Posted by: zhiv | March 9, 2011

Leslie Stephen: The Biographer’s Autobiography

I was writing and thinking about autobiography the other day, working on As It Was, by Helen Thomas, which I’ve been told was written as a response to the death of her husband, Edward Thomas, killed after the battle of Arras in WWI. This reminded me of Leslie Stephen’s Mausoleum Book, the text he wrote up in his study at Hyde Park Gate after the sudden and unexpected death of his wife Julia in 1895. The Mausoleum Book was a private manuscript meant to be read by Stephen’s family, recording the story of their backgrounds and ancestors and their lives both separate and together. Stephen brought his carefully honed biographical method to the task, even in the midst of his grief, and he works patiently through the material, his prose as clear and concise as ever. He was a very old, broken man, with relatively young children, and he was isolated in his study, desolate and disconsolate. His own health and vitality had already been cracked by his exhausting work on the DNB. The Mausoleum Book was edited by Alan Bell and first published in 1977.

As I thought about this book, I remembered that it is only one section of Leslie Stephen’s strange version of autobiography, and I wanted to work through the argument and sequence here on the blog. Stephen, as a biographer, managed to write quite a bit about his own life and his background and his family, by writing about other people. His own autobiography can be found buried in the sequence of biographies he wrote at the same time he was editing the DNB. In that concurrent work, as I have mentioned elsewhere, he was recasting and updating Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets in a series of “Lives of the Poets and Novelists” that itself is buried within the sprawl of his Dictionary, a rival to Johnson’s own. In the midst of this monumental task of extreme and yet discrete Victorian ambition, Stephen and his wife Julia raised their daughter Virginia. In 1893 Stephen suffered a severe nervous breakdown, and two years later Julia died, prompting him to write the Mausoleum Book. He was finishing the story.

The first volume in Stephen’s autobiographical biographies is his Life of Henry Fawcett, written in 1885. Fawcett was blinded in a hunting accident, but went on to be an academic and economist and MP, and his wife was an important feminist/suffragette. Most importantly for Stephen, they were friends and colleagues at Cambridge. Thus Stephen was able to describe the ethos of his own extended university days through the prism of Fawcett’s experience there.

Stephen began his writing career with a series of personal essays, written while he was a fellow at Cambridge. The first of these were his mountaineering essays, published in the Alpine Journal. (See Catherine Hollis, Leslie Stephen as a Mountaineer, a pamphlet published last year by Cecil Woolf–will get around to a blogpost on this excellent work, especially now that I seem to be gaining some momentum.) Once again, Stephen himself is not the object, which is the mountain, companions, and the climb, but these essays got him started as a writer. His first book was a description of university life, Sketches of Cambridge, by a Don, a collection of essays first published in the Pall Mall Gazette. Again, Stephen himself is nowhere to be found, but the book contains portraits of his world and his concerns, described with his own, singular ironic attitude. The Cambridge book serves as a good companion to the Fawcett biography. And The Playground of Europe, the collection of Stephen’s mountaineering essays, must be counted as a key part of Stephen’s scattered autobiography.

At this stage Stephen’s autobiography was still minimal. The Fawcett biography was an unexpected bit of work, something he felt he owed to the memory of his friend and his friend’s family. Stephen was churning through his work on the dictionary, putting forth an extraordinary effort in literary history and biography, while guiding a massive project of general British history.

The next item came once again through mourning, grief, and honoring the dead. Perhaps Stephen wasn’t surprised that his skill at digesting and writing lives would lead him to write entire books, biographies of his contemporaries and his family. But he could hardly spare the time and energy. Stephen’s immediate family was quite distinguished. His older brother James Fitzjames had preceded Stephen in the world of critical journalism, as he built his career as a lawyer. James Fitzjames went on to write a history of criminal law, and legal codification and reform in India. He returned to England to become a judge, where he had some unfortunate public displays towards the end of his career as he suffered his own breakdowns. After left the bench in 1891 and died in 1894. Part of Leslie Stephen’s recovery from his own breakdown, as he was phasing out his work on the Dictionary, was to respond to his brother’s death by writing his biography.

