On Laura Stephen, family ties, and madness

“Virginia Woolf was a Miss Stephen,” Quentin Bell wrote in the introduction to the biography of his aunt, published in 1972. Since then scholars have combed the family’s letters, diaries, essays, memoirs, novels, and the voluminous biographies and criticism that sprang from them. Is there anything left to say about the glamorous, gifted, troubled family at the center of the Bloomsbury Group? About the shared childhood of Virginia Stephen Woolf and Vanessa Stephen Bell? As the evidence they left has been turned over and over, the missing pieces have become more obvious.


In a rare photograph of the combined Stephen clan, included in a family album in Smith College’s Mortimer Rare Book Room, the parents are in the foreground, as expected. The mother, “J.P.S” for Julia Prinsep Stephen, is hollow-eyed and swathed in shawls. She gazes off to the side. The father, “L.S.” for Leslie Stephen, slightly slumped over, looks down. Five older children jostle for position in the crowded back row behind their parents. They are all tall and handsome, and their linked arms and leaning bodies could indicate closeness or claustrophobia. They press together, neatly composed in an alternating pattern of male/female, frozen in one balanced moment. The boy labeled “Thoby” seems caught in the act of some joke, looking for his sister Vanessa’s reaction. She smiles, but the sister on the other side, labeled “Ginia” but named Adeline Virginia, does not. She seems solemn and stands slightly behind the others. Already there is the slight differentiation typical of siblings: Vanessa and Virginia. Gerald (“G de l’E” on the left) and George (on the right). The flanking siblings seem paired off quite neatly, while the youngest son, Adrian (“A.L.S.”) seems left out. His pose and gaze reveal his connection to his mother. There is room for another sibling in the space next to George, the empty corner on the upper right where there is no name. Or perhaps another child could fit into the odd open space between the parents, where the skirt of Vanessa’s dress provides a diagonal line closing the circle between the figures. The eldest daughter was named Stella: she is not in the picture because she had been given a camera and probably took this photograph. And another girl, Laura Stephen, is missing from this and every other family portrait. The year before this photograph was taken, she had been committed to the Earlswood Asylum for Idiots and Imbeciles, one of the earliest psychiatric hospitals in England. I have been looking for Laura since I first heard of her. What role did she play in this literary family?

When this photograph was taken in 1894, the Stephens lived in the tall, narrow townhouse where Virginia was born and Julia and Leslie would die. Virginia shared that home with fourteen other people: her father, her mother, her mother’s three children by an earlier marriage to Herbert Duckworth, her two older siblings, her younger brother, and their live-in servants. The missing daughter, Laura Makepeace Stephen, was the only child of Virginia’s father by his first wife, Minnie Thackeray (daughter of the Victorian novelist William Makepeace Thackeray). After Minnie’s death and Leslie’s remarriage to the widowed Julia Duckworth, the newly combined family set up house in a leafy section of London, where the children could take daily walks in Hyde Park. Although not especially wealthy, the Stephens were part of what historian Noel Annan called “the intellectual aristocracy” of Victorian England. The house had a day nursery and a night nursery, servants’ quarters under the eaves, and a library, though no running water. Pails of water and coal scuttles were carried up and down the back stairs to fill basins and light fires. The back windows looking out over a small garden were covered in ivy, making the interiors dark. A heavy velvet curtain separated the dining room from the servant’s pantry and the work done there.

The first place to look for Laura, in Virginia’s voluminous memoirs, diaries, and letters, turns up only a few tantalizing details. Virginia mentioned her rarely and curtly, nor did her siblings leave much of a record of Laura’s existence. In the most detailed account, included in one of her informal reminiscences from around 1922, Virginia describes “Thackeray’s grand-daughter, a vacant-eyed girl whose idiocy was becoming daily more obvious, who could hardly read, who would throw scissors into the fire, who was tongue-tied and stammered and yet had to appear at table with the rest of us.” Virginia makes the difference between them clear: Laura was not, in fact, one of “us,” as the family portrait confirmed. Laura’s pedigree may have been impressive, but she lacked the qualities Virginia thought essential—literacy, self-control, and interiority. The wording is self-consciously literary: the parallel clauses repeating “who,” “who,” “who;” the accumulating climax of “ands;” the emphatic opposition between the framing words “Thackeray’s daughter” and “us.” As at the dinner table, Laura was present where she should have been absent. In a letter from 1934 Virginia reflected on deaths in her family and repeated her husband’s conclusion: “Leonard says Laura is the one we could have spared.”

Leslie Stephen resisted placing Laura with “idiots,” but that was how Virginia described her. Hilary Newman, the scholar who published the Bloomsbury Heritage’s account of Laura’s life, notes that the Victorians distinguished between imbeciles, idiots, and lunatics, with “imbecile” marking the mildest form of congenital mental deficiency. These terms were shifting, though, and national laws like the Lunacy Act of 1845 and the Idiots Act of 1886 struggled to define them. Laura was admitted to Earlswood as an “imbecile” but was labeled a “lunatic” in the census of 1901, which suggests worsening symptoms. In an oft-quoted diary entry from 1915, Virginia wrote about seeing a group of “imbeciles” file past her in Kensington Gardens. She was appalled by their hideous grins and wild stares, details which evoke Laura’s vacant eyes. “They should certainly be killed,” she concluded. It is easy to imagine that Virginia’s antipathy to the mentally ill sprang from awareness of her own mental fragility (indeed, in 1915 she suffered another breakdown) and anxiety about sharing any part of Laura’s fate—mad, exiled from home, abandoned by family, without reason, self control, or independence. After all, Virginia shared tragic elements of Laura’s story: she too suffered from a lifelong struggle with mental illness; she too suffered devastating losses, like her mother’s sudden death when Virginia was thirteen. And she too struggled with the weight of her father’s high expectations for his children, even though she would end up meeting them more than any of her siblings. A large Victorian family like the Stephens’ demonstrated Herbert Spencer’s controversial phrase “the survival of the fittest.” In the jostle for love and attention that is visible in the family portrait, some won and some lost.

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