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Leslie Stephen

Sir Leslie Stephen
Leslie Stephen (c. 1860)
Born (1832-11-28)28 November 1832
Kensington Gore, London
Died 22 February 1904(1904-02-22) (aged 71)
Kensington, London
Nationality English
Period Victorian era
The grave of Sir Leslie Stephen, Highgate Cemetery, London
Grave of his first wife, Kensal Green Cemetery

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


  • Life 1
  • Literary career 2
  • Mountaineering 3
  • Works 4
  • References 5
  • Further reading 6
  • External links 7


Stephen was born at 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. With her he had four children:

Julia Duckworth (née Jackson), Stephen's second wife, and mother of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell. Photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron

In the 1850s, Stephen and his brother James Fitzjames Stephen were invited by Frederick Denison Maurice to lecture at The Working Men's College. Leslie Stephen became a member of the College's governing College Corporation.[2]

Stephen was an Honorary Fellow of Trinity Hall, Cambridge, and received the honorary degree Doctor of Letters (D. Litt.) from the University of Cambridge and from the University of Oxford (November 1901[3]).

He died in Kensington. He is buried in the eastern section of Highgate Cemetery in the raised section alongside the northern path. His daughter, Virginia Woolf, in 1922 created a detailed psychological portrait of him in the fictional character of Mr. Ramsay in her classic novel, "To the Lighthouse", (as well as of her mother as Mrs. Ramsay). (Ref: The Diaries and Letters of Virginia Woolf)

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 first was The History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century (1876 and 1881). This work was generally recognised as an important addition to philosophical literature and led immediately to Stephen's election at the Athenaeum Club in 1877. The second was The Science of Ethics (1882). It was extensively adopted as a textbook on the subject and made him the best-known proponent of evolutionary ethics in late-nineteenth-century Britain.

Stephen also served as the first editor (1885–91) of the Dictionary of National Biography.


Leslie Stephen painted by George Frederic Watts, 1878.

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:

  • Wildstrubel – 11 September 1858 with T. W. Hinchliff and Melchior Anderegg
  • Bietschhorn – 13 August 1859 with Anton Siegen, Johann Siegen and Joseph Ebener
  • Rimpfischhorn – 9 September 1859 with Robert Living, Melchior Anderegg and Johann Zumtaugwald
  • Alphubel – 9 August 1860 with T. W. Hinchliff, Melchior Anderegg and Peter Perren
  • Blüemlisalphorn – 27 August 1860 with Robert Living, Melchior Anderegg, F. Ogi, P. Simond and J. K. Stone
  • Schreckhorn – 16 August 1861 with Ulrich Kaufmann, Christian Michel and Peter Michel
  • Monte Disgrazia – 23 August 1862 with E. S. Kennedy, Thomas Cox and Melchior Anderegg
  • Zinalrothorn – 22 August 1864 with Florence Crauford Grove, Jakob Anderegg and Melchior Anderegg
  • Mont Mallet – 4 September 1871 with G. Loppe, F. A. Wallroth, Melchior Anderegg, Ch. and A. Tournier

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


  • The Poll Degree from a Third Point of View (1863).
  • The "Times" on the American War: A Historical Study (1865).
  • Sketches from Cambridge (1865).
  • The Playground of Europe (1871).
  • Essays on Free Thinking and Plain Speaking (1873).
  • Hours in a Library (3 vols., 1874–1879).
  • The History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century (2 vols., 1876).
  • Samuel Johnson (1878).
  • Swift (1882).
  • The Science of Ethics (1882).
  • Life of Henry Fawcett (1885).[4]
  • An Agnostic's Apology and Other Essays (London: Smith, Elder and Company, 1893).
  • Sir Victor Brooke, Sportsman and Naturalist (1894).
  • The Life of Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, Bart., K.C.S.I. (1895).
  • Social Rights and Duties (1896).
  • Studies of a Biographer (4 volumes, 1898–1902).
  • The English Utilitarians (1900).
  • George Eliot (London: Macmillan, 1902).
  • English Literature and Society in the Eighteenth Century (Ford Lectures) (London: Duckworth and Company, 1903, 1904).
  • Hobbes (1904).


  1. ^
  2. ^ J. F. C. Harrison, A History of the Working Men's College (1854–1954), Routledge Kegan Paul (1954)
  3. ^ "University intelligence" The Times (London). Wednesday, 27 November 1901. (36623), p. 6.
  4. ^

Further reading

  • Harrison, Frederic (1908). "Sir Leslie Stephen." In: Realities and Ideals. London: Macmillan & Co.
  • Hutton, Richard Holt (1908). "Mr. Leslie Stephen and the Scepticism of Believers." In: Criticism on Contemporary Thought and Thinkers. London: Macmillan and Co.
  • Woolf, Virginia (1922). "To the Lighthouse"

External links

  • Works by Leslie Stephen at Project Gutenberg
  • Works by or about Leslie Stephen at Internet Archive
  • Works by Leslie Stephen at LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)
  • History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century at Internet Archive.
  • Alan Bell, 'Stephen, Sir Leslie (1832–1904)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn, May 2006
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