‘I have been a nine days’ wonder twice’, said Michael Holroyd, reflecting on the recent fuss surrounding Chatto and Windus’s purchase for a record £625,000 of the British and Commonwealth rights to his authorised biography of George Bernard Shaw. ‘The first time it was because of sex and now it’s because of money’.
The ‘sexual furore’, as he calls it, which brought him a short spell of literary notoriety in 1967, arose from the publication of the first volume of his life of Lytton Strachey. The book was greeted by an almost unanimous chorus of praise – C P Snow spoke memorably of the book possessing ‘the affirmation of a great novel’ – but in some circles it also provoked shocked disapproval at the extent of Holroyd’s candid disclosures of the sexual mores of certain members of the Bloomsbury Group. Despite Strachey’s own dictum that ‘discretion is not the better part of biography’, the boundaries of biographical discretion had not been dramatically pushed forward since the days of Eminent Victorians. In setting out to consider Strachey’s homosexuality ‘without any artificial veils of decorum’, to write in other words of homosexuality just as he would have written of heterosexuality, Holroyd was breaking relatively new ground.
But it was not just the details of Strachey’s sex life which stirred up controversy. Far more disturbing was the revelation of Maynard Keynes’s homosexuality. A cursory reading of the Strachey–Keynes correspondence would, as Holroyd wrote with characteristic humour, ‘have provoked curiosity in Gomorrah and caused the inhabitants of Sodom to sit up and take notice.’