Leslie Stephen


Sir Leslie Stephen (28 November 1832 – 22 February 1904) was an English author, critic,
historian ( 484– 425 BC) was a Greek historian who lived in the 5th century BC and one of the earliest historians whose work survives. A historian is a person who studies and writes about the past and is regarded as an authority on it. Historians are con ...
biographer Biographers are author An author is the creator or originator of any written work such as a book or play, and is also considered a writer. More broadly defined, an author is "the person who originated or gave existence to anything" and whose aut ...
, and
mountaineer Mountaineering, or alpinism, is the set of outdoor activities Outdoor recreation or outdoor activity refers to recreation Recreation is an activity of leisure, leisure being discretionary time. The "need to do something for recreation" is an ...

, and father of
Virginia Woolf Adeline Virginia Woolf (; ; 25 January 1882 28 March 1941) was an English writer, considered one of the most important modernist literature, modernist 20th-century authors and also a pioneer in the use of Stream of consciousness (narrative mod ...

Virginia Woolf
Vanessa Bell Vanessa Bell (née Stephen; 30 May 1879 – 7 April 1961) was an English painter and interior designer, a member of the Bloomsbury Group and the sister of Virginia Woolf. Early life and education Vanessa Stephen was the elder daughte ...


Sir Leslie Stephen came from a distinguished intellectual family, and was born at 14 (later renumbered 42)
Hyde Park Gate Hyde Park Gate is a street in Central London Central London is the innermost part of London London is the capital city, capital and List of urban areas in the United Kingdom, largest city of England and the United Kingdom. The city stand ...
, Kensington in London, the son of Sir James Stephen and (Lady) Jane Catherine (née Venn) Stephen. His father was Colonial Undersecretary of State and a noted
abolitionist Abolitionism, or the abolitionist movement, was the movement to end slavery. In Western Europe and the Americas, abolitionism was a historic movement that sought to end the Atlantic slave trade and liberate the enslaved people. The British ...
. He was the fourth of five children, his siblings including
James Fitzjames Stephen Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, 1st Baronet, KCSI (3 March 1829 – 11 March 1894) was an English lawyer A lawyer or attorney is a person who practices law, as an advocate, attorney at lawAttorney at law or attorney-at-law, usually abbr ...

James Fitzjames Stephen
(1829–1894) and
Caroline Emelia Stephen Caroline Emelia Stephen (8 December 1834 – 7 April 1909), also known as Milly Stephen, was a British philanthropist and a writer on Quakerism. Her niece was Virginia Woolf. Life Stephen was born on 8 December 1834 at Kensington Gore on Hyde Park ...
(1834–1909). His family had belonged to the
Clapham Sect The Clapham Sect, or Clapham Saints, were social reformers from Clapham Clapham () is a district of South London South London is the southern part of London, England England is a Countries of the United Kingdom, country that is part ...
, the early 19th century group of mainly
evangelical Evangelicalism (), evangelical Christianity, or evangelical Protestantism, is a worldwide trans-denominational movement within Protestant Christianity that maintains the belief that the essence of the Gospel consists of the doctrine of salv ...
social reform A reform movement is a type of social movement A social movement is a loosely organized effort by a large group of people to achieve a particular goal, typically a social Social organisms, including humans, live collectively in interacting popul ...
ers. At his father's house he saw a good deal of the
, James Spedding, Sir Henry Taylor and
Nassau Senior Nassau William Senior (; 26 September 1790 – 4 June 1864), was an English lawyer known as an economist. He was also a government adviser over several decades on economic and social policy on which he wrote extensively. Early life He was born a ...

Nassau Senior
. Leslie Stephen was educated at
Eton College Eton College () is a Public school (United Kingdom), public school (private sector) for boys in Eton, Berkshire, England. It was founded in 1440 by Henry VI of England, Henry VI under the name Kynge's College of Our Ladye of Eton besyde Windeso ...

Eton College
King's College London King's College London (informally King's or KCL) is a public university, public research university located in London, United Kingdom, and a founding college and Member institutions of the University of London, member institution of the fe ...
Trinity Hall, Cambridge Trinity Hall (formally The College or Hall of the Holy Trinity in the University of Cambridge) is a constituent college of the University of Cambridge. It is the fifth-oldest surviving college of the university, having been founded in 1350 by ...
, where he graduated B.A. (20th wrangler) in 1854 and M.A. in 1857. He was elected a
fellow A fellow is a broad concept whose exact meaning depends on context. In learned Learning is the process of acquiring new understanding, knowledge, behaviors, skills, value (personal and cultural), values, attitudes, and preferences. The abili ...
of Trinity Hall in 1854 and became a junior tutor in 1856. In 1859 he was
ordained Ordination is the process by which individuals are Consecration, consecrated, that is, set apart and elevated from the laity class to the clergy, who are thus then authorization, authorized (usually by the religious denomination, denominational hie ...
but his study of philosophy, together with the religious controversies surrounding the publication of ''
On the Origin of Species ''On the Origin of Species'' (or, more completely, ''On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life''),The book's full original title was ''On the Origin of Species by Mea ...
'' (1859) by
Charles Darwin Charles Robert Darwin (; ; 12 February 1809 – 19 April 1882) was an English natural history#Before 1900, naturalist, geologist and biologist, best known for his contributions to the science of evolution. His proposition that all spe ...

