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The Case for Mr. Ramsay

Leslie Stephen: The Godless Victorian

by Noel Annan
Random House, 432 pp., $25.00

To an even greater degree today than in 1951 when Noel Annan’s classic study of Leslie Stephen (1832-1904) first appeared, its subject is remembered by most people who have heard of him at all less as the author of The History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century, The Science of Ethics, and An Agnostic’s Apology, or even as the editor of the Dictionary of National Biography, than as the father of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell. What is more, Virginia Woolf’s portrait of him as Mr. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse, the epitome of selfishness and insensitivity, has put him well on the road to literary immortality as a specimen of the genus “monster.” At this very moment, somewhere in the English-speaking world, grim-faced examiners are no doubt devising a question asking candidates for honors to compare and contrast the character of Mr. Ramsay with those of Mr. Lovelace, Mr. Collins, and Mr. Casaubon.

A cruel fate for Leslie Stephen. Is it undeserved? On the one hand, no. In his last years, weakened by overwork, hit hard by the death of his second wife Julia, beset by signs of that mental instability which tragically affected so many in his family, he became a domestic tyrant, given to temper tantrums, selfpity, and irrational fears of impending bankruptcy. Who, once having read it, will ever be able to forget Virginia’s description of her father’s behavior when Vanessa presented the weekly accounts:

The books were presented. Silence. He was putting on his glasses. He had read the figures. Down came his fist on the account book. There was a roar. His vein filled. His face flushed. Then he shouted, “I’m ruined.” Then he beat his breast. He went through an extraordinary dramatization of self-pity, anger and despair. He was ruined—dying…tortured by the wanton extravagance of Vanessa and Sophie. “And you stand there like a block of stone. Don’t you pity me? Haven’t you a word to say to me?” and so on. Vanessa stood by his side absolutely dumb. He flung at her all the phrases—about shooting Niagara and so on—that came handy. She remained static. Another attitude was adopted. With a deep groan he picked up his pen and with ostentatiously trembling fingers wrote out the check.

Virginia had her own burdens to bear. But it was her father’s treatment of her beloved sister that, so Noel Annan tells us, produced the rage that led her to create Mr. Ramsay.

But that is not the whole story, nor did she intend it to be. In 1932 Virginia gave a very different account of her father in an essay commemorating the centenary of his birth. There she stressed his capacity for amusing his children, his insistence on his daughters’ intellectual independence, his dislike of conventional views and stock responses. In a later sketch, drafted not long before her death, she categorized him as three fathers: the sociable father, the writer father, the tyrant father. And if Virginia Woolf’s own views of Leslie Stephen reveal him as more sympathetic than her fictional portrait would suggest, the love and affection he evoked from his many friends, young and old, English and American, throughout his life, testify to qualities of integrity and kindliness that were as much a genuine part of his personality as were the selfishness and irritability of his old age.

The critical candor and sympathetic understanding that underlie Noel Annan’s treatment of Virginia Woolf’s relationship to her father are among the qualities that made the first edition of this book such an important contribution to Victorian studies. They mark even more strongly the present revised and expanded edition, which has been long awaited by numerous admirers of the book.

When they open the present volume they will find, first of all, that it has a new subtitle, “The Godless Victorian.” To my mind it is less apt than the original one, “His Thought and Character in Relation to his Time,” because it does less than justice to the book’s scope. They will also find that, in accordance with Annan’s belief that Stephen’s ideas were more interesting than his life, it is still divided into two parts: one biographical, originally two chapters, now four; the other, dealing with Stephen’s thought in the setting of the nineteenth century, originally seven chapters, now eight. With about a hundred pages added altogether, both larger and more closely printed than those in the first edition, the revision is, in size and content, the far more substantial book.

Annan has conscientiously taken account of the deluge of writings about both Bloomsbury and the Victorian age since he wrote the first version; he has added something of the European as well as of the contemporary, twentieth-century context to his chapters on intellectual history; but mainly he deals in far greater detail than before with Stephen’s life and personality. A curious thing has happened. Thanks to Annan’s skill as a biographer, the opening section has now become so vivid and illuminating that it possesses an interest at least as great as the much lengthier concluding section on Stephen’s ideas. The division between life and thought, which made the first edition essentially a history of ideas with a biographical introduction, may now create a problem for the reader.

