Woolf in the World: A Pen and a Press of Her Own
Virginia Woolf’s aunt, Anne Thackeray Ritchie (1837-1919), wrote this letter to one of Charles Darwin’s sons. In it she asked Darwin to visit her brother-in-law, Leslie Stephen, who was dying of abdominal cancer. “His girls tell me the doctor warns them very seriously, but of course they do not tell him & only do the best they can for him.” Virginia Woolf’s aunt, Anne Thackeray Ritchie, and great aunt, Julia Margaret Cameron, were important role models. They were talented writers and artists who did exactly as they pleased. Anne Thackeray Ritchie was a successful novelist like her father. She married her cousin, Richmond Ritchie, who was seventeen years her junior. In his memoirs, Leslie Stephen recorded his disapproval: “men at least always hate a marriage between a young man and a much older woman.”
At the end of his life Leslie Stephen thought he was a failure: “I have scattered myself too much ... with journalism and dictionary making, I have been a jack of all trades.” But according to Maitland’s biography, Stephen was recognized by society at the end of his life. Some of his honors included an honorary LL.D. from Edinburgh in 1885, and another from Harvard in 1890; an honorary Litt.D. from Cambridge in 1892, and another from Oxford in 1901; he was a corresponding member of the Massachusetts Historical Society in 1895, and on the occasion of King Edward VII’s coronation, Stephen was made K.C.B.
After Leslie Stephen’s death, Virginia Woolf wrote some impressions of her father for “The Sunset” chapter of Frederic Maitland’s biography. “Every evening we spent an hour and a half in the drawing-room, and, as far back as I can remember, he found some way of amusing us himself ... many of the great English poems now seem to me inseparable from my father; I hear in them not only his voice, but in some sort his teaching and belief.” One of George Beresford’s photographs of Leslie Stephen illustrates the text. Woolf suffered a mental breakdown after the death of her mother in 1895, and again when her father died in 1904.
Mortimer Rare Book Room, Smith College