My Favorite Stephens

Tue Jan 11, 2005

Roger Kimball makes the following claim in this review of the new Oxford Dictionary of National Biography:

Today, alas, Leslie Stephen is known to many (to the extent that he is known at all) solely as the father of Virginia Woolf. But Stephen’s claim on our attention goes well beyond his paternity of that poster-girl for twentieth-century feminism, department of snobbish literary neurasthenia. Besides, if we’re going to bring up relatives, why not start with a genuinely distinguished one. Stephen was also the brother of James Fitzjames Stephen—another prodigy of Victorian literary productivity—whose book Liberty, Equality, Fraternity (1873) is one of the sharpest and most relentless polemics in the library of philosophical evisceration. Stephen made mincemeat of that bible of libertarian permission, John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, a feat for which posterity has repaid him with a combination of neglect and hostility.

Let’s leave aside for a moment the puerile attack on Woolf. Dig, if you will, the claim about James Fitzjames Stephen and Mill.

He might be joking. I can’ t tell.