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Sir  Leslie Stephen (1832–1904), by George Charles Beresford, 1902Sir Leslie Stephen (1832–1904), by George Charles Beresford, 1902
Stephen, Sir Leslie (1832–1904), author, literary critic, and first editor of the Dictionary of National Biography, was born at his father's house in Kensington Gore, later 42 Hyde Park Gate, London, on 28 November 1832. His grandfather was , master in chancery, his father , later under-secretary of the Colonial Office, and his elder brother , later a judge of the High Court. There was a strong legal tradition in the family, as well as a demonstratively evangelical one. Leslie Stephen was the third son (there was an eldest brother, Herbert, who died aged twenty-four in 1846); of his two sisters, one died in infancy in 1825 and the youngest of the family, , became a Quaker much devoted to good causes. Their mother, Jane Catherine (1793–1875), was the daughter of [see under ], rector of Clapham and a leading member of the so-called Clapham Sect of Anglican evangelicals. A high sense of moral responsibility and of the need to manifest their religion in good works imbued the Venn and Stephen families and their widespread cousinages; they were, moreover, prolific in a literary way as well as in their families and their good works.

Early life; Cambridge career

Leslie was a weakly child, and in 1840 his parents moved to Brighton with his health in mind. There he attended Mr Guest's school from the autumn, before the family moved to Windsor in 1842 for their sons to go to Eton College as day boys. Leslie, imperceptibly taught, made little progress there, and few friends. His home life, with its literary cultivation and intellectual challenges, was much more educative; there was much freedom in reading, and his mother taught him shorthand (a Venn family accomplishment). The family moved nearer London, and after a short time at Mr Edelman's school in Wimbledon he entered King's College, Strand, as a rather frail and asthmatic adolescent. He attended F. D. Maurice's lectures on history and literature, but without great enthusiasm, and was intermittently at King's until Easter 1850. Some tutoring at Cambridge (where Sir James Stephen was by then in residence at Trinity College as regius professor of modern history) helped him to prepare for entry to Trinity Hall, his father's old college, in autumn 1850.

Trinity Hall was then a small college, with strong legal traditions but little intellectual reputation, although it was on the verge of much striking improvement. It suited Stephen well: he soon rapidly improved in health and developed a commitment to academic work, for which he was awarded a mathematical scholarship in 1851. He took up new interests in the athletic life of a sporting college, becoming prominent as an oarsman (keeping a place in the college boat for a decade), a long-distance runner, and a walker of rare endurance. His adolescent frailty was soon but a memory, and his college reputation became one of hearty athleticism. Among the friends he made as an undergraduate were Henry Fawcett, later fellow of the college, professor in the university, Liberal politician, and postmaster-general; James Payn, the novelist and man of letters; and his cousins Henry and Edward Dicey. He spoke in debates at the Union Society, enjoyed moderately the social life of the hall, and did well enough in university examinations, coached by the famous Isaac Todhunter, to be ranked twentieth wrangler in the mathematical tripos of January 1854, that is, in the middle of the first class. With hope but no special expectation of a fellowship he continued in residence, spending the long vacation of 1854 in Germany to learn the language.

A Goodbehere bye-fellowship at Trinity Hall, with a stipend of about £100 p.a., became vacant; Stephen was elected to it on 23 December 1854. This minor appointment had a clerical requirement, including assisting at chapel services, but taking orders then presented him with few difficulties: he was made deacon by the archbishop of York on 21 December 1855, and was ordained priest on Trinity Sunday 1859. In the following spring, on 29 April 1856, he was admitted a presbyter fellow and was appointed to the junior tutorship. He preached occasionally in the college chapel and at the town church of St Edward's, but soon found that his vocation lay more in teaching and in encouraging the young. He taught some mathematics, but his pastoral work lay mostly in the social life of the college, in friendship with and guidance of the undergraduate body, and not least in coaching and indeed vigorously participating in rowing and athletics. He was for a decade prominent in the life of Trinity Hall.

For the college it was a period of expansion and improvement, not without controversy within a small fellowship—in which Stephen, the junior tutor to Henry (Ben) Latham, later to be master, took a distinctly radical position. But it was more on the field and river than in the governing body that he exercised his influence. The undergraduates appreciated the physical tirelessness of this young fellow's always gaunt frame, and his coaching of the college boat until it went to the head of the river. He soon became known for his feats of running (a mile in 5 minutes 4 seconds, at the university's athletics games in 1860), and of walking (50 miles to London in twelve hours on a hot day, to dine with the Alpine Club, was long remembered).

If not wholly of the Charles Kingsley school, this was muscular Christianity indeed: the muscularity was not in doubt, but the faith—if only privately—was already beginning to waver. For he read as well as rowed, and in his reading pursued some systematic themes in philosophy and (as a topical, political interest) in American history. He was an examiner in the moral sciences tripos in 1861–3. His earliest publications, however, were on mountaineering and American protectionism. There was clearly more to the young tutor than being an excellent rowing coach, and by the time he decided to leave Cambridge he was also taking an informed interest in university politics. A twenty-page tract, The Poll Degree from a Third Point of View (1863), on the organization of non-honours courses, was a product of his final year in the university.

Mountaineering, early writings, agnosticism

Stephen's athleticism was not confined to Lake District holidays or pedestrian feats around Cambridge, but sought greater challenges. In 1855 he ventured abroad to the Bavarian Tyrol, an introduction to alpine mountaineering the more eagerly accepted because of the Ruskinian associations of the scenery; it soon came to inspire a devotion for which only a measure of religious language seemed fully appropriate. His old mountaineering colleague Douglas Freshfield later remarked that ‘the Alps were for Stephen a playground but they were also a cathedral’ (Maitland, 79). Alfred Wills's Wanderings among the High Alps (1856) soon became a further stimulus, and 1857 saw Stephen's first visit to Courmayeur, where even though restrained by duties towards a convalescent sister he managed to fit in an ascent of the Col de Géant. This was the year in which the Alpine Club was founded; Stephen, though not of the originating group, joined it in 1858, and was soon reckoned to be among the first rank of English alpinists. He had many first ascents to his credit, accomplished without excessive difficulty, indeed in an almost casual manner. He was described as having ‘walked from peak to peak like a pair of one-inch compasses over a large-sized map’ (Maitland, 143). Notable among his conquests were the Eiger Joch, in 1859, and the Schreckhorn, in 1861: he contributed descriptions of both to the second volume of the club's Peaks, Passes and Glaciers (1862). The year 1861 also saw his achieving the ascent of Mont Blanc from St Gervais, and in 1862 there were conquests of the Jungfraujoch and Viescher Joch; the Jungfrau, Lyskamm, and Zinal Rothhorn followed in 1864.