On its face, Stephen’s life does not perhaps have a great deal of intrinsic interest. He belonged to one of those distinguished Evangelical families which, armed with industry, a sense of duty, the reforming impulse, and, more often than not, money, became part of the nineteenth-century English intellectual aristocracy, a group first defined and studied in detail by Annan himself. They were both doers and critics—lawyers, academics, civil servants, and men of letters who, true to their heritage, tended to be serious, efficient, and successful in their chosen professions, while following the dictates of conscience to persist in search of truth wherever it might lead them. They never became “alienated” from English society, in part because they themselves contributed to its tone. They also managed to retain links with a variety of its constituent elements. But that did not stop them from freely criticizing the manners, morals, and attitudes of those of whom they disapproved—often the establishment in Church and State.

Leslie Stephen was a delicate and sensitive child. After an unhappy period as an Eton day-boy he studied with private tutors and spent some time at King’s College, London. In 1850 he entered Trinity Hall, Cambridge, where he took a first in the mathematical tripos and received a fellowship in 1854. To hold the fellowship he was required to take holy orders, and did so the following year. He became a popular college tutor, and an even more popular rowing coach.

He also became known as a radical who wanted to reform the Cambridge curriculum as well as the prevailing system of honors. From his close friend Henry Fawcett he absorbed a hardheaded respect for facts. By 1862 he had decided that Christian dogma did not correspond to fact, and that he must discard it. He resigned his tutorship and settled in London, where he began his long career as an essayist and man of letters. In 1863 he visited the United States for the first time, and championed the Northern side, both there and in England.

Stephen found happiness in family life after he married Thackeray’s daughter Minny in 1867. Four years later he became editor of the Cornhill, a leading literary magazine. His own written output was large and wide-ranging: criticism, biography, intellectual history. An avowed freethinker and agnostic, he wrote numerous essays in defense of his new creed. He took on the editorship of the Dictionary of National Biography in 1882; and that great reference work will no doubt remain his most enduring monument.

In 1878, three years after his first wife died, he married Julia Jackson Duckworth, whom he loved more deeply than he had loved even Minny. They had four children, including Virginia and Vanessa. Julia died in 1895, leaving him disconsolate. He was knighted in 1902 and died two years later.

Apart from his thought and writings, this hardly seems promising material for the biographer, especially since F.W. Maitland’s biography Life and Letters (1906) already exists. But Noel Annan has managed to invest the story of Stephen’s life with the sort of interest that held at least this reader spellbound throughout. He accomplishes this by a variety of means. Like all good biographers, he has an eye for memorable and revealing glimpses:

Clad in a filthy shirt and grey flannel trousers with a large purple patch in the seat, and damning the eyes of any cox on the river who did not give way, the Rev. Leslie Stephen was a sight to make Victorian eyes blink….

He possessed the gift of Victorian concentration. Snorting, groaning and scribbling marginalia, he would seem to idle through a book. Then, taking up a pen and lying almost recumbent in a low rocking chair which he tipped to and fro as he wrote in a small nervous hand, he would complete an article of six thousand words often at a sitting.

Annan is unusually sensitive to the personal crises Stephen confronted in the course of his life: his ordeal at Eton; his loss of faith; his leaving Cambridge; the death of two beloved wives; the sadness and misery of his last years. Though he frankly admits that he likes and admires Stephen for many reasons, he does not by any means see his task as that of counsel for the defense. Nor does he depict his subject in the grip of powerful psychological forces that ineluctably shaped his character. All his life, Stephen tried to conquer his chief weakness—hypersensitivity—by hard work, by feats of physical prowess, by humor, by acts of will. Annan refuses to see those acts of will as a mere product of the subconscious. By treating Stephen as a free agent fighting his own battles, Annan enlarges the drama of his life.

This does not mean that Annan ignores psychological or sociological matters. Indeed, he welcomes the chance to take them into account. He works both outwardly and inwardly. When he discusses Stephen’s legendary feats as a rowing coach he comments not only on how they fostered his self-confidence, but on the importance of team spirit in rowing and the way a coach stimulates it. Stephen’s passion for mountaineering—he was a great Alpinist—becomes for Annan an occasion for reflections on his personal motives in pitting himself against difficulty and danger, as well as on how his own achievements helped to make climbing popular as a pursuit for those of introspective temperament who lacked the skill for games or field sports.

