Leslie Stephen: The Godless Victorian
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…
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