Stephen, Sir Leslie

Stephen, Sir Leslie, 1832–1904, English author and critic. The first serious critic of the novel, he was also editor of the great Dictionary of National Biography from its beginning in 1882 until 1891. In 1859 he was ordained a minister. As a tutor at Cambridge his philosophical readings led him to skepticism, and later he relinquished his holy orders. He wrote several essays defending his agnostic position, notably Essays on Free Thinking and Plain Speaking (1873). He moved from Cambridge to London in 1864 and three years later married Harriet Marian, younger daughter of Thackeray. Some of the essays and sketches Stephen wrote for various periodicals were collected in Hours in a Library (1874–79). From 1871 to 1882 he was editor of Cornhill Magazine; during this time he encouraged such authors as Thomas Hardy, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Henry James. Throughout his life Stephen was a prominent athlete and mountaineer. He wrote numerous articles on the subject of mountain climbing, many of which were collected in The Playground of Europe (1871). His major works include History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century (1876); biographies of Johnson (1878), Pope (1880), Swift (1882), George Eliot (1902), and Hobbes (1904), all written for the “English Men of Letters” series; Science of Ethics (1882), which attempted to combine ethics with Darwin's theory of evolution; Studies of a Biographer (1898–1902); and The English Utilitarians (1900). Virginia Woolf was the younger of his two daughters by his second wife, Julia Jackson.

See biography by F. W. Maitland (1906, repr. 1968); studies by N. G. Annan (1951) and D. D. Zink (1972).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2024, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: English Literature, 19th cent.: Biographies