Stephen's first marriage in 1867, with a honeymoon spent at ground level, put an end to the early period of his alpine adventures, a time of new ascents that was crowned by his presidency of the Alpine Club for three years from 1865 (he also edited the Alpine Journal in 1865–8). Stephen displayed an evident enjoyment of fearless alpine exploits, and in his writings about them he showed a sense of literary release that put him at odds with some of the more scientific members of the English alpinist establishment. He did however investigate the Dolomites in 1869 and went back to the Alps several times in the 1870s; by then his alpinism was moving from the exploratory and competitive to the recreational and contemplative. There were later winter holidays in Switzerland, up to 1894, when he visited for the last time his old friend Gabriel Loppé, the French artist, who had long been a colleague in his later alpine explorations. This friendship was only one of several with continental specialists, including the great Melchior Anderegg, who had been his regular guide from 1858 onwards.

Stephen's first book, undertaken perhaps to improve a knowledge of German that went back to his schooldays, was a translation of Baron Hermann von Berlepsch's Die Alpen as The Alps, or, Sketches of Life and Nature in the Mountains (1861). A wish to communicate his delight in mountaineering stimulated his still dormant literary facility, and by 1871 he was able to gather many of his alpine essays, from Fraser's Magazine, the Cornhill Magazine, and other periodicals, into The Playground of Europe, an endearing volume readily accessible to non-mountaineers. In its several subsequent (and considerably altered) editions it has occupied a special place among the classics of alpine literature; its second edition (1894) was dedicated to Loppé. Several of his alpine companions recalled him as taciturn in company out of doors, in contrast to his later volubility on paper; this was characteristic of his general reserve, but he made many friends in spite of it.

Stephen's activities as an alpinist, athletic and literary, stretch over much of his life, but at their vigorous start they provided additional diversion from the constrictions that his Cambridge duties seemed increasingly to be placing on him. It was of course the clerical side of his tutorship that chafed. He had sought ordination, he later admitted, ‘thoughtlessly’, stressing a rather inchoate ‘Broad Church’ background (Mausoleum Book, 5). The decision had been influenced by filial duty backed by high evangelical expectation, and by an anxiety to spare his family the expense of supporting him after graduation. His conduct of the lay duties of his college office had been highly successful, but the religious duties were less and less appealing as his mind developed. He acknowledged the influence of some philosophical reading, especially in Comte, and recalled some rather glib reflections on the story of Noah's flood; Buckle, Darwin, Spencer, and Essays and Reviews (1860) also played some part. Stephen is reported to have been upset by his own mounting scepticism, but he himself remained reticent about any great mental agony that his rejection of religious belief might have caused him.

By summer 1862 Stephen felt unable to take further chapel services, and was asked to resign his tutorship. Trinity Hall was anxious not to lose him, however, and by finding him some lesser offices tenable by a layman provided a stay of resignation. He remained in Cambridge for two years more, and indeed did not demit his fellowship until he married. The interval gave him freedom to investigate the likelihood of a literary career, which he had up to then never considered as a possibility. It gave him time for Easter visits to the Lake District and summers in the Alps, and for a long vacation in North America. University life, which had seemed to offer an entire career, began to seem somehow pointless. He finally left Cambridge at the end of 1864, resigning his fellowship at the end of 1867. Nearly forty years later his recollection was simple but sincere. The decision had been fully considered: ‘I did not feel that the solid ground was giving way beneath my feet, but rather that I was being relieved of a cumbrous burden. I was not discovering that my creed was false, but that I had never really believed it’ (National Review, October 1903; see L. Stephen, Some Early Impressions, 1924, 70). His formal legal renunciation of Anglican orders was postponed beyond the Enabling Act of 1870. In March 1875 the deed was drawn up, and Stephen signed it in the presence of a literary friend invited for the occasion: the appropriate witness to this little postscript was none other than Thomas Hardy.

Politics and America; marriage and journalism

At this time, when he had ‘given up Noah's Ark and my old calling’ (as he put it in Some Early Impressions, 89), Stephen attempted some involvement in practical politics by canvassing rather boisterously for Henry Fawcett in elections in Cambridge (1863) and Brighton (1864), editing a Liberal Election Reporter in the latter (Fawcett was finally elected in 1865). This was his only demonstrative political exposure, and his early radicalism gradually moderated into a general Liberalism. More important than this electioneering, Stephen felt it would be useful to back his strong opinions on the American civil war by actually visiting the country. With his family background in the anti-slavery movement, and a general political outlook which his reading of Mill had helped to inform, he had taken a firmly pro-northern stance on the war very much contrary to that prevailing in the combination rooms of Cambridge.

Stephen was able to spend mid-July to mid-October 1863 on an American visit, mainly to inform himself about the political situation. He travelled widely and frugally, seeing St Paul and St Louis, Philadelphia and the Mississippi. In Washington he had a talk with Lincoln, and he got to the seat of war in Virginia and exchanged a few words with General Meade; these were experiences which generally reinforced his firm conviction that the north must win and slavery perish. Stephen's visit was not intended as a literary one, but he had taken with him introductions to Boston intellectuals; he met Henry Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the elder Oliver Wendell Holmes, and established firm friendships with James Russell Lowell (whose Biglow Papers he already knew) and Charles Eliot Norton. After his return to England, now very well informed about the situation in America, he prepared a 108-page pamphlet, by ‘L. S.’, entitled The ‘Times’ on the American War: a Historical Study and published in 1865. Stephen felt that the paper had not only given biased reporting of the war, but had fuelled Anglo-American enmity. It was a carefully compiled onslaught which damaged The Times's reputation among younger Liberals.

Once he had left the university after the Christmas audit at Trinity Hall in 1864 Stephen made his home with his mother and sister in their house at 19 Porchester Square, Bayswater, London. Partly through his brother's connections he soon established links with London papers. These included the Saturday Review (where he met John Morley, like himself an agnostic), and a new evening paper, the Pall Mall Gazette, which had been founded by George Smith, of the publishing firm of Smith, Elder & Co., soon after Stephen's move to London. Neither organ matched his own political views, but he avoided clashes, and in his general articles became adept at catching the tone of the paper he was writing for; as a result, his unsigned contributions are not easily traceable. The Pall Mall gave him an opportunity to utter some final comments on Cambridge in a series of twelve articles that were published as a book in Sketches from Cambridge, by a Don (1865). The essays are lightly written, incisive enough both to amuse and to show necessities for reform, and topical enough to have merited a fairly transparent anonymity. In his daily and weekly journalism Stephen settled into a pattern of two articles weekly: a book review and a general article on a political or social issue. The Nation, founded in New York in 1865, gave him another outlet, and he contributed to it from October 1866 to July 1873 a fortnightly ‘London Letter’ on English affairs; his articles for it included some well-observed parliamentary lobby reporting.