The biographical section of this book is especially valuable largely because Annan is always aware of the circumstances of the time, and perceives how impossible it was for anyone except a genius to break through their constraints. Yet he also never ceases to make judgments. In discussing Stephen as an academic reformer at Cambridge, for example, he cautions us not to criticize him for endorsing the restriction of entrance to the “sons of gentlemen”: “To criticize a past generation for not accepting what we ourselves have only just accepted as normal is supercilious folly.” On the other hand, while not blaming Stephen for accepting the ideal of the educated gentleman, Annan nevertheless upbraids him for not giving the possibilities of that ideal a more flexible interpretation. Stephen, Annan shrewdly remarks, “was subtly tainted with the English contempt for culture and the world of ideas,” and prone to worship “character” as a thing in itself. As for the sometimes Grundyish editorial principles he felt bound to apply while editing the Cornhill—“delete ‘amorous,’ substitute ‘sentimental,”’ he once wrote to Thomas Hardy—it will not do to defend all his rejections and excisions on grounds of enforced expediency. The fact was that “the code of his times was agreeable to him for personal reasons.”

Stephen’s political radicalism, too, had definite limits. He favored the reform act of 1867 which gave the vote to the working classes in the cities. He had no use either for aristocratic rule, or for deference to the aristocracy. But at heart he was no democrat, and he eventually commended Bagehot’s cynicism as the most appropriate political position.

If Annan is well aware of Stephen’s limits as reformer, editor, and radical, he is also well aware of Stephen’s limitations as a human being. He freely admits that there was something bizarre about his excessive preoccupation with money and his dread of bankruptcy, but he also sees that there was something fine in Stephen’s general attitude toward money, which was to despise it. He quotes from a wonderful letter Stephen sent to Minny’s sister Anny in 1875:

Every fool has money; there are not half-a-dozen people who have your genius in England; and you are taking yourself to market and wasting your talents in order to spend more money and to less purpose than hundreds of people with half your means. When I see good powers thrown away it is positive pain to me…. George Eliot has influenced people more than if she had given away millions, and you can do the same if you like.

Critical judgment tempered by understanding is also evident in Annan’s approach to Stephen’s thought. Thus Stephen’s essays on unbelief, based as they were on scientific naturalism, may have been successful in providing arguments for unbelief to a great many educated people for over half a century, in part because of the vigor and clarity of his style. But Annan points out that their arguments were not in themselves original—they were to be found in Voltaire—and that Stephen did not really understand the religious mind. His notions of good and evil, right and wrong, were narrow, and he had little use for the experiences of poets and mystics, saints and sinners. He may have been able to explain the unreality of dogmatic Christianity, but “he was less successful in persuading religiously-minded men who had doubts that the evidence against the truth of Christianity was so strong that they must abandon it.”

As for Stephen’s evolutionary ethics, Annan praises him for breaking with the Benthamite tradition; for seeing conduct not as a simple calculus of self-interest, but rather as a necessary part of social welfare. But Stephen was unable to show a logical connection between moral standards and the evolutionary process. Indeed, his efforts to find metaphysical sanctions in evolution show above all the power of religion over the very minds that denied it.

Stephen’s History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century is a flawed book. It was too hard on the Deists; it neglected scientific thought; it did not really present a coherent sociology of knowledge. And yet…Annan succeeds in persuading us that it is a great work that can be read today. It does justice to Dr. Johnson and Bishop Butler as well as to Adam Smith and David Hume. It is enlivened by Stephen’s sense of fun. It contains valuable illustrations of the manner in which different classes employed different modes of thought. Above all, Stephen carries out as well as anyone ever has “the duty of the historian of ideas…to disentangie the web which thinkers have spun and show where the strands led.”

In this edition Annan traces in detail the way by which Stephen defined moral and immoral man both in his biographies and literary criticism, and how Stephen, the agnostic, could show, without benefit of clergy, what constituted the good life. In addition to the 378 contributions Stephen himself made to the DNB—“almost any one of which might have earned an American Ph.D. degree,” someone has ruefully remarked—he wrote several biographical essays, as well as major biographies of his brother Fitzjames and his friend Henry Fawcett. As expressed in these works, Stephen’s criterion for the good life—“masculinity,” defined as sexual purity and the acceptance of life and sorrow—bespeaks a limited moral sensibility. Yet he was not naive. He distinguished between vice and frailty, and knew that the soul did not consist of conscience alone. Thus he was able to do justice to the achievements of figures we might well have expected him to have found uncongenial: Coleridge and Rousseau, Fielding and Cellini and Horace Walpole.

As a critic he paid too little attention to language and imagery, too much to moral principles; he praised Dickens and George Eliot for the wrong reasons. Nonetheless, he was a pioneer in taking novels seriously as an object of criticism, and in showing how the character and demands of the reading public influence literary expression.

