By Alison M. Lewis, Ph.D.
Caroline Emelia Stephen has enjoyed a long-standing reputation among Friends as a Quaker theologian. Quaker Strongholds (1891) is considered a “Quaker classic;” one hundred years after its first publication, Friends General Conference book catalog calls it “one of the clearest visions of our faith.” Stephen was also the author of Light Arising: Thoughts on the Central Radiance (1908) and The Vision of Faith (1911).
People who know Caroline Stephen and her writings are often unaware that Virginia Woolf, one of the most innovative forces within the genre of the modern English novel, was her niece. Woolf used concepts of psychology and relativity to produce new ways of expressing consciousness in works such as Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927). In addition to her progressive artistry, she is known for her strong stands on feminism and pacifism. Copies of Light Arising and Quaker Strongholds were in Virginia Woolf’s private library to the end of her life. So much of the old forms and the family ties of her past life were jettisoned when she and her siblings recreated themselves in Bloomsbury that it seems unlikely that she would have retained these books for purely sentimental reasons. They must have been meaningful to her on some deeper level.
In light of this, it is informative to look at the link between these two women, who were both outstanding in their respective fields, and particularly interesting to consider the influence of Stephen’s Quakerism upon Woolf’s writing.
First, some brief family background. The Stephen family, for at least two generations prior to Caroline, was part of the so-called “Clapham Sect,” a group of Anglican evangelicals, known for their progressive social stands such as the abolition of slavery. Her grandfather, James Stephen, was involved with this group from the beginning, and her mother was Catherine Venn, the daughter of John Venn, the Rector of Clapham and an influential figure within the sect. Her father, also a James Stephen, had five children with Catherine.
The eldest surviving son was James Fitzjames, later 1st Baronet, who continued to follow his ancestors’ religious views in form, but had in reality lost his faith. His nieces and nephews remembered him as a stern figure, regularly attending church but no longer believing: “He has lost all hope of Paradise, but he clings to the wider hope of eternal damnation” (qtd. in Bell, 8). James’ youngest son was Leslie Stephen, Virginia Woolf’s father.
Leslie Stephen broke publicly with the tradition of his forefathers by renouncing his holy orders while on fellowship at Cambridge and becoming an agnostic (the intellectual sticking point for him was the story of Noah’s Ark and the Flood). He was eventually knighted for his editorship of the Dictionary of National Biography, the epic work of the lives of dead white men of the British Empire. Woolf recalled her childhood as being dominated by the great horizontal row of books that her father kept producing. Her later reminiscences painted him as “brutal” toward women, with a penchant for rages and emotional outbursts, and a continuous state of neediness that drained the women who cared for him (Moments, 145-6).
Caroline Emelia Stephen was the youngest of this generation of Stephen siblings and the only girl. There are two distinctive and contradictory portraits of her that emerge. The first has its roots in Leslie Stephen’s book of family remembrances, The Mausoleum Book, in which he writes that Caroline’s health was damaged and her life ruined by an unrequited love who left and died in India (54-5).
Though there is absolutely no substantiation for this story, it has taken on a life of its own and is repeatedly retold by most of the Woolf scholars and critics who do not ignore the existence of Caroline entirely. Quentin Bell, Woolf’s nephew and biographer, follows his grandfather’s lead in forwarding the theory that Caroline’s ill health was due to a broken heart. The picture he presents of Caroline is that of “an intelligent woman who fell, nevertheless, into the role of the imbecile Victorian female” and who “at the age of twenty-three settled down to become an invalid and an old maid” (Bell, 6-7). This romantic story of a lost love persists in the most recent Woolf biography by James King: “Early in life she had fallen in love with a young man who had not been responsive and had taken himself off to India. In Milly [CES], Leslie saw a woman whose life had been destroyed by a broken heart. Leslie saw Milly as weak-willed and indecisive”.” (25).
We are indebted to feminist scholar Jane Marcus for being the first to look at Caroline Stephen seriously in the realm of Woolf criticism. Marcus put forth an alternative viewpoint, espoused by Woolf herself, that Caroline’s ill health was rather due to the fact that she played the role of “a dutiful Victorian daughter and sister, nursing at the sickbeds and deathbeds of her family” (“Niece,” 15). Woolf recognized in her aunt the same pattern played out in the lives of her own mother and half-sister and stated in her aunt’s obituary that “attendance upon her mother during her last long illness injured her health so seriously that she never fully recovered” (Marcus, “Thinking,” 29).