Stephen soon also found his way into the Cornhill Magazine, another of George Smith's concerns. This was a connection he relished because it had been Thackeray's magazine. There he began with essays such as ‘American humour’ and literary contributions on Richardson and Defoe. He wrote a series as A Cynic, mis-choosing a pseudonym that reflected neither his tone nor his outlook; these essays were never reprinted. Fraser's Magazine, edited by J. A. Froude, gave him a platform for alpine and (anti-)theological essays, and from 1870 there was also the Fortnightly Review, edited by his friend John Morley. There were contributions to books, including one for Essays on Reform (1867), the secular counterpart of the better-known Essays and Reviews; he wrote ‘On the choice of representatives by popular constituencies’, a subject that reflected his intention at the time of writing a treatise on politics. His journalism prospered, though in his prudent way he saw it as a precarious way of earning a living. His reservations about it were soon to be tested.

W. M. Thackeray had died in December 1863 leaving two daughters, known to their friends as Anny (b. 1837) and Minny (b. 1840), who lived together in Kensington. They became friends of Lady Stephen, who introduced her son to them in 1865. Stephen found these lively and humorous sisters attractive, particularly the younger one, but his shyness was aggravated by Cambridge bachelorhood; he felt that a brief period back with his family in London had not yet ‘undonned’ him. He encountered the sisters at Zermatt in 1866, where they had a happy time together. By the end of the year he had resolved to propose marriage, and on 4 December Miss Harriet Marian (Minny) Thackeray [see ] accepted him. They were married on 19 June 1867, early in the morning so as to set off promptly on a honeymoon in Switzerland with a little sightseeing in Italy (unwelcome to the bridegroom as a diversion from his beloved ‘playground’). Stephen joined the Thackeray household at 16 Onslow Gardens, which included his wife's elder sister, an enlivening but not too obtrusive a presence.

The Cornhill connection developed fruitfully, with Stephen soon devoting himself in its pages to the literary essays (contributed anonymously) that from 1871 were published under the general heading ‘Hours in a Library’. Successive series under the same title were issued in book form in 1874, 1876, and 1879. These three volumes, under Stephen's own name, sold well. Although Stephen was initially a little ashamed of them his first tranche of collected essays established his reputation among a wide reading public as a critic with knowledge, insight, and an attractive style. Meanwhile his reputation grew with George Smith and his colleagues, and (soon after he had turned down Longmans' offer of the editorship of Fraser's) he was appointed editor of the Cornhill itself in spring 1871, at a salary of £500 p.a.; he held the post for over eleven years. This gave him an assured income, freeing him from the fetters of other periodical journalism (though he continued his association with the Saturday Review). As editor Stephen kept the standard high, encouraging new or still unestablished authors such as Edmund Gosse, Charles Lever, and Thomas Hardy.

On a lecturing visit to Edinburgh in 1875 Stephen met W. E. Henley, then in hospital, introduced him to Robert Louis Stevenson soon afterwards, and gave them both much encouragement in a literary way. Henry James was another young contributor of this period. During Stephen's editorship the old Cornhill anonymity was relaxed, articles being given initials and then full names. The magazine paid generously, and the editor was gentle with his contributors. He described to Norton his editorial assignment as ‘easy and not very responsible work’, with ‘nothing to do but to provide healthy reading for the British public and to be sure that our Mag. may lie on the table of the most refined female without calling a blush to her cheek’. ‘We have no political or religious tendencies’, he had also remarked, ‘except when Mat Arnold indulges in some of his moonshine’ (letter to Norton, 19 Jan 1872, Selected Letters, 109). Matthew Arnold's series ‘Literature and dogma’ had run into editorial trouble; only two articles of a longer intended sequence were published. Arnold had been an inherited contributor, but John Addington Symonds was among those who proved to be much more congenial as a Cornhill author. Stephen had one of his greatest successes with Hardy, from whom he commissioned Far from the Madding Crowd, serialized in the twelve issues of 1874. This novel had obliged Stephen to become reluctantly something of a censor. ‘One is forced to be absurdly particular’, he admitted when asking Hardy to tone down an episode (Maitland, 274). Likewise with The Hand of Ethelberta (July 1875 – May 1876), he adjured Hardy to ‘Remember the country parson's daughters. I have always to remember them’ (ibid., 276). It was on commercial rather than literary grounds, however, that the Cornhill lost The Return of the Native and Hardy's subsequent novels to other publishers.

As a married man Stephen lost some of his bachelor reserve in London society, and the household at 16 Onslow Gardens was happy, even though he worried needlessly about domestic expenditure. He was perpetually anxious about money and in 1867 (after being urged on by his elder brother) briefly became an unenthusiastic bar student eating dinners at the Inner Temple as a precaution lest his career in literary journalism should fail. The Thackeray family connection much enlarged his social circle in London. He and his wife went to America in 1868, travelling widely and consolidating the Boston friendships that had begun on his previous visit. They spent holidays in Switzerland, travelling through Paris soon after the siege in 1870, and after a difficult pregnancy (there had earlier been a still birth) a daughter, Laura Makepeace Stephen, was born on 7 December 1870.

Literary projects; death of Harriet Stephen, and remarriage

Stephen had larger literary projects in mind in addition to the lucrative magazine work he reckoned to be merely ‘pot-boiling’. By 1868 he had abandoned a substantial project in political theory, but he gradually settled down to a History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century, originally conceived as an account of the development of deism during that period. He worked on this steadily from 1871, with much painstaking reading of uncongenial sources. In May 1873 the family moved into a larger new home at 8 Southwell Gardens, with a large study for Stephen's work. In November his collection of pieces, drawn from Fraser's and Fortnightly Review work, Essays on Freethinking and Plainspeaking, was published; it was dedicated to Charles Eliot Norton, one of the most sympathetic of his friends, with whom he was settling into a substantial and intellectually intimate correspondence. Three of the essays—on Shaftesbury, Mandeville, and Warburton—reflect his growing eighteenth-century interests and found their way into the History; others set his own abandonment of Anglican orders vigorously into context. Although the Essays had been somewhat moderated for magazine appearance, on being collected they were refreshed as a more obviously polemical work in the agnostic cause. As a result the book was received with due caution by the general press. It nevertheless established Stephen as a leading agnostic writer.

The summer of 1875 was one of great marital felicity. Minny Stephen was once more pregnant and needed special care, and an alpine holiday was prescribed for her benefit. Literary work was proceeding well. During the night of 27–8 November, however, she had a sudden convulsive attack and never recovered consciousness. She died of eclampsia on 28 November 1875 (Stephen's birthday, thereafter uncelebrated). It was a blow the more grievous for being totally unexpected.

Stephen threw himself compulsively and reclusively into work, writing fourteen Cornhill articles between his wife's death and the end of 1877, finishing his History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century (1876), and contributing four articles to the Fortnightly. These last included the celebrated ‘An agnostic's apology’ (June 1876); it gains in force by having been written at a time of emotional distress. The History was well received, notably by Mark Pattison, who (unknown to Stephen) had been cogitating a book on a similar subject. As a monograph it marked his recognition by the literary world as much more than an essayist. Literature provided the grieving widower not only with occupation, but gave him also some measure of consolation. Stephen found that Wordsworth, not hitherto a favourite, was particularly helpful as an ‘only consoler’, and wrote a deeply felt essay on him in the Cornhill in August 1876; yet Wordsworth's view of the transmutation of grief into ennobling experience proved in practice hard to achieve. Stephen's mind was fertile, however, and the work he produced in time of anxiety was of strikingly high quality. No sooner was the History of English Thought out of the way than he began to think of the project that eventually became The Science of Ethics.