The Life of James Fitzjames Stephen seems like the most straightforward and routine of Victorian biographies, a book that should have disappeared long ago in the dustheap of history. No one could have predicted that Virginia Woolf would become an omnipotent 20th century literary icon, and that the history of her father and family would retain meaning and importance and bear continued scrutiny. But the seeds for Woolf’s skills and acumen and success can be found in this book. It’s the primary source for every Woolf biographer, starting with Leslie Stephen’s grandson Quentin Bell, moving through Lyndall Gordon to the excellent Hermione Lee and beyond (Wikipedia has a list of 29 books under “biographies” on Woolf), on the intellectual heritage that spawned Woolf’s extraordinary literary consciousness.

It’s simply mind-boggling to consider the emotional resonance and repercussions of the fact that Leslie Stephen, in precarious health himself, took respite from the relentless forward progress of the DNB to write a biography of his brother. In doing so he wrote out, quite carefully, the story of his own family. He begins with his obscure Scottish forebears, and moves onto the first James Stephen, who witnessed atrocities of the slave trade in Jamaica, and returned to join Wilberforce in the great cause and the Clapham Sect. The fascinating part of the Life of JFS is how LS describes an absolutely dominant, iron-willed pair of men, his famous and accomplished father and brother. His father was James Stephen the colonial undersecretary, strategically placed in the colonial office in order to battle slavery. James Stephen was also presumably the model for Tite Barnacle in Little Dorrit, which must have prompted his son JF Stephen’s vicious attacks on Dickens.

Perhaps the most poignant story in the Life of JFS is the story of Leslie and JF’s older brother Herbert, the peaceful and easy-going eldest son who died at 24 in 1846 after surprisingly joining the army. His father James rushed to Dresden, where Herbert was dying with a fever, but he arrived too late. James Stephen never recovered, retiring and living quietly until his own death in 1859. And Herbert’s story is even more touching in the context of the sad history of eldest sons in the Stephen family. Universally talented and charming, with great promise as leaders, poets and thinkers, James Kenneth (33, d. 1892), Thoby Stephen (26, d.1906), and Julian Bell (29, d. 1937) all died prematurely. With a little research this could be the subject of another post, or an essay by some one who is actually good at this type of thing. The parallels between Thoby and Julian are known to Woolf scholars, and James Kenneth is familiar as Woolf’s unfortunate cousin who is a minor, unlikely Jack the Ripper suspect: his head injury and madness hastened JF Stephen’s decline. It’s Herbert’s unknown story, however, that begins the cycle.

The Life of JFS records how James Fitzjames took up the mantle of eldest son immediately after Herbert’s death. Again, as an account of an eminent Victorian it is one thing, while as displaced autobiography it is another. We have acknowledge that Leslie Stephen is doing an elaborate job of positioning himself, that in writing this particular book, at this particular time, he is deferring to his father and older brother, highlighting their efforts and achievements, describing the intricacies of their characters. They are men of historical, political and intellectual importance. On the one hand he’s only doing his duty and showing respect towards his family, while putting his specialized expertise to work. At the same time he writes from his own experience and perspective, recording his own impressions. But he is also making a record that applies to himself, and his own family. He is mourning, dealing with the past, writing out memory and character. One can only say that writing a biography of one’s brother can be a complex task, and in this case it is especially so.

What doesn’t appear in the Life of JFS makes its way into the Mausoleum Book. Or, at least, the material and the version of the story that Stephen wanted to be told. As he was going out of his way not to write about himself or an actual autobiography in the first place, his reticence is substantial. On top of that, he’s a master at Victorian biographic and historical discretion. As a keen and thorough student of the 18th century, and a leading agnostic and rational philosopher, he had a broad view of human nature and its foibles. But he understood privacy, especially with regards to his own thoughts and experience. And he understood the permanence of writing, and establishing the record, and painting a careful portrait with words. Stephen is always a master of 19th century academic biographical “painting,” with no trace of the impressionism or abstract modernism which so invigorated his daughters.

