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Sir Leslie Stephen – Biography

Below is the detailed biography of Sir Leslie Stephen, a British writer and critic. He is also known for his biographies and articles on history.  During his young times, he was a mountaineer. His children were also renowned painters and artists. Let us study more below.

Early Life of Sir Leslie Stephen

A portrait of Sir Leslie Stephen in the United States

Leslie Stephen was born on the 28th of November 1832 in Kensington Gore, London. His parents were Sir James Stephen and mother was Lady Jane Catherine. His father was the British Under Secretary of state. He was instrumental in the abolishing of the slavery act. James and Jane had five children out of whom Leslie was the fourth.

He was born in a family that followed a group of social reformers in the Church of England also known as Clapham Sect. While he was growing up, his fathers house had prestigious visitors like Sir Henry Taylor – a dramatist and poet and James Spedding – a British author. Not only those, but there were also many British officials visiting which created a wholesome learning environment for Leslie.

Leslie was educated in London. He went to Eton College and thereafter joined the Kings College, London after which he joined the Trinity College in Cambridge. He was a graduate and then went on to pursue his further education that is, his masters in Arts or MA in the year 1857.

While in college, he was a junior tutor by the end of his term. He was involved in church learning and therefore got himself ordained as a priest. He later studied the works of Darwin, that is the Origin of Species and the Theory of Natural Selection which made him lose faith in Bible teachings and eventually Christianity. In the year 1864, he resigned from all his priestly positions in Cambridge and moved back to London in the year 1864.

Career as an Author – Sir Leslie Stephen

His career began after he decided to pursue a masters degree. He was already working as a junior tutor in Cambridge. During this time, he wrote – Life of Faucett and The Sketches of Cambridge – By the Don which was published in 1865. He was a member of the governing body of the ‘Working Men’s College’ in the 1850s. He also frequently gave lectures at the college.

In his time at Cambridge and his influence on religion, he became an Anglican clergyman that he gave soon after. In the year 1863, he visited the United States and formed close friendships with Oliver Wendell Holmes – an American jurist and an Associate Justice at the Supreme Court of the United States, James Russell Lowell – a romantic American poet and diplomat, he was also a critic and Charles Eliot Norton – an American professor of art, a poet and art critic. He also met with Abraham Lincoln at the time of visit.


An image of Sir Leslie Stephen with Abraham Lincoln


After returning back to London, he joined the famous Cornhill magazine as a journalist. He also wrote for the Saturday Review, Fraser, Macmillan, the Fortnightly and some other periodicals. He published the ‘Playground of Europe’ in 1871 which was a wonderful book on mountaineering.

The cover of the famous Victorian magazine – Cornhill

He was a president of the Alpine Club at an early as he was the youngest president of the club ever. In his later years of writing, he wrote ‘The History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century’. This was published in 1876 and a later version came out in 1881. The work was a remarkable example of philosophical literature in England. Post the publishing of this book, he was elected as a member of the Athenaeum.

In 1882, he published ‘The Science of Ethics’ which was a phenomenal textbook to study the concept of evolutionary ethics which grew in the same year.

In November 1901, he received his Doctorate from the University and Oxford after having received one from the University of Cambridge. He was also an honorary fellow member of the Trinity Hall, Cambridge and an elected member of the American Antiquarian Society.

In the following year, he was given the title of the Knight Commander in the Order of the Bath and was coronated in June 1902.

Personal Life of Sir Leslie Stephen

Stephen had large family connections among famous men and the gentry of England. Among them was the celebrated writer – William Makepeace Thackeray. Thackeray had two daughters – Anny and Minny. The girls met Stephen and his mother at a get together when they became friendly and continued the affair. They were engaged on December 4th, 1866 and married in the following year on 19th of June 1867. Minny accompanied Leslie in the many tours he made.

A portrait of Minny Thackeray – daughter of William Makepeace Thackeray and the first wife of Sir Leslie Stephen

The couple experienced a miscarriage during one of the trips in the United States. Even after that, she suffered from a miscarriage in the following year. Finally, in 1870 she gave birth to a premature baby daughter. This was Laura Makepeace Stephen. Minny was pregnant again in 1875 but she was in absolute poor health. This led to her sudden death due to a pregnancy disorder.

Stephen was then left with his daughter Laura to take care of. They were taken care of by Caroline Stephen, the sister of Sir Leslie Stephen.

Stephen remarried in the year in 1878 to Julia Prinsep Duckworth. This was her second marriage as well. She was a model to the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood and met Stephen through some connections there. They had four children together. Prior to this, Julia had 3 children from her previous husband that had died in 1870.

A carbon print portrait of Julia Duckworth

Sir Leslie Stephen had 5 children in all. His daughter – Vanessa Bell went on to be a famous English Painter and interior designer. She was a member of the Bloomsbury Group. Her sister was the celebrated writer – Virginia Woolf, a modernist 20th- century writer. His sons were Julian Thoby Stephen, and Adrian Stephen – a psychoanalyst.

An image of Sir Leslie Stephen with his daughter Virginia Woolf

Death and Legacy of Sir Leslie Stephen

Sir Leslie Stephen died in Kensington and is buried at the Highgate cemetery. His daughter Virginia was in deep mourning after her fathers death. It took her months to recover. In her novel, ‘To the Lighthouse‘ she has made a classic mind portraiture of her father which is very well known.

Another portrait of Sir Leslie Stephen by one of his daughters

Sir Leslie Stephen made wide contribution to philosophical literature. He is known for his remarkable representations of theories and scientific approach in all of his writings.