Caroline’s mother died in 1875; Caroline suffered another collapse the same year while caring for Leslie and his daughter following the death of his first wife. It is perhaps not surprising that Leslie Stephen might have been eager to shift some of the blame for Caroline’s broken health from himself to a mythical lover. Even more damaging is the fact that he makes every effort to denigrate Caroline’s writing. Her work is “little” he says, perhaps in contrast to his own “big” work. He misnames Quaker Strongholds in his memoir as Strongholds of Quakerism, and calls it “another little work of hers” (Mausoleum, 55).
Instead of a weak-willed woman whose life amounted to nothing because of her inability to catch a man, a very different view of Caroline Stephen is found in the writings of female family members and Quakers. Her niece Katherine Stephen, who was to become president of Newnham College, described her as someone who was generous with “toleration and appreciation. But she was not among those who suffer from indecision or from recognising too clearly the importance of various conflicting views of the same question” (xxxii). Rufus Jones, in his Later Periods of Quakerism, describes her as “the foremost interpreter in the Society in England of Friends’ way of worship” and as “a woman of broad culture, of rare insight, of beautiful personality, possessed of a graceful literary style” (969).
Jones’ praise of her contrasts sharply with Leslie Stephen’s opinion, but is more in line with Virginia Woolf’s assessment. She described her aunt as “one of the few to whom the gift of expression is given together with the need of it, and in addition to a wonderful command of language she had a scrupulous wish to use it accurately. Thus her effect upon people is scarcely yet to be decided, and must have reached many to whom her books are unknown” (qtd. in Marcus, “Thinking,” 29). In Quaker Strongholds, Caroline Stephen recounts the general dissatisfaction she felt with her spiritual life prior to her conversion to Quakerism:
What I felt I wanted in a place of worship was a refuge, or at least the opening of a doorway towards the refuge, from doubts and controversies; not a fresh encounter with them. Yet it seems to me impossible that any one harassed by the conflicting views of truth, with which just now the air is thick, should be able to forget controversy while listening to such language as that of the Book of Common Prayer. It seems to me that nothing but silence can heal the wounds made by disputations in the region of the unseen (44).
The disputations regarding the spiritual were taking place not only within society at large, but also within her own family. Leslie Stephen had become a leader of the so-called “naturalistic movement” and had written several influential agnostic pamphlets and essays. Due to his position and influence in Caroline’s life, she “became more or less forced intellectually to take an agnostic position” according to Jones (967).
At Friends’ meeting for worship, however, she found that “to sit down in silence could at least pledge me to nothing” (Strongholds, 3). There she found freedom to seek her own spiritual truth in the company of others who were also seeking, and who did not rely upon overt dogmas, creeds, or an intellectual understanding of the divine.
Caroline most likely found a number of other benefits in her involvement with Friends: the lack of priests and paid ministers avoided the hierarchical structure of other established religions; her own religious authority was both valued and encouraged by Friends; and she entered a tradition which, from the time of its founding in the mid-1600s, had accepted in principle and often in practice, the equality of women.
Virginia Woolf and her siblings from a young age had accepted their father’s view of their aunt. She was called “Silly Milly” or “Nun” or “The Quaker” and was often a figure of fun in their early lives. However, an important encounter between the two women was to take place in Virginia Woolf’s early adulthood. Virginia was twenty-two years old when her father died in 1904, and at this time she suffered another of the mental collapses she had experienced since childhood. There may have even been a suicide attempt at this time. She was sent to recover in the home of her Quaker friend, Violet Dickinson, where she stayed for almost three months. Later she was sent to Caroline’s Cambridge home, known as “The Porch,” for additional rest.
She called The Porch at one point “an ideal retreat for me” (Letters, 144). She attended Cambridge Meeting with Caroline and offered to bring Violet there on a visit as well (Tod, 50). Caroline found freedom from intellectual and theological controversies in silence, and Virginia found a new type of freedom as well. In her life at the Stephen household, “silence was a breach of convention” and mindless small talk a requirement (Moments, 149).
The focused quiet of Quaker meeting must have given Virginia a needed opportunity to rest, turn inward, and recollect herself from her trauma without having to “perform” for others. Although there was sometimes tension between the two women, Caroline’s presence must have also been of help. Virginia writes of her aunt: “We talked for some nine hours; and she poured forth all her spiritual experiences. All her life she has been listening to inner voices, and talking with spirits” (Letters, 229).