Charles Darwin
, caused him to lose his faith in 1862, and in 1864 he resigned from his positions at Cambridge, and moved to London. He recounted some of his experiences in a chapter in his ''Life of Fawcett'' as well as in some less formal ''Sketches from Cambridge: By a Don'' (1865). These sketches were reprinted from ''
The Pall Mall Gazette ''The Pall Mall Gazette'' was an evening newspaper founded in London London is the capital city, capital and List of urban areas in the United Kingdom, largest city of England and the United Kingdom. The city stands on the River Thames in the ...
'', to the proprietor of which,
George Murray Smith George Murray Smith (19 March 1824 – 6 April 1901) was a British publisher. He was the son of George Smith (publisher, born 1789), George Smith (1789–1846), who, with Alexander Elder (1789–1846), started the Victorian publishing firm of S ...
, he had been introduced by his brother.


(1) Harriet (Minny) Thackeray 1867–1875

The family connections included that of
William Makepeace Thackeray William Makepeace Thackeray (; 18 July 1811 – 24 December 1863) was a British novelist, author and illustrator. He is known for his Satire, satirical works, particularly his 1848 novel ''Vanity Fair (novel), Vanity Fair'', a panoramic portrai ...

William Makepeace Thackeray
. His brother, Fitzjames had been a friend of Thackeray's and assisted in the disposition of his estate when he died in 1863. His sister Caroline met Thackeray's daughters, Anny (1837–1919) and Minny ( Harriet Marian Thackeray 1840–1875) when they were mutual guests of Julia Margaret Cameron (of whom, see later). This led to an invitation to visit from Leslie Stephen's mother, Lady Stephen, where the sisters met him. They also met at George Murray Smith's house at Hampstead. Minny and Leslie became engaged on 4 December 1866 and married on 19 June 1867. After the wedding they travelled to the Swiss Alps and Northern Italy, and on return to England lived at the Thackeray sisters' home at 16 Onslow Gardens with Anny, who was a novelist. In the spring of 1868 Minny miscarried but recovered sufficiently for the couple to tour the eastern United States. Minny miscarried again in 1869, but became pregnant again in 1870 and on 7 December gave birth to their daughter, Laura Makepeace Stephen (1870–1945). Laura was premature, weighing three pounds. In March 1873 Thackeray and the Stephens moved to 8 Southwell Gardens. The couple travelled extensively, and by 1875 Minny was pregnant again, but this time was in poor health. On 27 November she developed convulsions, and died the following day of eclampsia. After Minny's death, Leslie Stephen continued to live with Anny, but they moved to 11 Hyde Park gate South in 1876, next door to her widowed friend and collaborator, Julia Duckworth. Leslie Stephen and his daughter were also cared for by his sister, the writer
Caroline Emelia Stephen Caroline Emelia Stephen (8 December 1834 – 7 April 1909), also known as Milly Stephen, was a British philanthropist and a writer on Quakerism. Her niece was Virginia Woolf. Life Stephen was born on 8 December 1834 at Kensington Gore on Hyde Park ...
, although Leslie described her as "Silly Milly" and her books as "little works". Meanwhile, Anny was falling in love with her younger cousin Richmond Ritchie, to Leslie Stephen's consternation. Ritchie became a constant visitor and they became engaged in May 1877, and were married on 2 August. At the same time Leslie Stephen was seeing more and more of Julia Duckworth.

(2) Julia Duckworth 1878–1895

His second marriage was to Julia Stephen, Julia Prinsep Duckworth (née Jackson, 1846–1895). Julia had been born in India and after returning to England she became a model for Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Pre-Raphaelite painters such as Edward Burne-Jones. In 1867 she had married Herbert Duckworth (1833 − 1870) by whom she had three children prior to his death in 1870. Leslie Stephen and Julia Duckworth were married on 26 March 1878. They had four children: * Vanessa Bell, Vanessa (1879–1961) married Clive Bell * Thoby Stephen, Thoby (1880–1906) * Virginia Woolf, Virginia (1882–1941) married Leonard Woolf * Adrian Stephen, Adrian (1883–1948) In May 1895, Julia died of influenza, leaving her husband with four young children aged 11 to 15 (her children by her first marriage being adult by then).


