Posted by: zhiv | September 17, 2008

About Leslie Stephen: a new project

Posting has been sporadic at best, although I might be on the verge of a flurry.  And I’ve come up with a new project that may help the cause and be manageable, but we’ll see how far I get with it.  Consider this the first part of an introduction.

About 20 years ago, maybe a little longer, I barely managed to pass my oral exams and thought I was about to write a glorious dissertation about Leslie Stephen and biography.  I’ve mentioned this before, back in January when I started this blog, and at one point I promised to write a bit about Stephen and mountaineering and Switzerland, but I haven’t gotten around to that yet.  There’s simply a lot of information, notes, and thoughts on the general topic of Leslie Stephen that I’d like to write about, things that have been banging around in my head for a long time, and I find that I’m pretty comfortable blogging and feel good about utilizing the format for this purpose.  And then last week I had an idea for what strikes me as a pretty good project, one that could cover a number of topics of interest.

I very much like the way that some blogs and bloggers pick a reading project and bang away at it over a longer period of time, analyzing along the way.  Verbivore has her 10-year reading program AND her Gordimer project, both of which are fantastic.  In this case I was specifically inspired by the Emerson project over at “So Many Books.”  I should probably look at the beginnings of the project, but it’s easy to see that SMB is systematically reading through Emerson’s voluminous essays and addresses, and writing substantive posts along the way.  I can’t say that I read these posts in full, since I don’t know the subject matter, but I do dip in and out quite regularly, and the effort seems to be an extremely worthy and rewarding one for SMB. 

A quick aside:  all of this makes me wonder if I might have actually written my dissertation with the benefit of contemporary technology.  Probably not, but still.

Leslie Stephen wrote a number of full-length biographies, along with other books and his own hefty share of critical essays.  His output places him in relatively close proximity to Emerson actually, but that side of the equation isn’t my present concern.  In the end his greatest accomplishment was providing half of the genetic material of Virginia Woolf, of course, but second to that was his editorship of the Dictionary of National Biography (DNB).

Instead of continuing to refer to my old LS interests and project as “my (unwritten) dissertation,” I think I’ll just refer to it as my (unwritten) LS book.  Whatever.  In its ideal form, it would contain an introduction to Stephen, and a description of the development of literary biography up to 1850.  At its heart are two different sections, each with its own thesis.  The first is that in writing his book-length biographies, the lives of his Cambridge colleague Henry Fawcett, his brother James Fitzjames Stephen, and the “Mausoleum Book” he wrote for his children after his wife Julia’s death, Stephen wrote his own autobiography.  I might spend a little time comparing the Life of Fawcett to Johnson’s Life of Savage, because Samuel Johnson and his biographical and lexicographical work was an crucial precedent for Stephen, and he also wrote mid-length biographies of Johnson, Pope, Swift and George Eliot for the English Men of Letters series (yes, George Eliot is in the EMoL–I’m not sure that Jane Austen or any other women are, but I don’t know).  The displaced autobiography, telling your own story through the lives of your friends and family, is interesting to me.  There’s more to say about all that, but the second section is the one I’m concerned with at the moment.

The second section is an examination of Stephen’s DNB work.  The thesis is that buried deep within the 22 octavo volumes of the DNB, Stephen surreptitiously continued and updated the “Lives of the Poets” literary project of Samuel Johnson.  I don’t have the numbers or the old research in front of me, but my guess is that Stephen wrote something like 350 lives/entries for the DNB.  Some of them are only a couple of paragraphs long.  But at least a few dozen of them are thorough and polished short biographies of most of the significant literary figures of post-Renaissance literature.  (Stephen’s sub-editor and successor, Sidney Lee, was a Renaissance specialist and biographer of Shakespeare.)

At one point I xeroxed all of these biographies, and they sat in a pair of boxes for 20 years.

In a third section of this book, I wanted to assess the landscape of literary biography as Stephen left it, and his legacy to his daughter as critic, essayist, and biographer as well as novelist, and the connection to her close friend Lytton Strachey as well.  Strachey led the critique of the bloated and hagiographic Victorian “Life and Letters” biographies, a critique which can’t be applied to any of Stephen’s biographies.  “Eminent Victorians” had its modernist and revolutionary point of view of the previous generation, but it is essentially a collection of short biographies, and the tradition of short biography and the biographical critical essay was firmly established in the 19th century and probably began with Dr. Johnson.  Strachey made an important and liberating advance, but Stephen’s program, accomplishment, and stylistic developments were all significant. 

My conclusion would be less about what the next generation did with Stephen’s legacy, and more about what Stephen himself made out of the past, and especially his inheritance from Dr. Johnson.  Johnson, of course, not only wrote his “Lives of the Poets,” but he most famously compiled his Dictionary (and edited his Shakespeare).  Stephen, with much less recognition, left his own Dictionary, in which his own version of the “Lives,” the literary biography of English literature, sleeps dispersed, silent, and completely unrecognized.

And it strikes me, thinking about this and considering the connection between Stephen and Johnson, that while Johnson has Boswell, Stephen had his daughter.  A glance at the result of these “literary relationships” shows polarized effects.  Dr. Johnson of Boswell’s biography is on the other side of the spectrum from Mr. Ramsay, but that’s an issue for another time.   

So Stephen wrote all of these biographies, a major work, and I xeroxed all of them, and then I got a job in the movie business.  I never read them.  I carried them around from office to office for years, along with back and forth from the garage of various apartments and houses, wherever I was stashing my old files and books.  Last week I had this idea of blogging about them, one by one, and started looking around for the boxes.  I finally managed to find a file containing about ten of them–I can’t even locate that file at the moment, to write down the list–and realized that I probably threw away the rest in one of my most recent moves and purges.  “I’ll never read these–it’s finally time to get rid of them!”  Hilarious, but that’s the way it goes sometimes.  At any rate, I still have a good assortment, enough to get started, and if I manage to get through those I can always go to the library and xerox again or buy myself a used DNB for my 50th birthday, which is about two months away.  So I’ll find out in the next few weeks if that might make an appropriate present–the old DNBs do seem to be a bit cheaper and more available these days, as libraries must be getting rid of them and getting the new DNB online.  Good old Leslie Stephen, always being pulled towards the scrapheap.

I hope to find my way as I go along, and eventually the format should be good for writing about Stephen’s essays, as well as general zhivian reflections about English literature, authors, and biography, in my standard manner.  I managed to read the first life at hand last week, Carlyle.  Now I just have to write it up.  Somehow Richard Yates has squeezed his way in again, but I suppose that will help with the blog traffic.  It’s all a very carefully designed plan, I swear!



  1. Great project! I am coming to love the genre of biography, although not necessarily in its most common contemporary format (the super-long, super-serious treatise), so I’m curious about the various ways Stephen wrote in the genre, and also about how he was writing autobiography and biography at the same time. I’m looking forward to what you write!

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