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Sir Leslie Stephen

Sir Leslie StephenBorn: 28-Nov-1832
Birthplace: London, England
Died: 22-Feb-1904
Location of death: London, England
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, Highgate Cemetery East, London, England

Gender: Male
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Encyclopaedist, Critic

Nationality: England
Executive summary: Dictionary of National Biography

English biographer and literary critic, grandson of James Stephen (1758-1832), master in chancery, a friend of William Wilberforce, and author of a book called Slavery Delineated, and son of Sir James Stephen, colonial under-secretary for many years, and author of Essays on Ecclesiastical Biography, was born at Kensington Gore on the 28th of November 1832. At his father's house he saw a good deal of the Abolitionists and other members of the Clapham sect, and the Macaulays, James Spedding, Sir Henry Taylor and Nassau Senior were intimate friends of his family. After education at Eton, King's College, London, and Trinity Hall, Cambridge, where he graduated B.A. (20th wrangler) 1854, M.A. 1857, Stephen remained for several years a fellow and tutor of his college. He has recounted the experiences of a resident fellow at that period in a delightful 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 (Sir) James Fitzjames Stephen. It was at Smith's house at Hampstead that Stephen met his first wife, Harriet Marion, daughter of William Makepeace Thackeray; after her death he married Julia Prinsep, widow of Herbert Duckworth. While still a fellow he had taken holy orders, which he relinquished in March 1875 upon the passing of the Clerical Disabilities Act. In the meantime (after a visit to America, where he formed lasting friendships with James Russell Lowell and Eliot Norton) he settled in London, and wrote largely, not only for the Pall Mall Gazette and the Saturday Review, but also for Fraser, Macmillan, the Fortnightly and other periodicals. He was already known as an ardent mountaineer, as a contributor to Peaks, Passes and Glaciers (1862), and as one of the earliest presidents of the Alpine Club, when in 1871, as a vindication in some sort of the mountaineering mania, and as a commemoration of his own first ascents of the Schreckhorn and Rothhorn, he published his fascinating Playground of Europe (republished with additions, 1894). In the same year he was appointed editor of the Cornhill Magazine, the reputation of which he maintained by enlisting Robert Louis Stevenson, Thomas Hardy, W. E. Norris, Henry James and James Payn among his contributors. During the eleven years of his editorship, in addition to three sharp and penetrating volumes of critical studies, reprinted mainly from the Cornhill under the title of Hours in a Library (1874, 1876 and 1879), and some Essays on Freethinking and Plain Speaking (1873 and 1897, with introductory essays by J. Bryce and H. Paul), which included the very striking "A Bad Five Minutes in the Alps" (reprinted from Fraser and the Fortnightly in 1873), 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. In 1879 he set on foot a Sunday Walking Club which contained well-known names, among them Sir F. Pollock F. W. Maitland, Croom Robertson and Cotter Morison.

In the autumn of 1882 he abandoned the direction of the Cornhill to James Payn, having accepted the more responsible duty of the editor of the Dictionary of National Biography, for the first planning and conception of which he was largely responsible. The first volume of the Dictionary was published in January 1885, and twenty quarterly volumes followed under Stephen's sole editorship. Five volumes were then published under the joint editorship of Leslie Stephen and of Mr. Sidney Lee, whom he had appointed as his assistant in March 1883. Early in 1891, after eight and a half years' service, Stephen, whose health had been impaired by the labor inseparable from the direction of such an undertaking, resigned the responsibility to his coadjutor. Not a trained historian, he often found it difficult to curb his impatience with Carlyle's old enemy Dryasdust. Fortunately for the success of the work, re-established health enabled him to remain a contributor to the Dictionary. Among his lives are those of Addison, Bolingbroke, Burns, Charlotte Brontė, Byron, Carlyle, Marlborough, Coleridge, Defoe, Dickens, Dryden, Fielding, George Eliot, Gibbon, Goldsmith, Hobbes, Hume, Johnson, Landor, Locke, Macaulay, the two Mills, Milton, Pope, Scott, Swift, Adam Smith, Thackeray, Warburton, Wordsworth and Young. Many of these are salted with irony, and most of them are characterized by felicitous phrases, by frequent flashes of insight (especially of the sardonic order), and by the good fortune which attends a consummate artist in his special craft. His particular style of treatment is more appropriate, perhaps, to the self-complacent worthies of the 18th century than to quietists such as Law and Wordsworth; but where space demands that a character should be inscribed upon a cherry-stone, Stephen seldom if ever failed to rise to the occasion. For the "English Men of Letters" he wrote lives of Swift, Pope and Johnson -- the last well described as "the peerless model of short biographies" -- and subsequently George Eliot and Hobbes (1904). During his tenure of the editorship of the Dictionary he was appointed first Clark lecturer at Cambridge (1883), and lectured upon his favorite period -- Berkeley, Mandeville, Warburton and Hume; a few years later, upon one of several visits to his intimate friends and old correspondents, Norton and Lowell, he received (1890) a doctor's degree from Harvard University. After Lowell's death in 1891 Stephen was mainly instrumental in having a memorial window placed in Westminster Abbey.