Stephen's withdrawn melancholia, aggravated by headaches caused by overwork, was not well matched to his sister-in-law Anny Thackeray's exuberant grief. Her unbudgeted housekeeping and care for her niece, Laura, were well intended, but they led to further friction. ‘I like her best when she is in the next room’, he characteristically wrote to Julia Duckworth, and remarked elsewhere that ‘She has not two facts in her head, and one of them is a mistake’ (Selected Letters, 198, 215). Moreover her growing attachment and eventual engagement to her cousin Richmond Ritchie, seventeen years her junior, were a source of much anxiety to her bereaved brother-in-law. Stephen had moved with Anny and Laura to 11 Hyde Park Gate South, near Kensington Gardens, in June 1876. This had the special advantage of being near their widowed friend Mrs Duckworth, with three small children who, it was hoped, might provide company for Laura, who was becoming something of a problem. After Anny's marriage in August 1877 Stephen's sister, Milly, joined him at Hyde Park Gate, but could not stay long. Housekeepers and governesses offered only a bleak future.

Laura (known to Stephen by her nursery name of Memee) had been slow to develop physically after her premature birth, and in childhood she increasingly revealed signs of mental handicap. Stephen had a nursery fondness for his daughter, but was disturbed by her slow progress. He tried all too hard to help with teaching her, but treated her with an uncomprehending irritation. There was an additional anxiety because her maternal grandmother, suffering apparently from schizophrenia after a period of postnatal depression, was confined in an asylum. The exact nature of Laura's very different, apparently not inherited, affliction is not entirely clear, but she was a source of anxiety throughout her childhood and youth. In 1891 she was placed in a home for ‘the imbecile and weak-minded’ at Earlswood, and spent the rest of her life in a series of similar establishments; she died at the Priory Hospital, Roehampton, on 9 February 1945 (Selected Letters, 2.viii–xi; H. Lee, Virginia Woolf, 1996, 100–04).

Mrs Herbert Duckworth (1846–1895) [see ], his Hyde Park Gate neighbour, was soon proving to be of greater interest to him than in his sorrowful withdrawal he could ever have anticipated. Her husband, whom she had married in 1867, had died very suddenly in September 1870, leaving her with three infants, the youngest of them born barely six weeks after his father's death. The marriage had been intensely happy, and in her own sorrow Julia Duckworth had thrown herself rather compulsively into giving nursing assistance within her own extended family. Her mother was one of the Pattles, an Anglo-Indian family with seven sisters famous for their beauty. Their large cousinhood included the Prinseps at Little Holland House, with many connections in literary and artistic circles. Burne-Jones in 1878 had sought out Julia Duckworth as a model Virgin for an intended picture of the annunciation.

Proximity and bereavement soon turned Stephen's shy neighbourly friendship into affection. Mrs Duckworth's tragedy had in many ways been even greater than his own. He declared his love to her early in February 1877, but she told him that she was ill prepared for such an approach and could only enjoin him to continue in friendship. This they sustained in a vigorous correspondence until, on 5 January 1878, she consented to become his wife. They were married on 26 March that year, spending the honeymoon with their families at Eastnor Castle, lent to them by Julia Stephen's kinsman Lord Somers. Laura Stephen now joined a Kensington nursery of three Duckworth children: George Herbert (1868–1934), Stella (1869–1897), and Gerald L'Etang (1870–1937). There were in due course four children of the second marriage: Vanessa (1879–1961) [see ], Julian Thoby (1880–1906), (Adeline) Virginia (1882–1941) [see ], and Adrian Leslie (1883–1948). The Stephens moved into the Duckworth house at 13 Hyde Park Gate South (redesignated 22 Hyde Park Gate in 1884), which was much augmented with a large study and additional nursery accommodation.

The family became accustomed to taking their annual holidays in Cornwall, and after three stays in the county Stephen took a lease of Talland House at St Ives, which for thirteen years from 1882 became the focus of lengthy summer breaks with family and close friends. There was seaside for the children, and for Stephen lengthy walks as far as Land's End, accompanied by willing but often outpaced companions. Though they never fully replaced Switzerland in his affections the moors and cliffs of Cornwall became an essential part of Stephen's new married life, and his wife characteristically interested herself in district nursing work in St Ives.

At home Stephen's solemn and rather alarming carapace was gradually softened by marriage, and his often remarked playfulness with small children began to show itself again, particularly as his own family started anew. One small event confirms the impression that Stephen's second marriage soon enabled him to emerge from the withdrawals of widowerhood. In autumn 1879 he and a few friends started the for vigorous rural walking within convenient railway distance from London. Its membership of lawyers, philosophers, and critics numbered in its sixteen years of existence only sixty in all (of whom almost half appear in the Dictionary of National Biography and its supplements), and usually in the walking season up to ten members spent their Sundays covering some 20 miles in six hours in the home counties. Serious exercise was more in mind than mere recreation, but at various times visits to friends were arranged, such as those to Darwin at Downe, Kent, or Meredith at Box Hill, Surrey. Stephen was the Tramps' strategic organizer, and until 1891 the (still notably taciturn) leader of these demanding excursions, from which there also derived a ‘scratch eight’ for (non-ambulant) serious philosophical discussion. Informal bodies like these Stephen found much more congenial than regular learned societies. Although he had joined the in 1878 and contributed two papers to its meetings, he did not enjoy its meetings and was impatient with its discussions.

Since 1876, if intermittently, Stephen had been busy with his The Science of Ethics, conceived originally as ‘Thoughts on morals’ and prompted by Henry Sidgwick's Methods of Ethics, which he had reviewed in Fraser's the previous year. The Science was eventually published in 1882, but never achieved the reputation Stephen had hoped for it. He had found such a work of moral theory technically difficult to compose. It did not come up to the expectations of professional philosophers (as Sidgwick's unfavourable review in Mind pointed out), and Stephen himself admitted to some defects of arrangement. Stephen was by then in need of another large project in addition to his regular reviewing and commentary work for periodicals (which from 1880 included another stint on the Pall Mall Gazette, this time under John Morley).

By the time the second series of Hours in a Library had appeared in 1876 Stephen's reputation for articles infused with a sound balance of biographical and critical insight had been fully confirmed. John Morley, the general editor of Macmillan's new project, invited him to write a short life of Samuel Johnson to inaugurate, and essentially to provide a pattern for, English Men of Letters. Johnson was published in 1878; it inevitably drew heavily on Boswell but had sufficient individual insight to have ensured it a long life. Pope followed in 1880, and Swift in 1882; Stephen himself would have preferred this third volume to have been used as the template for Macmillan's immensely successful series. Late in life he began a further series of English Men of Letters with George Eliot (1902); this was followed by some congenial work on a Hobbes which came out posthumously in 1904.

