LESLIE STEPHEN: The Godless Victorian by Noel Annan

LESLIE STEPHEN: The Godless Victorian

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Thoroughly revised edition of a distinguished study (first published in 1951) that sometimes wanders about but never loses its balance or vigor. Annan will not call this a biography, politely giving the nod to F. W. Maitland's Life and Letters of Leslie Stephen (1906), but close to half of his book--and by far the most absorbing part--is biographical. Evidence that has accumulated over the last 30 years, notably from the Bloomsbury archives, confirms Annan's original judgment of Stephen (1832-1904) as a difficult, demanding, charming, affectionate husband and father. Strong in his patriarchal prejudice, he left an estate of £15,000, after spending no more than £100 on the education of his youngest daughter, Virginia Woolf. A clergyman turned agnostic, a gifted mathematician who was also a keen rower and Alpinist, he did three lifetimes' work in history, philosophy, and literary criticism. Stephen's last years were darkened by the loss of his second wife, Julia Jackson, and he died an isolated (nearly deaf) and cantankerous old man. An interesting story in many ways--but Annan hastens on to discuss what he considers more important: Stephen's intellectual achievements--his trenchant assault on religion, his innovative reading of the novel (the first English critic to take it seriously), his still unsurpassed History of Engligh Thought in the Eighteenth Century, his more than herculean labors over the DNB. Annan views Stephen as a noble embodiment of the rationalist-utilitarian tradition in England though he admits his evolutionary ethics must be written off as a failure), and he relates him to both the Victorian and the present-day scene with unpretentious learning and unabashed personal feeling (he speaks characteristically of ""the miserable coward Marcuse""). But this putting-into-context becomes too diffuse. Annan rambles from topic to topic, from the modern German Renaissance (which Stephen neglected) to F. H. Bradley (who had an even better refutation of human immortality than Stephen's) to Queenie Leavis (who praised Stephen for debunking ""originality""). Still, this edition is richer for the new material, and it remains, like the first, an exemplary tribute.

Pub Date: Nov. 30th, 1984
Publisher: Random House