To portray Stephen as an eminent Victorian, a man who exemplified and stimulated some of the main intellectual and cultural crosscurrents of his age, is very much worth doing; especially if it is done as well as it is done here. But it inevitably saddles Stephen with a heavy burden. I still like to think of him as a free spirit—a freethinker, as Maitland put it, in a broad as well as a technical sense—the unfettered amateur ranging widely and easily over an enormous territory, enviably willing to tackle almost any subject in literature and ideas. Now that Edmund Wilson is dead, is there anyone like him today in the English-speaking world? I doubt it. And if by chance there is, would such a person follow Stephen’s example and apply to himself Mark Pattison’s dictum: “To know what others think of you, take your lowest estimate of yourself in your most depressed moments and divide by three?

Annan’s book has only one serious flaw, which arises from its structure, the division into biography and intellectual history. He is right, of course, in maintaining that in order to understand Stephen’s loss of faith and his new rationalist creed we must know something about the main networks of ideas that dominated European thought in the nineteenth century. But parts of the section on the history of ideas are so crammed with intellectual background, philosophical arguments, and disquisitions dealing with issues of Stephen’s and our day that we occasionally lose sight of Stephen himself. That is not true of the chapters on evangelicalism and agnosticism, where, in the former, connections between life and thought are made throughout, and, in the latter, Stephen holds center stage most of the time. But the chapters on British rationalism and what Annan calls the “Rhetoric of Truth,” while learned and informative, work less well. By adding a chapter on the German Renaissance of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries—which Stephen, to his credit, treated with respect but which did not deeply influence his thought—to the other weighty subjects already forming part of the chapter on British rationalism, Annan creates in the reader a feeling of hypertrophy. His usually sure sense of balance and elegance seems to fail him here.

Annan’s treatment of the “Rhetoric of Truth” raises a somewhat different problem, though also a structural one. In the first edition Annan maintained that Stephen’s loss of faith was almost certainly brought about by his reading Darwin’s Origin of Species. He was also convinced at the time that Stephen shed his belief without agonies of doubt, or nights spent in prayer on his knees. “It was like discarding a threadbare garment.” In the present edition, Darwin remains central. Stephen read the Origin as evidence confuting orthodox metaphysics, evidence that might be used to show scientifically that it was impossible to arrive at any metaphysical explanation of the cosmos. But Annan now stresses not only Darwin but also the cumulative effect on Stephen of J.S. Mill, Auguste Comte, and probably Edward FitzGerald. Moreover he is now persuaded that it was not so much Darwin’s book as the shoddy reception the great scientist got from the educated public that really showed Stephen where he stood.

Furthermore, new evidence has come to light showing that Stephen may have been more troubled than could be assumed previously by his loss of faith. That may or may not have been caused by his embarrassment at facing his students and his family with the news. There is no way of knowing, and it is entirely to Annan’s credit that he suggests some change of his own view. After all, what are new editions for? But here as elsewhere one is led to wonder whether he would have been more persuasive had he connected the two parts of the book more closely. As things stand, the new section on Darwin’s influence is to be found in the middle of Chapter 7; the new section on the possible effect on Stephen of his loss of faith is in Chapter 1. Here and elsewhere it takes time and effort on the part of the reader to bring cause and effect together.

Perhaps the most dramatic instance of what I am talking about is the striking parallel between Annan’s statement that “Virginia was in a real sense, as Vanessa was not, flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone” in the earlier section, and his question, toward the end of the book, “Is it a trick of the light or is this forerunner [Stephen] carrying the colors not of the Leavises but of Bloomsbury’s stables?” Perhaps I am asking for the impossible—a truly organic mixture of biography and intellectual history.

Annan may not have achieved that elusive goal, but he has written a rich book. One can savor the “Victorian” passages, which are full of insights: about the reasons for the long-lasting timidity of nineteenth-century rationalists; about the lack of association of English free thought with a particular political party; about the existence of happy as well as gloomy Evangelical families. One can relish incidental bits of information, such as the fact that it was Benjamin Jowett who arranged the Big Ben chime from a tune by Handel; or that the last candidate on the Cambridge mathematical tripos honors class list was known as the holder of the wooden spoon. Or one can enjoy reading what Annan does best—tracing changes of outlook and attitude among various coteries and groups; and, in particular, driving the Clapham omnibus to Bloomsbury with matchless skill. Reading Leslie Stephen is an intellectual adventure; no one who does so should any more be tempted to put Mr. Ramsay in the company of Mr. Collins or Mr. Casaubon.

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