These short lives for a popular series bear all the hallmarks of his biographical work. They are concise and consistently documented, using well chosen quotations to allow their subjects to speak and taking care to place them historically, thus showing a proper concern for the context of their literary activity. There was a conciseness and a tone of judicious appraisal about all his biographies that was very different from the prevailing fashion for overlong and over-reverent biographical writing. Much of this shows in his literary criticism, too, where his essays (notably, perhaps, his writings on Wordsworth) have a strong moral and philosophical element. Elsewhere, a recognition (then novel) that the nature and contemporary demands of the reading public influenced literary expression added to the appeal—and endurance—of his critical essays; his subjects were set firmly in context.

The Dictionary of National Biography

In summer 1881 George Smith came up with a well-timed proposal that transformed Stephen's life. Smith's original conception of a universal biographical dictionary was on reflection—and on Stephen's advice—soon cut down to national coverage. In retrospect Smith saw his own suggestion principally as a ‘gift to English letters’, but it is probable that anxiety over the circulation and advertising figures of the Cornhill (which, during Stephen's editorship, had seen a drop in circulation from 20,000 to 12,000) was even more influential. Changes in readers' taste, increasing competition from rival magazines, and the editor's own elevated standards had been combining to make a change of direction seem prudent. All this may well have lain behind the proprietor's wish to discuss the possibility of a new and complete biographical dictionary.

Smith had for some years been on terms of genuine friendship with Stephen, and must have sensed that he was understretched on the Cornhill. Smith was well known for a solicitude for his authors' feelings that matched his publishing flair, and had both the vision to conceive such a project on a suitably grand scale, and the means—supported by many non-publishing ventures (including a highly successful investment in Apollinaris table water)—to see it through. At the outset he estimated the probable loss at some £50,000; twenty years later he realized, apparently without anxiety, that it would be nearer £70,000. Even more important than his commercial decisiveness was his selection of Stephen as editor. With the History of English Thought well received as a work of scholarship, Johnson and Pope consolidating his reputation as a biographer, and years of the monthly schedule of Cornhill editorial work attesting to his reputation for literary punctuality, Stephen was an excellent choice. He accepted Smith's offer at a yearly salary of £800. Stephen needed the change, and his close working friendship with Smith meant that he could be trusted to work strenuously with little direction from the publishers' head office. Little consultation was required on routine matters, and Stephen—in the office as well as at home—was always conscientious in avoiding unnecessary expenditure.

The proposition was attractive, and the failure of several previous attempts was a special incentive to editor and publisher alike. Preliminary planning began as early as August 1881, when Stephen, on a wet family holiday in Cornwall, had time to consider such strategic matters as the overall scope of the undertaking, for which he recommended to Smith that it should be limited to British biography rather than attempting universal coverage. Stephen continued as editor of the Cornhill until late October 1882, when he handed over to his friend the minor novelist James Payn, but he had been increasingly occupied with making detailed plans for the new venture. Historical study in Britain was only just starting to organize itself (the English Historical Review, for example, did not start until 1886) but Stephen was able to consult many established scholars individually. The principal organ for publicizing the new venture was The Athenaeum, which twice yearly printed alphabetical lists of proposed new entries and sought information, suggestions, and contributions. It was there that the main preliminary announcement appeared, on 23 December 1882. From the start the lists were notably eclectic, Stephen perceiving the special usefulness of minor lives in such a work. The guidelines were laid for strict editorial curbing of the diffuse, the verbose, and the ornamental, as against the useful, the lucid, and the interesting. Stephen concluded his announcement characteristically: ‘The editor of such a work must, by the necessity of the case, be autocratic. He will do his best to be a considerate autocrat’ (The Athenaeum, 23 Dec 1882; Selected Letters, 549–51).

Once announced, and with his life of Addison prepared (mainly in the reading room of the British Museum) as a model to contributors of the editor's requirements in concision and general presentation, Stephen could begin to come to terms with the full enormity of his commitment. He was always given to strident literary grumbling about his work, but well-developed, mechanistic metaphors soon abound in his private correspondence about the project. Even more important than designing this literary template was finding a good sub-editor. Several candidates came forward, but Stephen wisely chose Sidney Lee, a Balliol BA with a keen interest in the Elizabethans, who was commended by the medieval literary scholar F. J. Furnivall. Lee, then temporarily a private tutor to a nobleman's son, joined Stephen at the Waterloo Place office in March 1883. He soon proved an efficient adjutant, calm and confident where Stephen was urgent and anxious, and he had period interests that complemented his senior's. He had special skills, too—for example, in proof-reading and handling documentary detail—which balanced Stephen's abilities in abstracting standard sources and delivering crisp and cogent literary assessments. As a small team of sub-editors was gradually assembled in premises next door to the Smith, Elder headquarters Lee showed himself a good, and demanding, office manager.

Editing the Dictionary of National Biography was a task very different from Stephen's experience on the Cornhill. He never settled into a conventional office routine, though he dealt conscientiously with the vast correspondence which the dictionary imposed on its editor. He frequently worked at the museum, but much could be done at home, giving him opportunities to be near his growing family. But a new and demanding constituency of writers sorely tested his accustomed editorial civility. Stephen had given hints of Carlylean rhetoric while setting up this national pantheon, but soon there were more than hints of Carlylean groaning once he had to deal with the pedantic and the obscure. He had to reckon not only with difficult and opinionated contributors but also with a commercially minded patron prepared to be generous but not over-indulgent. Problems soon arose, not least with contributions from the Revd Dr A. B. Grosart, a nonconformist minister with an interest in seventeenth-century authors, who had submitted many articles copying his own work for the Encyclopaedia Britannica: this was sorted out, with much acrimony and embarrassment, just before the earliest volumes were published.

The first volume came out, to gratifying critical acclaim, in January 1885. Further assessments, notably one by Richard Copley Christie of Manchester University (Quarterly Review, April 1887, 350–81), were awaited with apprehension: Christie helpfully corrected details, made good strategic suggestions, but overall recognized the importance of the project and praised the work of the editor. The balance of work was soon sorted out between longer articles by prominent authors (including A. W. Ward on Queen Anne, S. R. Gardiner on Bacon, and James Gairdner on Anne Boleyn), special subject contributions (such as J. K. Laughton's many naval biographies), and a host of lesser lives by retained general contributors or—in due course—by a small in-house team of editorial assistants. Stephen's own contributions included many of the most prominent literary lives of his own specialist periods: Addison, the Brontës, Carlyle (with its particular sensitivities so soon after his death), Coleridge, Cowper, and De Quincey are among them. They made a highly commendable sequence, but one that was very demanding of its author. Stephen used lavish, pessimistic metaphors that stressed the mechanical side of the work, but which did no justice to the variety of his own articles. ‘I am … on my treadmill [and have] been dragged into the damnable thing by fate like a careless workman passing moving machinery’ (to Edmund Gosse, U. Leeds, Brotherton L.). Yet the machinery he himself had set moving was sound, and well run. This showed not least—and it was due in no small measure to Lee's contribution—in the regular quarterly issue of the sixty-three volumes of the original edition, which was one of its most remarkable features.