Leslie Stephen’s Mausoleum Book deserves its own reading and post, and this only serves as a quick view of the whole of his “autobiographic biographical” work and method. But I’ll make two quick points related to the MB. First, as mentioned, it was written as an act of memory and grief in the immediate aftermath of Julia Stephen’s sudden and surprising death. But it might be remembered that Stephen’s first wife, Minny Thackeray, had died just as suddenly, 30 years before. I don’t know what writing Stephen might have done at the time, or what he was working on. But by the time of Julia’s death he was a biographer, writing DNB lives and the lives of his friend and brother. I was prompted to record these notes after reading Helen Thomas, along with the WWI autobiographies of Robert Graves and Vera Brittain (and reading Siegfried Sassoon currently, with a brief Edith Wharton interlude–and now I might read Wharton’s autobiography, A Backward Glance, before I finish Sassoon). H.T.’s book As It Was was composed under similar circumstances, but there are some significant differences. Stephen actually wrote two books, both the Life of JFS and the MB, in the aftermath of death, and his Life of Henry Fawcett might be counted as well. The related second issue is that the Mausoleum Book was never intended by Stephen to be published, and certainly not during his lifetime. It was written for his children, he says, and we can believe him up to a point, while he makes clear at the outset that he is serving his own emotional needs by writing about his wife and his life with her.

Stephen was an old man, broken by work and now crushed by loss. He was in his late 40s when he started having children with Julia, and he was 50 when Virginia was born. She says somewhere that it was almost impossible to imagine him as a younger man, living in London and going out and paying calls. Stephen is reticent about his own social life and literary connections, and Woolf only experienced the tail end of it. Stephen left a large pile of literary remains, and it was part of the larger one that constitutes the intellectual history of his family, while he himself was a pioneer in the discipline of intellectual history. But he thought that virtually all of his work was ephemeral, that he had lived and worked and played his role, but he would only endure in literature as a footnote. As it turns out, he would endure as a father. He wrote the Mausoleum Book and gave it its title because he thought it was private and personal and no one would care. He couldn’t know what the future would hold for his young daughter, her friends and his other daughter, their own lives and work and fame, her cult. Still Stephen understood the nature of literary remains as well as anyone, and what it means to leave behind a manuscript. He would never think of publishing it, but it was a finished piece of work, in perfect shape for the printer.

In another post I mentioned that Dorothy got this started by writing about Janet Maslin’s review of Joyce Carol Oates’ new memoir, and Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking is often mentioned alongside Oates. I might want to read those books. They seem closer to Helen Thomas and As It Was. Thomas, I don’t think, didn’t write with an original intent to publish. Stephen clearly didn’t. But Thomas was young and the value of her book became apparent to her friends over time, as her husband’s reputation as a poet grew. Oates and Didion wrote under different circumstances, in a very different era, intending from the beginning, perhaps, to publish. The overall point is that there are a number of categories of autobiography and memoir, and the grief/relationship category has its own subdivisions.

Lastly, I should mention Leslie Stephen’s biography and biographers. There’s a longer version of this note too, but the headlines are that both of Stephen’s biographers were extremely eminent historians. The first, and more notable, is Frederic William Maitland. Maitland’s name is more obscure than Stephen’s in literary circles, but in his own field he was a game-changer, to use a discordant current phrase. I occasionally see Maitland persisting in the background, his own work and accomplishment as “the modern father of English legal history” growing in importance over time, but remaining detached from literary scholars (and Woolf specialists) because he is across the divide, over in history. And Noel Annan–that’s Baron Annan to you and me–, who followed after Maitland, is no slouch either. But all of that is part of the longer version. As obscure as he may be, and diffident about his own importance and impact and literary posterity, Leslie Stephen has had two superb biographers, which is only fitting given his own excellence in the craft. And as an autobiographical biographer himself, he gave them, and us, a lot of great material.



  1. Hi – I just found your blog and am impressed and inspired by your work here on LS’s “autobiographical biographies” — what a beautifully substantial blog-post. I look forward to reading more when I’m not procrastinating! (And thanks for the shout-out, re: my “LS as Mountaineer”). — Catherine

    • There she is! Thanks for the kind words, and I’m glad that you found zhiv. I was looking around for you after hearing about and then reading your excellent mountaineering pamphlet, but I didn’t get very far. You might want to go to my 10-1-08 post on LS and Mountaineering, which should give you some idea of how deeply I appreciated your work. If you make it back here, you might let me know how to find you and what you’re working on–I would love to send you an email. Thanks again!

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