In the 1850s, Stephen and his brother James Fitzjames Stephen were invited by Frederick Denison Maurice to lecture at The Working Men's College. Leslie Stephen became a member of the college's governing College Corporation.J. F. C. Harrison, ''A History of the Working Men's College (1854–1954),'' Routledge Kegan Paul (1954) Stephen was an honorary fellow of
Trinity Hall, Cambridge Trinity Hall (formally The College or Hall of the Holy Trinity in the University of Cambridge) is a constituent college of the University of Cambridge. It is the fifth-oldest surviving college of the university, having been founded in 1350 by ...
, and received the honorary degree Doctor of Letters (D.Litt.) from the University of Cambridge and from the University of Oxford (November 1901). While at Cambridge, Stephen became an Anglican clergyman. In 1865, having renounced his religious beliefs, and after a visit to the United States two years earlier, where he had formed lasting friendships with Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., James Russell Lowell and Charles Eliot Norton, he settled in London and became a journalist, eventually editing ''The Cornhill Magazine'' in 1871 where Robert Louis Stevenson, R. L. Stevenson, Thomas Hardy, William Edward Norris, W. E. Norris, Henry James, and James Payn figured among his contributors. In his spare time, he participated in athletics and mountaineering. He also contributed to the ''Saturday Review'', ''Fraser'', ''Macmillan'', the ''Fortnightly'', and other periodicals. He was already known as a climber, as a contributor to ''Peaks, Passes and Glaciers'' (1862), and as one of the earliest presidents of the Alpine Club, when, in 1871, in commemoration of his own first ascents in the Alps, he published ''The Playground of Europe'', which immediately became a mountaineering classic, drawing—together with Edward Whymper, Whymper's ''Scrambles Amongst the Alps''—successive generations of its readers to the Alps. During the eleven years of his editorship, in addition to three volumes of critical studies, he made two valuable contributions to philosophical history and theory. The first was ''The History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century'' (1876 and 1881). This work was generally recognised as an important addition to philosophical literature and led immediately to Stephen's election at the Athenaeum Club, London, Athenaeum Club in 1877. The second was ''The Science of Ethics'' (1882). It was extensively adopted as a textbook on the subject and made him the best-known proponent of evolutionary ethics in late-nineteenth-century Britain. He was elected a member of the American Antiquarian Society in 1901. Stephen also served as the first editor (1885–91) of the ''Dictionary of National Biography''. He was appointed a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath (KCB) in the 1902 Coronation Honours list published on 26 June 1902.


As an adult, Stephen was an agnostic atheist who wrote extensively about his views. In ''Social Rights and Duties'', he explained how he came to lose his faith of his parents: "When I ceased to accept the teaching of my youth, it was not so much a process of giving up beliefs as of discovering that I never really believed." His second wife, Julia, was similarly activist in her writings on agnosticism. He advocated for more people of this view to claim the label "agnostic" for themselves, eschewing the harder associations of the unadorned term "atheist", reflecting the fact that no one who claims a disbelief in gods does so on the basis of professing absolute ''knowledge'' about the universe. He concluded his essay, "An Agnostic's Apology," with a reply to religious critics who hold atheists and agnostics in contempt, writing: Stephen was very involved in the organised humanism, humanist movement, even serving multiple terms as President of the West London Ethical Society (part of the Union of Ethical Societies, which became Humanists UK). He gave numerous addresses and lectures to the ethical society during his tenure as president, which are collected at length across multiple volumes of humanist writing. He was an active organiser in the movement, and in one lecture, entitled "The aims of ethical societies," set about the task of defining the broader social purpose which animated the wider Ethical Culture, Ethical movement at that time.