Resignation from editorship; later literary projects

Stephen had overestimated the leisure he might regain once the agonies of planning had abated. Cambridge friends, hoping perhaps for his return there, persuaded him to apply for the newly established lectureship at Trinity College, endowed by a bequest from W. G. Clark (also, coincidentally, a freethinker). Stephen was successful and delivered the inaugural series, speaking on eighteenth-century English literature. He did not publish the lectures, and because of pressure of work in London resigned the appointment early. He could not easily have resisted the family's invitation to write Henry Fawcett's biography soon after his death late in 1884. ‘Don't you know I'm like a hoop, Milly?’ he wrote to his sister when she protested at this incessant activity; ‘When I'm not going at full speed, I drop’ (Maitland, 374). Turning like a hoop, even for one constitutionally incapable of reducing his pace, was no recipe for continued success, and 1885 was a particularly strenuous year for him. The Fawcett biography was a success, and it gained much from the autobiographical element which Stephen had brought in from their years at Cambridge and soon afterwards. It had been hard work, however, and by the end of 1886 Stephen was showing signs of severe overstrain, and enforced holidays were decreed. They did not stop him worrying, however, when by April 1887 the dictionary was showing losses of £1000 each quarter, and the price had to be raised from 12s. 6d. to 15s. a volume: subscribers did not much object to the increase.

In 1888 there was further medical trouble, and even Stephen saw the need to ease off. ‘I should be very sorry to sacrifice either myself or my family to such an idol,’ he wrote to Charles Eliot Norton, ‘but I feel that I ought not to leave Smith in the lurch, and of course my own self-esteem is more or less involved in pushing it through’ (Maitland, 395). Julia Stephen's alarm continued, however: ‘Stephen's feelings about the Dictionary were mixed,’ Maitland remarks, ‘Mrs Stephen's were not’ (ibid., 397). She colluded with George Smith to try to devise ways of stopping him from overworking. By summer 1889 nature had sidestepped such diplomatic niceties, as Stephen collapsed in the Athenaeum library while telling the surgeon Sir Henry Thompson about his recovery. Lee acted as editor during Stephen's recuperation, and from volume 22 in March 1890 his name appeared with Stephen's on the title-page.

Stephen took life less strenuously, fitting in a short visit to the United States and being allowed a Swiss holiday in January 1891. This provided only temporary relief, as a heavy attack of influenza, followed by pneumonia, led to his full resignation as editor in April 1891. Lee became sole editor from volume 27 (June 1891). Relieved of an organizing role Stephen was able to choose his own subjects to write on for the dictionary. Malthus, J. S. Mill, and Lord Macaulay (and his father, Zachary) soon followed his resignation, and to the end he remained a contributor of important literary articles: Pope, Scott, Swift, Thackeray, and Wordsworth were among them, as were notices of six members of the Stephen family. He took a wry interest in the celebrations that marked the completion of the dictionary, to which he had contributed 283 signed articles in the main work. As he wrote to his niece Mrs Herbert Fisher, following a grand dinner attended by the prince of Wales (‘what a bore it was, and yet it was also amusing’):
I felt melancholy at saying good-bye to the Dictionary. It cost me a slice of my life, but has been a good bit of work, though my share in it has diminished. I don't know whether to be glad or sorry that I took it up; but I part from it with a sense that I am being laid on the shelf. (Selected Letters, 507)
The mixture of pride and lamentation is wholly characteristic.At the time of giving up the editorship, however, Stephen—still not quite sixty—had much to look forward to among his literary projects. He made yet another attempt to return to his intended work on the English utilitarians, but was repeatedly interrupted. Friends, Norton chief among them, had been pressing him to collect his agnostic articles, and An Agnostic's Apology and other Essays (1893) began to take shape from June 1891. He looked over his old essays with some misgivings, found them better than he had expected, and started revising. They begin with a series he had contributed to the Fortnightly from June 1876, opening with ‘An agnostic's apology’ itself—which had, as he told Norton at the time, consisted ‘simply in pointing out that we are all agnostics, though some people call their ignorance God or mystery’ (Selected Letters, 171). It made an eloquent, and passionate, title piece for the volume published in 1893. Other strongly argued pieces were added, including a Comtean ‘What is materialism?’, which in 1886 he had prepared as a lecture but had been disconcerted to find had to serve as a sermon at Moncure Conway's ethical chapel in Finsbury: ‘singing Emerson, and taking the first lesson out of Mill and the second out of Wordsworth. It was a queer caricature; but I suppose that it amuses some of them’ (letter to Norton, 6 May 1886, Maitland, 389). Norton wondered whether ‘apology’ was suitable in the title, but Stephen reassured him that the word as used here did not imply ‘any admission of the justice or even the plausibility of attacks. It only means that one has been abused, and that is undeniable’ (30 Sept 1892, Selected Letters, 410). On publication the collection received some disapproving criticism from specialists who found it philosophically weak, but it retained a more general following as a Rationalist Press Association sixpenny publication in 1904 and after.

Among Stephen's other commitments of the mid-1890s was a biography of his elder brother Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, who had died on 11 March 1894, three years after failing health had led to his retirement from the judicial bench. The brothers, mutually quite respectful, had never been particularly close, and Leslie's recognition of a familial duty to write ‘Fitzy's’ life brought with it much anxiety about how his brother's limitations might be handled. He had to cope with a fine but compartmentalized intellect very different from his own; besides, there were few letters available, and several of Fitzjames's intimates had died. There were aspects of his brother's career, such as work on Indian law reform, of which he had very little knowledge. The overall result is satisfactory, however, not least in its early chapters. These draw on the brothers' shared experience of upbringing and journalism before their interests diverged, and are thus incidentally valuable as an autobiographical source. Stephen wrote to Norton that the book was ‘the stiffest piece of work I ever undertook’ (letter to Norton, 23 Dec 1894, Maitland, 420), but he achieved it with his usual efficiency, managing to assess his brother's limitations and to satisfy a demanding sister-in-law. The book, completed the following spring, was published in June. Its preface is dated 1 May 1895; within a few days Stephen had to come to terms with a bereavement much greater than the loss of a distinguished elder brother.

Death of Julia Stephen, and last years

It was on 5 May 1895 that Julia Stephen died very suddenly: her heart had given up following an attack of influenza which had turned into rheumatic fever. It was a tragedy for her husband and for her two families. Stephen's grief was terrible, but his solution was equally characteristic. He almost immediately sought relief in literary work, easing the pain of his loss by preparing an intimate family memoir to preserve for her children a record of their courtship and marriage. Even in the depths of his sorrow he was methodical, working up documentary evidence from letters into a dated sequence around which he could build his own memories. The grief shows itself, as was intended, in many unbridled passages, but these gain from being grafted onto a well-crafted essay prepared by an experienced biographer. Stephen used the later pages to record family events and the deaths of friends and relations; the threnody became a necrology. This unusual, emotionally loaded compilation became known to his descendants as the ‘Mausoleum Book’; after many years of neglect it was eventually published from the manuscript (by then in the British Library) in 1977. Alongside his own records of those final years of bereavement are the distinctive later memories of his daughters, Vanessa and Virginia, which helped to shape Stephen's reputation.

