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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Sir Leslie Stephen (1832–1904)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Ernest Hunter Wright (1882–1968)
 
SIR LESLIE STEPHEN, son of Sir James Stephen, who for some years “virtually ruled the colonial empire” of Britain, and brother of Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, author and eminent jurist, came of a long line to whose members literature and the law had often brought distinction. Falling to a younger brother’s inheritance, however, Leslie Stephen was destined, from his birth on November 28th, 1832, for the church. A fragile childhood and youth seemed to preclude him from the more active professions, and a normal boy’s easy acquiescence in established dogma offered no obstacle to a clerical career. Tutors and intermittent attendance at Eton and other schools finally prepared him, in spite of ill-health, for entrance to Trinity Hall, Cambridge, in 1850. Here his career was substantial rather than brilliant; and here his life-long love of rowing, walking, and mountain-climbing came into evidence. So ardent was his devotion to Cambridge that he was completely satisfied at the close of his undergraduate years to remain as fellow and tutor at Trinity Hall. But his leisurely days as a fellow, devoted to friendship with men and books and mountains, ended in 1864 when free-thinking triumphed over thirty years of training, and a growing distrust of accepted doctrine forced him from his clerical career.  1
  From now on authorship was his profession. His brother’s connection with the Pall Mall Gazette and the Saturday Review led him into the field of letters by the path of journalism, and it was not long before the periodicals just mentioned, as well as the Times, the Fortnightly, Fraser’s, the Cornhill, and the New York Nation were publishing contributions from his pen. Before committing himself definitely to literature, however, he had made a trip to America (1863), drawn here by his sympathy with the Northern side in the Civil War—for the Stephens had traditionally been agitators against slavery. While here he formed abiding friendships with James Russell Lowell, Charles Eliot Norton, and Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, and these friendships led to two journeys to America in later years, one shortly after his marriage, and another for the purpose of saying farewell to Lowell, then on his deathbed.  2
  Stephen’s return to England marked the opening of a life of sustained literary toil, relieved by occasional trips to the Alps and holidays in southern England. With a veritable passion for mountains, he made a record for peaks scaled that is excelled by few; and nowhere is he seen to better literary advantage than in ‘The Playground of Europe,’ a book that remains a classic of Alpine adventure. In most of the articles that now came from his hand Stephen took up the cudgels for free thought and honest action, and while his name became odious in certain circles of the orthodox, he rapidly gained a reputation for cutting wit and fearless speaking. He also made frequent excursions, always more or less apologetically, into literary criticism, with the result that the boy who had once trembled and grown pale at the recitation of ‘Marmion’ proved to possess a nice enough literary sense to become, in later years, one of the foremost arbiters of literature in his day. These literary essays were later gathered into the three volumes of ‘Hours in a Library’ (1874, 1876, 1879). In 1871 he succeeded Thackeray as editor of the Cornhill, a position he retained until 1882, resigning only to undertake, for the same publisher, the monumental work of editing the ‘Dictionary of National Biography.’  3
  Meanwhile Stephen had been twice married, first in 1867 to Harriet Marian Thackeray, younger daughter of the novelist, whose death on her husband’s forty-third birthday plunged him into long depression, and second in 1878 to Mrs. Herbert Duckworth, a beautiful and talented woman who had long been an intimate friend of his family and whose inspiration furthered much of his best work. Meanwhile, also, he had been engaged on his chief contributions to knowledge, and his greatest book, the ‘History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century,’ had appeared in 1876. This piece of vigorous writing had been preceded by his ‘Essays on Free-Thinking and Plain-Speaking’ (1873), and was followed by his ‘Science of Ethics’ (1882); ‘An Agnostic’s Apology’ (1893); ‘Social Rights and Duties’ (1896), and ‘The English Utilitarians’ (1900). No one should think of Stephen solely as a man of letters; it was the above treatises in philosophy which he rightly considered his chief contribution to the world. Consonant with the pre-occupation of his generation, he devoted an inherited logical faculty to an examination of the bases of belief and to a justification of the agnostic position.  4
  Beginning with his life of Johnson in the ‘English Men of Letters’ (1878), Stephen manifested an increasing interest in biography. To the same series he contributed the lives of Pope (1880), Swift (1882), George Eliot (1902), and Hobbes (1904). His interest in biography led the publisher, George Smith, to offer him in 1882 the editorship of the projected ‘Dictionary of National Biography,’ a position for which Stephen was qualified by wide reading, Catholic interests, tolerance, and sanity. Though he had hitherto shown some impatience at the toils of scholarly exactitude, his appreciation of the importance of such a work enabled him to organize it permanently, to publish twenty-one volumes under his sole editorship, and to constitute himself, in spite of his death in 1904, the third largest contributor to the completed work. These biographical articles, which include many of the great names in English literature, show their author at his best. There is to be sure an absence of emotional enthusiasm which deprives them of a certain popular attractiveness; but they are models of sound judgment finding expression in terse and vigorous English. Ill-health compelled him, in 1891, to relinquish his position on the ‘Dictionary’ to Sidney Lee, under whom it was completed. Various aspects of his almost unparalleled industry in biography are shown in the four volumes of the ‘Studies of a Biographer’ (1899 and 1902), and yet another aspect, which his readers would be loath to miss, in the tender account of his blind friend, Henry Fawcett (1885).  5
  Leslie Stephen was a man of delicate sensibilities which he sometimes hid for their own protection under a crusty exterior. The man with whom, it was said, no one could stop short of affection—Lowell’s “most lovable of men”—could also exhibit, on the one hand, an irascibility that was keen if temporary, and on the other, a lasting fortitude in the face of deafness, sorrow, and ill-health. Humor and self-control, which had long guided him in a straight course between the sentimental and the cynical, preserved him to the end in the settled calm which is so eloquent in the following farewell—his last letter, written while awaiting death—to his old friends in the Alpine Club, to whom he is sending his Alpenstocks as last mementoes:
          “DEAR CONWAY,—I am deeply touched by your letter, and its proof that I am kindly regarded by so many members of the Club. I shall never be able to take part in the proceedings of the Club, but those quaint old poles reminded me of some of the pleasantest days of my life. My membership in the Club has been a source of unmixed pleasure, and of kindly feelings from my comrades, which is one of the best things in life.
  “I wish you all good-bye most cordially,
“Yours truly,
“L. STEPHEN.”    
  6
  His farewell to Charles Eliot Norton is equally simple and very characteristic of the writer:
          “I write fancying that I may never be able to write again. I will, if I can; but if I cannot, I thank you with all my heart for all your past kindnesses, and assure you (needlessly?) that our friendship has been one of my greatest blessings, especially in late years. I wish you all that is good, my dear friend, and it is a pleasure to say so in words once more, if only once.”
  7
  No better examples could be given of Stephen’s informal writing. For examples from his published work the reader is referred to his articles on Thomas Carlyle and Henry Fielding which appear in the LIBRARY. They are admirable instances of his skill in literary criticism and biography.  8
 
 
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