Leslie Stephen

Sir Leslie Stephen

[stee-vuhn]

(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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Sir Leslie Stephen, KCB (28 November 1832 – 22 February 1904) was an English author, critic and mountaineer, and the father of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell.

Life

Stephen was born at Kensington Gore in London, the brother of James Fitzjames Stephen and grandson of James Stephen. His family had belonged to the Clapham Sect, the early 19th century group of mainly evangelical Christian social reformers. At his father's house he saw a good deal of the Macaulays, James Spedding, Sir Henry Taylor and Nassau Senior. After studying at Eton College, King's College London and Trinity Hall, Cambridge, where he graduated B.A. (20th wrangler) in 1854 and M.A. in 1857, Stephen remained for several years a fellow and tutor of his college. He recounted some of his experiences in a chapter in his Life of Fawcett as well as in some less formal Sketches from Cambridge: By a Don (1865). These sketches were reprinted from the Pall Mall Gazette, to the proprietor of which, George Smith, he had been introduced by his brother. It was at Smith's house at Hampstead that Stephen met his first wife, Harriet Marion (1840 - 1875), daughter of William Makepeace Thackeray, with whom he had a daughter, Laura Makepeace Stephen (1870 - 1945); after her death he married Julia Prinsep Jackson (1846 - 1895), widow of Herbert Duckworth. By her, he was the father of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell.

Literary career

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.

Mountaineering

Stephen was one of the most prominent figures in the golden age of alpinism (the period between Wills's ascent of the Wetterhorn in 1854 and Whymper's ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865) during which many major alpine peaks saw their first ascents. Joining the Alpine Club in 1857 (the year of its formation), Stephen made the first ascent, usually in the company of his favourite Swiss guide Melchior Anderegg, of the following peaks:

He was President of the Alpine Club from 1865–1868.

Works

  • The Playground of Europe (1871)
  • Essays on Free Thinking and Plain Speaking (1873)
  • The History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century (1876)
  • Hours in a Library (1874-79)
  • The Science of Ethics (1882)
  • An Agnostic's Apology (1893)
  • The Utilitarians (1900)
  • Biographies of Samuel Johnson, Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, George Eliot and Thomas Hobbes

External links

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