Stephen also chose to make a discreet public statement about his late wife's character. Without naming her he added to an Ethical Society address, ‘Forgotten benefactors’, some remarks about one whose nobility of character had shown itself in turning her own grief to account, transmuting it into an even steadier and profounder love of what was still left. He saw his wife in an agnostic's terms of ‘sainthood’, enlivening her circle of survivors with ‘moral elevation … a benefit which may be propagated indefinitely’. An afterlife seemed in some way replaceable by a sustained immanence of memory (L. Stephen, Social Rights and Duties, 1896, 1.254–6). The address that includes these deeply felt remarks is one of a group of talks to ethical societies delivered between 1892 and 1895, collected into two volumes as Social Rights and Duties (1896).

Stephen's domestically and emotionally demanding personality had been indulged by his second wife's selflessness. After her death Stella Duckworth had immediately assumed, all too willingly, her mother's role in managing the household. Her period as chatelaine at Hyde Park Gate, punctuated by explosions from the master of the house which often reflected his continuing though still unnecessary anxieties about money, was all too brief. In August 1896 Stella became engaged to a solicitor, John Waller (Jack) Hills, and Stephen accepted the situation with such good grace as he could muster, but with gloomy prognostications about changes in his household. The wedding took place in April 1897; just over a fortnight later the bride suffered an attack of peritonitis, and following surgery she died, aged only twenty-eight, on 19 July. It was for Stephen yet another sadness, as it was for his own children, who had been deeply attached to their stepsister. Within the household his daughter Vanessa had already been accorded a housewifely position. Less submissive than Stella, she resented the dominion of a rapidly ageing and increasingly deaf father all too inclined to be brutally assertive over the details of household accounts. Her own evident promise as an artist, Virginia's developing literary interests, and Adrian's and Thoby's successes at school and university, and Stephen's evident pride in all their achievements, have to be seen against this background of domestic discord.

In addition to the intimate commemorations of the ‘Mausoleum Book’, Stephen's other writing had soon resumed. ‘I go on writing as a habitual drunkard goes on drinking’, he later wrote to William James; ‘it is a habit of my lonely life’ (Selected Letters, 516). He soon had enough literary work on hand to cause a brief recurrence in 1900 of the strain that had forced him to abandon the dictionary. There was a series of mainly biographical essays for the National Review, which soon provided sufficient new work to furnish two pairs of volumes, Studies of a Biographer, published by his stepson Gerald Duckworth in 1898 and 1902. Stephen regarded them privately as ‘magazine twaddlings’ that he had ‘swept up’ for the occasion (Maitland, 440), but they show that his skill in the deft handling of character had not been eroded by years of writing to the particular specifications of the dictionary. As his old friends died he was frequently asked to write memorial articles, or introductions to collective volumes: James Dykes Campbell, John Richard Green, James Payn, Henry Sidgwick, and George Smith himself are among them. Lowell (who had died in 1891) was commemorated in a dedicatory speech for the memorial in the chapter house at Westminster Abbey.

The largest literary project of Stephen's later years was the completion of his long-intended monograph, The English Utilitarians, a three-volume work eventually published in 1900. The book derived from his History of English Thought, and had been in mind for almost two decades, since before the dictionary was thought of. Though often suspended it was never forgotten, and the possibility that this major task might be left shamefully unfinished was a spur to completion. He frequently had doubts about ‘the Utilitarian bog’ (Maitland, 459), but pressed on with it. The result was some 1250 pages long, not as cohesive as it would have been if given concentrated attention earlier. It remains useful in its commentary on the principal figures and their writings. The author was well aware of its defects: ‘I could write a good slashing review of it’, he wrote to Maitland (ibid.).

In December 1892 Stephen had been very pleased to be elected president of the London Library, amused particularly to have been preferred in the informal contest to Gladstone, one of its vice-presidents. He was not a remote, honorific president like his predecessor Tennyson, but active in encouraging the library's famous subject catalogue and its new building which was formally opened in December 1898. Elsewhere the academic world paid tribute to him with honorary degrees. He was already an Edinburgh LLD (1885); Cambridge followed with a LittD in 1892 and Oxford with a DLitt in 1901. A Harvard LLD had in 1890 been awarded when he made his brief final visit to America to see the dying Lowell and other close friends in Boston. Trinity Hall had made him an honorary fellow in 1891, and he was a corresponding member of the American Antiquarian Society, the Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Massachusetts Historical Society. Since 1896 he had been a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery; in 1902 he was elected one of the founding fellows of the British Academy, and in June of that year his list of distinctions was completed with the award of the KCB in the coronation honours list. This final offer had prompted some reservations about its appropriateness for literary men, but his family persuaded him otherwise. By then he was too frail to attend an investiture, and the insignia of the Order of the Bath had to be delivered by an equerry.

These awards gave Stephen a certain amount of rueful pleasure in his later years, which were increasingly dominated by illness and a withdrawal from social life occasioned by growing deafness. There were occasional outings, of course, including one to the Alpine Club in January 1899 to propose James Bryce for election to the presidency. It was about thirty years since Stephen had held that office: ‘It was queer enough to go to the old place,’ he remarked, ‘and feel that I was regarded with curiosity like an old revived mammoth out of an iceberg’ (letter to C. E. Norton, 22 Jan 1899, Maitland, 449). In April 1902, soon after he had accepted the Ford lectureship in English history at Oxford, he was found to have cancer. Immediate surgery was thought necessary, but was delayed until December. He bravely began to prepare his lectures, which—postponed by a year—were eventually read for him by his nephew H. A. L. Fisher in October 1903. They were published as English Literature and Society in the Eighteenth Century early in 1904, just in time for Stephen to have seen an advance copy.

Once the Ford lectures were drafted, Stephen worked away at ‘Some early impressions’ for the National Review: a light and charming sequence with vignettes of Darwin, Tennyson, Ruskin, and Carlyle, and of other contemporaries who were already acquiring a historic fascination. (The articles were gathered together and published as a 200-page volume by his daughter Virginia's Hogarth Press in 1924.) Hobbes, his final, and posthumously published, contribution to the English Men of Letters series, provided congenial occupation in summer 1903: ‘a dour, cynical old gentleman, and therefore … just suited to me’ (letter to C. E. Norton, Selected Letters, 541). Again, it was completed before his final illness; Maitland saw it through the press at Stephen's request.

