the intellectual life and two marriages of Leslie Stephen
Leslie Stephen has every right to be considered the ‘father’ of the Bloomsbury Group. His two sons Thoby and Adrian attended Trinity Hall, Cambridge.where their father had been a tutor and fellow. The sons invited their talented friends home to meet Stephen’s equally gifted daughters Vanessa and Virginia; and Sir Leslie helped to introduce the twentieth century and the first shoots of its modernism by publishing writers such as Thomas Hardy, Henry James, and Joseph Conrad. The intellectual and social connections that underlay the Bloomsbury Group actually went back into the middle of the nineteenth century.
Sir Leslie Stephen (1832—1904)
The Mausoleum Book is a very personal account of Stephen’s two marriages was written in 1895 following the death of Stephen’s second wife Julia, and it was intended to be an entirely private document, addressed as a record to the family. Indeed it remained unseen outside this circle until its first publication in 1977. His children were slightly embarrassed by the tone of the memoir, which in his introduction Alan Bell calls one of ‘unrestrained lamentation’. But it has to be said that Leslie Stephen was doing something fairly unusual for the period – facing up to bereavement and the facts of death without the consolation of any religious belief. He had rejected what he called the ‘Noah’s ark myth’ and the trappings of religious ideology once and for all whilst at Cambridge – an act of intellectual honesty which led him to resign from his position of tutor at Trinity.
Having announced to his children at the outset of the memoir that it was to be about their mother, he launches immediately into an account of his own life – Cambridge, loss of religious belief, early days as a journalist, friendships with Tennyson, Browning, Arnold, Carlyle, and George Eliot. His family was also friendly with William Makepeace Thackeray, through whom he met their daughter Harriet Marion (‘Minny’) who was to become his first wife.
But no sooner is Minny introduced than he immediately goes on to reflect on her sister Anny, who was a. popular novelist at the time. He describes her intellectual superiority, and her temperamental shortcomings. At this point the shadow of hereditary insanity in the Thackeray family is raised, and Stephen’s wife Minny dies very suddenly. His account then prepares the ground for his second marriage to the beautiful Julia Princep Jackson.
He backtracks very gallantly to give a history of her first marriage to Herbert Duckworth, painfully scanning their love letters and admitting she had been very happy in her choice of husband. Alas, this happiness was to last only three years, for Duckworth died very suddenly in 1870.
The shock and sadness of this sudden bereavement turned her into ‘a kind of sister of mercy’. She became engrossed in nursing skills which were reflected in her publication Notes from a Sickroom (1883) which forms an interesting bookend to her daughter Virginia Woolf’s later On Being Ill (1926).
Following their double loss, Leslie Stephen and Julia Duckworth became neighbours in Hyde Park Gate. They were close friends, united in widowhood, and had five children between them – one of whom (Laura, from his marriage to Minny) eventually became permanently incarcerated in a mental institution for the rest of her life.
They had domestic situations and social connections in common; they were old friends; and they lived in the same road – yet when he proposed marriage she turned him down, whilst protesting that she admired and even ‘loved’ him. They continued in this paradoxical impasse for a number of years until 1878 when she finally accepted his offer.
He claims that they were blissfully happy ever after – though his account should be taken along with the often more critical memoirs of his children (particularly Virginia’s) who all saw him as something of a domestic tyrant.
He paints a warm picture of summer holidays at Talland House in St Ives, Cornwall which will be familiar to those who have read To the Lighthouse – though the setting of the novel is supposed to be the Hebrides, a part of the narrative which is wholly unconvincing.
The memoir becomes slightly bizarre when he includes character sketches of people known to Julia but who had died at the time of its composition. These include the grotesquely entertaining figure of Halford Vaughan, who took a lofty and disdainful attitude to his adoring wife and devoted a lifetime to the composition of a magnum opus of which he only ever completed the introductory chapter, which completely fails to identify even the subject under consideration.
From this point on, the narrative becomes truly maudlin. There is amazingly little mention of his ‘new’ children with Julia (Thoby, Vanessa, Virginia, and Adrian) but endless accounts of other people’s illnesses and deaths.
For a while he protests in what seems to be a self-effacing manner about his own lack of literary achievement – only to then reveal his wife’s refutation of this view, something that he offers as an example of her superior judgement. He also lists compliments he has received from distinguished figures on his literary powers — ‘one of the greatest philosophic writers’ — but mentions them as something to confirm the wisdom of Julia’s views. This is a fairly devious way of patting yourself on the back. And it gets worse:
I can not doubt, without impugning her [Julia’s] judgement, that there must be something loveable in me.
This may even be true – but it’s no wonder that his children found their father’s memoir something of an embarrassment. But this slim volume is a rich vein of information for devotees of Bloomsbury, and a valuable insight into aspects of sentimental life of the late nineteenth century.
NB! – On Amazon this book is classed as a rare item, and is priced accordingly. But don’t be put off: I bought my copy for one penny.
© Roy Johnson 2016
Leslie Stephen, The Mausoleum Book, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977, pp.118, ISBN: 0198120842