In 1885 he brought out his standard Life of Fawcett, in 1893 his Agnostic's Apology and other Essays, and in 1895 the Life of his brother, Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, which, less essayistic in manner than the Life of Fawcett, contains his most finished biographical work. In the same year, in succession to Alfred Lord Tennyson, Stephen was elected president of the London Library, and shortly afterwards appointed a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery. Some of his experiences as an editor were embodied in Studies of a Biographer, issued in 1898, while in 1900 appeared an important work which he had long had in preparation in continuation of his English Thought in the Eighteenth Century, entitled The English Utilitarians, being full-length studies of Jeremy Bentham and the two Mills. As a thinker Leslie Stephen showed himself consistently a follower of Hume, Bentham, the Mills and George Henry Lewes, but he accepted the older utilitarianism only as modified by the application of Darwinian principles, upon lines to some extent indicated by Herbert Spencer. The negative character of his teaching, his anti-sacerdotal bias, his continual attitude of irony, and even the very subtlety of his thought, have cooperated to retard the recognition of his value as rivalled only by Walter Bagehot among critics of the incisive school. For blowing the froth off the flagon of extravagant or inflated eulogy he certainly met no equal in his generation. Voluminous as his work is, it is never dull. While making self-depreciation a fine art, and perpetually laughing in his sleeve at the literary bias and the literary foible, he fulfilled with exceptional conscience the literary duty of never writing below his best. Brought up in a rigid and precise school which scorned all pretence and discouraged enthusiasm as the sign of an ill-regulated mind, he produced no magnum opus, but he enriched English literature with a fine gallery of literary portraits, not all of them perhaps wholly accurate, but restrained, concise and always significant. Besides being a member of the Metaphysical Society, he was for some years president of the Ethical Society (many of his addresses to which were published as Social Rights and Duties in 1896). In addition to his separate works, he superintended a large number of editions, among them Clifford's Essays (1879), Fielding (1882), Richardson (1883), Payn's Backwater of Life (1899), and J. R. Green's Letters (1901). In 1896 he wrote a memoir of his friend James Dykes Campbell for the second edition of Campbell's Coleridge, and in 1897 he contributed a preface to the English translation of The Early Life of Wordsworth, by M. Legouis.

His name was included in the Coronation honors list of June 1902, when he was made K.C.B. In December of this year he had to undergo an operation, after which his health began to wane rapidly. In 1903 his Ford lectures, one last luminous talk about the 18th century, were delivered by his nephew, H. L. Fisher. He told a nurse that his enjoyment of books had begun and would end with Boswell's Johnson. Like Johnson, under a brusque exterior and a coltish temper, he concealed a sympathetic and humorous soul. In spite of "natural sorrows" -- the loss of two much loved wives, he pronounced his life to have been a happy one. He died at his house, 22 Hyde Park Gate, on the 22nd of February 1904, and his remains were buried at Golders Green. A Leslie Stephen memorial lectureship was founded at Cambridge in 1905. Under an austere form and visage Stephen was in reality the soul of susceptibility and of an almost freakish fun. This is shown very clearly in the fantastic marginal drawings with which he delighted to illustrate his life for the amusement of young people.

Father: Sir James Stephen (b. 1789, d. 1859)
Brother: Sir James Fitzjames Stephen
Wife: Harriet Marion (dau. of William Makepeace Thackeray, d. 1875)
Wife: Julia Prinsep (Julia Jackson Duckworth)
Daughter: Virginia Woolf (author, b. 25-Jan-1882, d. 28-Mar-1941)
Daughter: Vanessa Bell

    High School: Eton College
    University: King's College, London
    University: BA, Trinity Hall, Cambridge University (1854, 20th wrangler)
    University: MA, Trinity Hall, Cambridge University (1857)

    Knighthood 1902

Author of books:
Essays on Free Thinking and Plain Speaking (1873, essays)
The History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century (1876)
The English Utilitarians (1900)
English Literature and Society in the Eighteenth Century (1904)


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