, four-square and menacing in the doorway of reform; and it remained to be seen whether, the bulky mass, upon whose solid hide even the barbed arrows of Lord Raglan’s scorn had made no mark, would prove amenable to the pressure of Miss Nightingale.”


The tone of the book is witty, satirical, and often critical, offering a more nuanced and complex view of its subjects than traditional biographical accounts. Strachey’s writing is not hagiographical, but rather, he seeks to understand the internal conflicts, the contradictions, and the complexities of his subjects’ personalities and actions.

Life choices:

  • Manning: Manning chooses to follow a religious calling, rejecting secular ambitions and ultimately embracing Catholicism.
  • Nightingale: Nightingale chooses to dedicate her life to service, rejecting a traditional upper-class life and embracing a career in nursing and social reform.
  • Arnold: Arnold chooses to dedicate his life to promoting Christian principles and moral values, particularly in the context of education.
  • Gordon: Gordon makes numerous choices driven by a sense of duty and a desire to be of service, often embarking on perilous and demanding missions.


  • Manning: The importance of pursuing a deeply held faith, even if it means challenging societal norms and embracing a life of service.
  • Nightingale: The power of personal conviction and dedication to achieving social change, the importance of confronting injustice and challenging the status quo, and the need for compassion and care for those in need.
  • Arnold: The role of education in shaping character and promoting moral values, the importance of a rigorous moral code, and the need for a strong sense of personal responsibility.
  • Gordon: The importance of pursuing a sense of duty and acting according to one’s convictions, even in the face of great challenges and personal danger.


  • Cardinal Manning: A complex and ambitious man, driven by a profound religious calling. He is both intellectual and ruthless, seeking power and influence within the Catholic Church.
  • Florence Nightingale: A deeply passionate and dedicated woman, driven by a need to serve others and reform the world, particularly in the realm of healthcare and social justice.
  • Dr. Arnold: A devout and earnest man, committed to promoting Christian principles and moral values, particularly in the context of education. He is both strict and compassionate, seeking to mold his students into Christian gentlemen.
  • General Gordon: A fervent Christian and a soldier of immense courage, driven by a sense of duty and a mystical belief in God’s will. He is both impulsive and self-sacrificing, often venturing into perilous situations to serve those in need.


  • Faith and Doubt: The text explores the complexities of faith, the struggle to reconcile personal beliefs with societal expectations, and the profound influence of religious convictions on personal choices and actions.
  • Social Justice: The book highlights the importance of social reform and the need to address issues of poverty, injustice, and inequality.
  • Ambition and Power: The text examines the various forms of ambition and the pursuit of power, exploring the impact of these drives on individual lives and the broader social landscape.
  • The Nature of Leadership: The book contrasts different styles of leadership, highlighting the role of conviction, charisma, and personal responsibility in shaping the course of events.
  • The Impact of History: The book explores how individuals are shaped by their historical context, and how their actions in turn contribute to the broader course of history.


  • Personal Responsibility: Each of the individuals in the book is motivated by a sense of personal responsibility and a desire to make a difference in the world.
  • The Importance of Faith: Faith plays a significant role in the lives of all four figures, shaping their choices and actions.
  • The Value of Courage: The book celebrates courage in the face of adversity and the need to stand up for what one believes in, even in the face of opposition and danger.

Intentions of the characters in the text or the reader of the text:

  • Manning: To achieve a position of power within the Catholic Church, to further his beliefs, and to influence the broader social landscape.
  • Nightingale: To reform the healthcare system, to improve the lives of the poor and the sick, and to challenge the status quo.
  • Arnold: To instill Christian principles and moral values in his students, to combat social injustice, and to contribute to a more just and moral society.
  • Gordon: To act according to his faith, to serve others in need, and to protect those in danger.

Unique Vocabulary:

  • “Vita umbratilis”: A life lived in the shadows, devoid of public recognition or acclaim.
  • “Obliggato”: A musical term used to describe a mandatory part of a composition. In the context of the text, this emphasizes the sense of duty and obligation that drives some of the characters.
  • “Nemesis”: A deserved punishment or retribution. This word highlights the cyclical nature of events and the consequences of past actions.
  • “B. and s.”: Short for “bread and sausage,” a common phrase used by Gordon to describe his preference for simple meals. This reflects his disdain for the indulgences of a more privileged lifestyle.


  • Manning’s interview with Pius IX: The Pope is surprised to learn that the chalice is used for communion in the Anglican Church, highlighting the differences in practice between the two denominations.
  • The story of Sister Emma Ryle: This letter from a penitent reveals the complex issues surrounding religious conversion and the challenges of navigating differences in belief.
  • Gordon’s encounter with the Egyptian Governor-General: The story of the ballet illustrates the clash of cultures and the clash between Gordon’s religious convictions and the customs of the Egyptian administration.
  • The “Look after Dowb” telegram: This amusing anecdote highlights the absurdity and the inherent corruption of the War Office bureaucracy.


  • The complexities of faith: The book explores the various motivations behind religious belief and conversion, and the challenges of reconciling different religious perspectives.
  • The power of personal conviction: The characters in the book are driven by a strong sense of personal conviction and a desire to make a difference, illustrating the potential for individuals to shape the world around them.
  • The nature of leadership: The book examines the different styles of leadership, highlighting the impact of personal characteristics, motivations, and historical context on the exercise of power.
  • The inherent contradictions of the human spirit: The text explores the complex and often contradictory nature of human beings, revealing how individuals can be driven by both noble and base motivations.

Facts and findings:

  • The disastrous state of the British Army hospitals during the Crimean War: The book details the systemic failures in organization, sanitation, and medical practice, highlighting the consequences of neglecting basic human needs in times of conflict.
  • The complex history of the Sudan: The text provides insights into the dynamics of colonialism, the complexities of governance in a vast and diverse region, and the motivations behind the Mahdi’s rebellion.


  • The death rate in the Scutari hospitals: Miss Nightingale’s efforts dramatically reduced the death rate, demonstrating the impact of her work and the need for proper hygiene and sanitation.
  • The number of troops lost in the Hicks expedition: The defeat of Hicks highlights the disastrous consequences of poor planning and execution in military campaigns.

Points of view:

The book is written from a third-person perspective, allowing the author to provide a broader and more nuanced view of the characters and their actions. Strachey’s own perspective is evident in his witty and often critical tone, offering a more complex and thought-provoking portrait of his subjects than traditional biographical accounts.


The book offers a unique perspective on the Victorian Era, revealing the complexities and contradictions of the period through the lives of four prominent individuals. Strachey provides a more critical and nuanced view of these historical figures, challenging conventional narratives and offering a glimpse into the internal struggles and motivations of those who shaped their times.

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