We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Stephen, Caroline Emelia [Milly] (1834–1909), religious writer, was born on 8 December 1834 at Kensington Gore, later 42 Hyde Park Gate, London, the youngest child and only surviving daughter of , permanent under-secretary for the colonies, and Jane Catherine Venn (1793–1875), daughter of the Revd John Venn, rector of Clapham. Her brothers were the jurist and , first editor of the Dictionary of National Biography. Tutored by governesses, Caroline received no formal education, but the literary and evangelical atmosphere of her home influenced her later writing career. She spent her childhood in Kensington, Brighton, Windsor, and later Wimbledon. In 1848 her father was created KCB and retired from government service; he became regius professor of history at Cambridge in 1849, and the family took up residence there. Caroline Stephen never married; an unhappy love affair in 1857 was seen by her brother Leslie as the great tragedy of his sister's life and the cause of her poor health. But although he described Caroline as a feeble invalid, this view seems belied by her accomplishments.

Caroline Stephen's interest in charitable works began in the late 1860s, when a correspondence with Florence Nightingale helped Caroline to formulate the arguments presented in her first book, The Service of the Poor, published in 1871. During this period Caroline was also introduced to the Quaker faith by a family friend, Robert Were Fox. Both Leslie and Caroline had begun to doubt the doctrines of their family's evangelical faith, but while Leslie came to profess agnosticism Caroline's desire for a more personal relationship with God led her to embrace the Quaker's anti-dogmatic faith. As she noted, her first attendance at a Quaker meeting allowed her the ‘undisturbed opportunity for Communion with God’ (Quaker Strongholds, 1890, 3).

After nursing her ailing mother until her death in 1875 Caroline Stephen moved to Chelsea, where, with her cousin Sara Stephen, she founded the Metropolitan Association for Befriending Young Servants which aimed to educate young serving-girls in London. In 1877 she arranged for the building of a tenement for women, the Hereford Buildings, on what later became Old Church Street. After several years of intense commitment to these philanthropic groups Caroline's health began to deteriorate. She moved to the country, first to Wescott, near Dorking, and then in 1886 to West Malvern, where she lived for nine years.

Caroline Stephen had joined the Society of Friends in 1879; in 1890 she published the influential work Quaker Strongholds, which outlines the practices of the Quakers and describes their belief in the ‘inner light’ of God's presence within all people. This work went into four editions in her lifetime and was still in print a century later. In 1895 she moved to Cambridge and spent the remainder of her life there, at The Porch on Merton Street. Through her niece , principal of Newnham College, she became a well-known figure to the undergraduate women at Cambridge, giving lectures at Girton and Newnham which introduced the students to her Quaker faith.

Caroline Stephen's later works include The First James Stephen (1906), a collection of her father's letters, and The Light Arising: Thoughts on the Central Radiance (1908). She enlisted the help of her niece for a contribution to F. W. Maitland's 1904 biography The Life and Letters of Leslie Stephen: this was Virginia's first published work. Caroline Stephen's bequest of a legacy of £2500 to her niece was immortalized in Woolf's A Room of One's Own. In this work Woolf depicts poverty as the enemy of the woman writer, and credits her aunt's bequest with providing the financial support Woolf needed to become a writer. As Woolf noted, this legacy gave her the ‘freedom to think of things in themselves’, and she concluded that ‘my aunt's legacy unveiled the sky to me’ (Woolf, A Room of One's Own, 39). Caroline Stephen died at her home, The Porch, on 7 April 1909 as a result of a long-standing heart ailment. She was cremated at Golders Green on 13 April, and her ashes were interred at the Quaker burial-ground at Winchmore Hill on 16 April. A collection of Caroline's writings, The Vision of Faith and other Essays, was published by Katharine Stephen in 1911.

Margaret M. Jensen

Sources  

R. Tod, Caroline Emelia Stephen, 1834–1909 (privately printed, London, 1978) [incl. chronology and bibliography of Stephen's life] · Sir Leslie Stephen's mausoleum book, ed. A. Bell (1977) · V. Woolf, A room of one's own (1929); repr. (1978) · K. Stephen and J. Hodgkin, ‘Introduction’, in C. E. Stephen, The vision of faith and other essays (1911) · F. W. Maitland, The life and letters of Leslie Stephen (1906) · V. Woolf, Guardian (4 April 1909) [church weekly] · R. M. Jones, The later periods of Quakerism, 2 (1921) · J. Marcus, Virginia Woolf and the languages of patriarchy (1987), 115–35

Archives  

RS Friends, Lond.


Likenesses  

E. Walker, two photogravure photographs, repro. in C. E. Stephen, The vision of faith and other essays (1911)

Wealth at death  

£11,881 10s.: probate, 22 May 1909, CGPLA Eng. & Wales