Leslie Stephen may be unique in having been represented in two important fictional works—Meredith’s The Egoist (1879), in which he appears as the walker and rationalist Vernon Whitford, and his daughter Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927), where he is the patriarchal philosopher, Mr. Ramsay. (He is also celebrated in a memorial sonnet by his friend Thomas Hardy.) These two accounts take us toward the man of Victorian rectitude and energy, whose views can seem advanced in 1879 and antiquated in 1927.
Reading Stephen’s numerous essays today we can find good grounds for both judgments. Stephen’s mental horizons were formed by his reading in philosophy, mostly in the 18th-century tradition that culminated in utilitarianism and the thought of John Stuart Mill. This, allied with Darwinism, destroyed the muscular Evangelical Christianity which had enabled Stephen to take orders and become a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, where he had established close bonds with his students by encouraging athletic activities, especially rowing and walking. When, having resigned his Fellowship, he moved to London in 1864 with thc aim of making a living by writing, he first edited the Alpine Journal. His first book of essays, The Playground of Europe (1871), consists of accounts of Alpine ascents.
The kind of play represented by walking and climbing was a serious matter (well discussed in Anne D.Wallace’s Walking, Literature, and English Culture, 1993). In a later essay, “In Praise of Walking” (1902,), Stephen links walking to thinking: “The true walker is one…to whom the muscular effort of the legs is subsidiary to the ‘cerebration’ stimulated by the effort; to the quiet musings and imaginings which arrive most spontaneously as he walks, and generate the intellectual harmony which is the natural accompaniment to the monotonous tramps of his feet.” This is a typical Stephen sentence: ponderous, thoughtful, grounded in experience—its rhythm that which Virginia Woolf famously ascribed to “the masculine sentence” in A Room of One’s Own (1929). Stephen certainly sought “intellectual harmony,” and found it in the British philosophical tradition of empiricism already mentioned, to which his major books are devoted.
His essays deal with similar subject matter, from Essays on Freethinking and Plainspeaking (1873) onward. The very title invokes a characteristic attitude, that of a man—one of his favorite adjectives is “manly”—who knows his own mind and will let us know too. He was an important contributor to the free-thought movement of the late 19th century. “Poisonous Opinions” from An Agnostic’s Apology (1893) puts the matter
succinctly, within its historical view of the development of religion—“A vigorous religion is a superstition which has enslaved a philosophy” (Stephen is capable of the memorable aphorism)—and its distant hope for a condition in which “philosophy might be the ally instead of the slave of religion.” Meanwhile, however, in Christian England, it was to secular philosophy that Stephen gave his forceful allegiance. His many lectures to
London ethical societies are collected in the two volumes of Social Rights and Duties (1896).
However, Stephen was not a philosopher, but rather what we would now call a historian of ideas, of a moralizing kind characteristic of his age. He read widely in English literature, and more of his essays concern imaginative writers than philosophers proper. What Stephen is always interested in is lines of thought, especially relating to ethics. The several volumes of Hours in a Library (1874–79) and Studies of a Biographer (1898–1902) display his range, going back to John Donne and Sir Thomas Browne but focusing most often on the 18th and early 19th centuries, and typically concerned with “Carlyle’s Ethics” in the former and “Pope as a Moralist” and “Wordsworth’s Ethics” in the latter. On all occasions Stephen attempts to be fair-minded, setting each writer’s work in a historical context, carefully surveying it, and trying accurately to portray its particular qualities to see how valuable these might be to a reader looking for sources of enlightenment and moral guidance. He makes no distinction between a writer and his (or occasionally her) work. He is never flippant, seldom amusing, but always sensible. His strength and limitations are well suggested by the terms of his praise of Joseph Butler: “an honest and brave man—honest enough to admit the existence of doubts, and brave enough not to be paralysed by their existence.” Honesty and courage are Stephen’s admirable but inflexible moral and intellectual ideals. This cast of mind served him well in his numerous contributions (378 in all, amounting to some thousand pages) to the Dictionary of National Biography, of which he was the first editor; in these he developed the capacity to provide summarizing accounts of his chosen subjects, relating personality to achievement with consistent clarity and confident authority.
