|What's a footnote?|
One of the best aspects of Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians is his talent to succinctly and eloquently portray people that play secondary parts in the "plot" of our heroes' lives. Cardinal Newman, Sir Evelyn Baring, Gladstone, Lord Panmure, Lord Hartington, they all have a quality to them that is better than life. Reduced to a handful of traits, they are interesting in the way literary characters are. The elegance and intelligence of Strachey's style makes historical truths almost superfluous. (Might this be an occasion to use that nice proverb, se non è vero, è ben trovato - if it's not true, it still makes for a good story?)
The best example of this is the portrait of Monsignor Talbot, a secretary to Pope Pius IX. I think a lot of writers would be proud to have written this passage. It is perfect, down to the punchline:
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 master of various arts which the practice of ages has 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; and, on occasion, he could ring the changes of torture on a human soul with a tact which called forth universal approbation. 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.
If you want to read more, Eminent Victorians, published in 1918, is copyright free and available on a good number of sites on the internet. Like here. Or here. Or here. (Okay, okay, I'll stop now.)