(born Nov. 28, 1832, London, Eng.—died Feb. 22, 1904, London) English critic and man of letters. After attending Eton College and Cambridge University, he gained entry to literary circles and in 1871 began an 11-year tenure as editor of The Cornhill Magazine, for which he wrote literary criticism. His greatest learned work was his History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century (1876), but his most enduring legacy is the Dictionary of National Biography, which he edited from 1882 to 1891, personally writing many hundreds of its meticulous articles. He was the father of Virginia Woolf and the painter Vanessa Bell (1879–1961).
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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 R.L. Stevenson, Thomas Hardy, 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 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 History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century (1876 and 1881) and The Science of Ethics (1882); the second of these was extensively adopted as a textbook on the subject. The first was generally recognized as an important addition to philosophical literature and led immediately to Stephen's election at the Athenaeum Club in 1877.
Stephen also served as the first editor (1885–91) of the Dictionary of National Biography.
He was President of the Alpine Club from 1865–1868.