To set Stephen’s essays by the side of his daughter’s, with their engaging vivacity and flexibility, is an illuminating way of approaching the relationship of Victorianism to Modernism.
Born 28 November 1831 in London. Studied at Eton College, Berkshire; private tutors, from 1848; King’s College, London; Trinity College, Cambridge, 1851–54, B.A., 1854.
Fellow, Trinity College, 1854–64. Visited the United States, 1863, meeting and becoming friends with James Russell Lowell and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.; visited again in 1868 and 1890. Moved to London, 1864. Married Minny Thackeray, 1867 (died, 1875): one daughter. Editor, Alpine Journal, 1868–72, and Cornhill Magazine, 1871–82; contributor to many journals and periodicals, including the Saturday Review, Pall Mall Gazette,
Nation (New York), Fraser’s Magazine, and Fortnightly Review. Married Julia Duckworth, 1878 (died, 1895): two daughters, including the writer Virginia Woolf and the artist Vanessa Bell, two sons, and three stepchildren. Editor (and contributor of 378 entries), Dictionary of National Biography, 1882–90: toward the end of the project suffered from nervous exhaustion. President, London Library, 1892. Elected member, British Academy, 1902. Knighted, 1902. Awards: honorary degrees from four universities. Died in London, 22 February 1904.
Essays and Related Prose
Sketches from Cambridge, by a Don, 1865
The Playground of Europe (Alpine essays), 1871; revised edition, 1894; edited by H.E.G.Tyndale, 1936
Essays on Freethinking and Plainspeaking, 1873
Hours in a Library, 3 vols., 1874–79; enlarged edition, 3 vols., 1892
An Agnostic’s Apology, and Other Essays, 1893
Social Rights and Duties (lectures), 2 vols., 1896
Studies of a Biographer, 4 vols., 1898–1902
Men, Books and Mountains: Essays, edited by S.O.A.Ullmann, 1956
Selected Writings in British Intellectual History: Leslie Stephen, edited by Noël Annan, 1979
Other writings: History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century (1876),
biographies of British literary figures and other works on literature, and memoirs.
Fenwick, Gillian, Leslie Stephen’s Life in Letters: A Bibliographical Study, Aldershot: Scolar Press, and Brookfield, Vermont: Ashgate, 1993
Annan, Noël, Leslie Stephen: His Thought and Character in Relation to His Time, London: MacGibbon and Kee, 1951; revised edition, as Leslie Stephen: The Godless Victorian, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, and New York: Random House, 1984
Bicknell, John W., “Leslie Stephen,” in Victorian Prose Writers After 1867, edited by William B.Thesing, Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 57, Detroit: Gale Research, 1987
Grosskurth, Phyllis, Leslie Stephen, London: Longman Green, 1968
Hyman, Virginia, “Late Victorian and Early Modern: Continuities in the Criticism of Leslie Stephen and Virginia Woolf,” English Literature in Transition 23, no. 3 (1980): 144–54
Leavis, Q.D., “Leslie Stephen: Cambridge Critic,” in A Selection from “Scrutiny”, vol. 1, edited by F.R.Leavis, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968:22–31
Maitland, Frederick William, The Life and Letters of Leslie Stephen, Bristol: Thoemmes, 1991 (original edition, 1906)
Maurer, Oscar, Jr., “Leslie Stephen and the Cornhill Magazine,” University of Texas Studies in English 32 (1953):67–95
Orel, Harold, “Leslie Stephen,” in Victorian Literary Critics, London: Macmillan, 1984
Schmidt, Barbara Ann, “In the Shadow of Thackeray: Leslie Stephen as the Editor of the Cornhill Magazine,” in Innovators and Preachers: The Role of the Editor in Victorian England, edited by Joel Wiener, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1985: 77– 96
Zink, David, Leslie Stephen, New York: Twayne, 1972
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