Stephen's final contribution to the ‘Mausoleum Book’ was dictated to Virginia on 14 November 1903. For recreation during his final illness the London Library provided him with French novels and history, Dostoyevsky and Zola; and at the very end there was his favourite, Boswell's Johnson. Stephen died in his sleep, and without pain, at his home at 22 Hyde Park Gate, in the morning of 22 February 1904. A funeral service, described as ‘modified Anglican’, was held at the Golders Green crematorium two days later. His ashes were buried next to his second wife's grave, in Highgate cemetery.

Appearance, achievement, and posthumous reputation

Leslie Stephen was tall and spare, and his height and expression were often remarked upon. Stevenson wrote to Henley of ‘long Leslie Stephen in his velvet jacket’ (R. L. Stevenson, Letters, ed. S. Colvin, 1, 1899, 280). There was a haunted look that hinted at much sadness, and his anxious, pensive features lingered in the memory of his friends. During Stephen's first marriage, and accompanied by Robert Louis Stevenson, the young Edmund Gosse dined, rather silently, at Onslow Gardens with their new editor. He recalled:
the long, thin, bright-red beard, radiating in fan-shape; the wrinkled forehead; the curious flatness of the top of the head, accentuated by the fullness of the auburn hair on either side; the long cold hands; the distraught and melancholy eyes. (Maitland, 268)
Stephen's most conspicuous feature was that long beard, which Gosse noted as still ‘strong red’ in 1893. It was latterly much grizzled and, in photographs, almost ectoplasmic in texture. It dated from the time of his first visit to America, but commentators throughout his life also remembered his strikingly blue eyes. G. F. Watts's half-length portrait, painted early in 1878 as a marriage gift to his second wife (and now in the National Portrait Gallery), catches these features well. George Meredith's fictional portrayal of Stephen, as Vernon Whitford in chapter 2 of The Egoist: ‘Phoebus Apollo turned fasting friar’, has been generally reckoned a good description. Subsequently friendships and fame ensured that in later life he was photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron, and later by commissioned professionals, so a widely known image commensurate with his contemporary intellectual reputation has survived.

Stephen was characteristically inclined to disparage his own achievements. He believed that had he concentrated on original work in ethics and philosophy he might have achieved much more than he did by scattering himself among many subjects. He was conscious of not being a professional in specialisms that in truth were still organizing themselves. He felt (in a way that is somehow appropriate to a dictionary editor) that he belonged to the footnotes rather than to the mainstream of intellectual history. None of this is wholly justifiable, and he failed to recognize that even in his own time he was seen as a leading literary figure by those who acknowledged that his overall achievement was in many ways greater than the sum of his various contributions in criticism, biography, ethics, and periodical journalism. ‘Stephen himself’, as John Gross commented, ‘was often more impressive than his ideas. There is a constant hint about him of unused capacity, reserve power’ (J. Gross, The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters, 1969, 91).

As for a biography of himself, Stephen believed that though he might deserve a dictionary article, no fuller life would be possible. This was a self-denying ordinance that was soon disregarded, at family request, by his close friend Frederic William Maitland, who had married Julia Stephen's favourite niece. Though in poor health and heavily committed to work on medieval English legal history, Maitland found time to prepare an excellent Life and Letters, which appeared in 1906. This substantial commemorative volume, which made his affection for Stephen abundantly clear but quietly showed a recognition of the domestic tensions of the Stephen household, met the needs of general readers for almost half a century, and did much to maintain Stephen's reputation as critic, biographer, and man of letters.

This reputation was refreshed in 1951 by Noel Annan's study, Leslie Stephen: his Thought and Character in Relation to his Time, which not only set Stephen's career in the general context of Victorian literature and philosophy but helped to satisfy growing curiosity about the intellectual and social origins of the Bloomsbury group. A subsequent torrent of commentary on Virginia Woolf has in general been far from forgiving of her father, particularly when he is presented solely as an ogre of Victorian domestic oppression. Though her sister, Vanessa, took a clearer view of what her son described as Stephen's ‘savage, self-pitying emotional blackmail’ within the family (Q. Bell, Bloomsbury, 1968, 42), Virginia Woolf herself was sometimes ambivalent in diaries and letters, and in the posthumously published autobiographical writings collected in Moments of Being, edited by Jeanne Schulkind (1976; expanded, 1985). The availability in print of his Mausoleum Book (1977) also assisted the understanding of his character. An extensively revised version of Annan's 1951 study, spaciously conceived and retitled Leslie Stephen: the Godless Victorian (1984), consolidated and assessed recent documentary publications. It is now possible to take once again a more balanced view of Stephen's achievements, among which his editorship of the Dictionary of National Biography must take a very high place.

Alan Bell


F. W. Maitland, The life and letters of Leslie Stephen (1906) · Selected letters of Leslie Stephen, ed. J. W. Bicknell, 2 vols. (1996) · G. Fenwick, Leslie Stephen's life in letters (1993) · Sir Leslie Stephen's mausoleum book, ed. A. Bell (1977) · N. G. Annan, Leslie Stephen: the godless Victorian, rev. edn (1984) · DNB · J. W. Bicknell, ‘Leslie Stephen’, Dictionary of 19th-century British philosophers (2002), 1065–72 · d. cert.


BL, MS autobiography and related papers, Add. MSS 57920–57922 · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. relating to Dictionary of national biography · Drew University, Madison, New Jersey, notebooks · Duke U., Perkins L., family corresp. and literary MSS · NRA, corresp. and literary papers · NYPL, Berg collection, letters to his second wife |  BL, corresp. with Macmillans, the publishers, Add. MS 55044 · BLPES, corresp. and papers relating to Alfred Marshall · Bodl. Oxf., letters to H. A. L. Fisher · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with second Earl Lovelace · Bodl. Oxf., letters to J. E. Thorold Rogers · Co-operative Union, Holyoake House, Manchester, Co-operative Union Archive, letters to George Holyoake · CUL, letters to F. W. Maitland · CUL, letters to Henry Sidgwick · Harvard U., Houghton L., letters to Charles Eliot Norton · ICL, archives, letters to Thomas Huxley and family · JRL, letters to Samuel Alexander · JRL, letters to W. E. A. Axon · LUL, letters to Austin Dobson · NL Scot., letters to George Smith · NRA, priv. coll., letters to Sir Norman Moore · TCD, letters to Edward Dowden · U. Leeds, Brotherton L., letters to Edmund Gosse · UCL, letters to James Sully · W. Sussex RO, letters to L. J. Maxse


G. F. Watts, oils, 1878, priv. coll. · G. C. Beresford, double portrait, photograph, 1902 (with his daughter Virginia), NPG · G. C. Beresford, photographs, 1902, NPG [see illus.] · W. Rothenstein, chalk drawing, c.1903, NPG · J. M. Cameron, carte-de-visite, NPG · A. L. Merritt, etching, BM · Swan Electric Engraving Co., photogravure (after J. Caswall-Smith), NPG · photograph, Hult. Arch.

Wealth at death  

£15,715 6s. 6d.: probate, 23 March 1904, CGPLA Eng. & Wales