Stephen was one of the most prominent figures in the golden age of alpinism (the period between Alfred Wills, Wills's ascent of the Wetterhorn in 1854 and Edward Whymper, Whymper's ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865) during which many major alpine peaks saw their first ascents. Joining the Alpine Club (UK), Alpine Club in 1857 (the year of its formation), Stephen made the first ascent, usually in the company of his favourite Swiss guide Melchior Anderegg, of the following peaks: *Wildstrubel – 11 September 1858 with Thomas Woodbine Hinchliff, T. W. Hinchliff and Melchior Anderegg *Bietschhorn – 13 August 1859 with Anton Siegen, Johann Siegen and Joseph Ebener *Rimpfischhorn – 9 September 1859 with Robert Living, Melchior Anderegg and Johann Zumtaugwald *Alphubel – 9 August 1860 with T. W. Hinchliff, Melchior Anderegg and Peter Perren *Blüemlisalphorn – 27 August 1860 with Robert Living, Melchior Anderegg, F. Ogi, P. Simond and J. K. Stone *Schreckhorn – 16 August 1861 with Ulrich Kaufmann, Christian Michel and Peter Michel *Monte Disgrazia – 23 August 1862 with Edward Shirley Kennedy, E. S. Kennedy, Thomas Cox and Melchior Anderegg *Zinalrothorn – 22 August 1864 with Florence Crauford Grove, Jakob Anderegg and Melchior Anderegg *Mont Mallet – 4 September 1871 with G. Loppe, F. A. Wallroth, Melchior Anderegg, Ch. and A. Tournier He was President of the Alpine Club from 1865 to 1868 and edited the ''Alpine Journal'', 1868–1872.

List of selected publications

* ''The Poll Degree from a Third Point of View'' (1863). *
The "Times" on the American War: A Historical Study
' (1865).
''Sketches from Cambridge''
''The Playground of Europe''
''Essays on Free Thinking and Plain Speaking''
''Hours in a Library''
(3 vols., 1874–1879).
''The History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century''
(2 vols., 1876).
''Samuel Johnson''
(1878). * ''Swift'' (1882).
''The Science of Ethics''
(1882). * ''Life of Henry Fawcett'' (1885).
''An Agnostic's Apology and Other Essays''
(London: Smith, Elder and Company, 1893). * ''Sir Victor Brooke, Sportsman and Naturalist'' (1894). * ''The Life of Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, Bart., K.C.S.I.'' (1895). * ''Social Rights and Duties'' (1896). * ''s:Studies of a Biographer, Studies of a Biographer'' (4 volumes, 1898–1902).
''The English Utilitarians''
''George Eliot''
(London: Macmillan, 1902).
''English Literature and Society in the Eighteenth Century''
(Ford Lectures) (London: Duckworth and Company, 1903, 1904).
(1904). *


He died in Kensington and is buried in the eastern section of Highgate Cemetery in the raised section alongside the northern path. His daughter, Virginia Woolf, was badly affected by his death and she was cared for by his sister, Caroline. Woolf in 1922 created a detailed psychological portrait of him in the fictional character of Mr. Ramsay in her classic novel, ''To the Lighthouse'', (as well as of her mother as Mrs. Ramsay). (Ref: The Diaries and Letters of Virginia Woolf) His probate is worded: STEPHEN sir Leslie of 22 Hyde Park-gate Middlesex K.C.B. probate London 23 March to George Herbert Duckworth and Gerald de L'Etang Duckworth esquires Effects £15715 6s. 6d. To honour his memory, his friends held a lecture in 1907 at the University of Cambridge, which has been held bi-annually as the ''Leslie Stephen Lecture'' since. His friends endowed that it be held with the specification that it be on "some literary subject, including therein criticism, biography and ethics."

Family tree

For family trees of the Stephens, Thackerays and Jacksons, see Bicknell (1996a) and Bloom and Maynard (1994). ,



* * * * * * * Frederic Harrison, Harrison, Frederic (1908)
"Sir Leslie Stephen."
In: ''Realities and Ideals.'' London: Macmillan & Co. * Richard Holt Hutton, Hutton, Richard Holt (1908)
"Mr. Leslie Stephen and the Scepticism of Believers."
In: ''Criticism on Contemporary Thought and Thinkers.'' London: Macmillan and Co. * * * * * * (''see also'' Dictionary of National Biography) * ''als
Internet archive
' ;Websites * * Family tree * * *
Virginia Woolf Adeline Virginia Woolf (; ; 25 January 1882 28 March 1941) was an English writer, considered one of the most important modernist literature, modernist 20th-century authors and also a pioneer in the use of Stream of consciousness (narrative mod ...

Virginia Woolf
(1922). "To the Lighthouse"

Anne Thackeray Ritchie

* * *

External links

* * *
History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century
at Internet Archive.


Leslie Stephen Photograph Album
Mortimer Rare Book Collection, Smith College Special Collections

External images

Leslie and Harriet Stephen 1867

in {{DEFAULTSORT:Stephen, Leslie 1832 births 1904 deaths English mountain climbers English biographers Dictionary of National Biography People educated at Eton College Stephen-Bell family English agnostics English essayists English humanists English historians Alumni of Trinity Hall, Cambridge Presidents of the Alpine Club (UK) Virginia Woolf Alumni of King's College London 20th-century biographers Fellows of the British Academy Members of the American Antiquarian Society 19th-century English writers Burials at Highgate Cemetery Women biographers