This revelation may have been very important to Woolf, who had been troubled by voices at the worst points in her mental illness. To hear of someone having a similar experience cast in a positive light must have been reassuring to her. On another level, her aunt’s experiences might have also encouraged her to take her own “inner voice” more seriously, a necessary step in becoming a writer.
It was during this period of recuperation that Virginia began to explore her writing talents more seriously. While at The Porch, she aided F.W. Maitland in the preparation of her father’s biography. Both Violet and Caroline encouraged Virginia’s own writing. Some of her first known pieces of writing are the comic “anti-biographies” she wrote of Violet and Caroline at this time. She also began to write and submit short articles to The Guardian, a church-related weekly, and at one point she even considered writing a description of Quaker meeting for this publication (Letters, 148).
It was in The Guardian that Virginia Woolf’s first published article appeared at the close of 1904. Caroline Stephen as a woman writer was certainly an important role model to her niece. In fact, Virginia Woolf’s early writing career has parallels to that of her aunt: Caroline first published newspaper and magazine articles, and then gained greater confidence in her own writing after having worked on biographical notes for an edition of her father’s letters (Stephen, K., xxiv).
It is interesting, especially in light of Leslie Stephen’s editorship of the Dictionary of National Biography, that both women were involved in biographical writings concerning their fathers. Previously, Leslie Stephen had allowed both his sister and his wife to write one entry apiece for the Dictionary of National Biography. Julia Stephen’s entry was on her aunt, Julia Margaret Cameron, the highly regarded photographer, and Caroline’s was on Mary Aikenhead, the founder of the Irish sisters of charity.
Virginia Woolf complained that no “lives of maids” were written; in protest, her surrealistic novel Orlando, and Flush, her fanciful “biography” of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel, worked to subvert the genre of biography, which Woolf criticized for “leave[ing] out the person to whom things happened” (Moments, 65). Yet she proved that she could write a “conventional” biography when she tackled Roger Fry as a subject in one of her last books, just as Caroline had proven herself as a biographer in writing Caroline Fox and Her Family in 1885.
By the time Caroline began encouraging Virginia’s writing, Caroline had already published a number of well-received books herself, in spite of her lack of formal education. This was surely also a source of inspiration to Virginia, who had always resented and regretted her own lack of education. She and her sister, Vanessa, like their aunt, had received some tutoring at home, but the bulk of their education seemed to come from conversations with their well-educated brothers and their friends. Caroline refers in Light Arising to “the unlearned for whom and as one of whom I write” and stresses the need to cultivate the ability “to think for ourselves; to construct out of our own actual experience some sort of creed” (136-7).
Virginia certainly did learn to think for herself, and to construct out of her own experience, not a creed, but some highly original works of art. In fact, the basis of her originality may lie precisely in the fact that she was not educated in the conventional sense. She thus found herself free from literary conventions passed down in the classroom and allowed herself to create in an entirely new style.
Caroline’s ability to throw off not only the beliefs of the Church of England but those of her intellectually coercive brother would also serve as a model for Virginia Woolf. The Church of England did not hold the same power over Woolf that it did for her aunt, but Leslie Stephen’s hold was undeniable. Even though Woolf was still enthralled by his persona as a “great man” when she worked on his biography, she would over time grow to free herself of this influence and to develop confidence in her ability to seek her own truth. Caroline described this as a “sense of absolute freedom in the search for truth; freedom being, as I suppose we shall all agree, not lawlessness, but the absence of external restraint, a state of being controlled only from within” (Light, 26-27).
The Stephen children’s removal to the unfashionable Bloomsbury district following their father’s death was a concrete sign of casting off the external restraints of family history and societal expectation. This sense of freedom in seeking for the truth also permeated Virginia Woolf’s writing career, as she sought out new ways of expressing the true essence of the person to whom things happened.
Caroline’s search for freedom had taken a different path. Her first book, The Service of the Poor (1871), was a study of religious sisterhoods, institutions that held a great deal of appeal for her. She ends up arguing against the sisterhoods and in favor of the patriarchal family, “which needs for survival the unpaid cheerful labor of its unmarried daughters” (Marcus, “Niece,” 7).
This position vindicates her own role played out as the “daughter of an educated man,” but the amount of effort which went into researching and describing the sisterhoods betrays a continuing ambivalence toward this path not taken. In joining the Society of Friends, Caroline Stephen gained what she had longed for, and yet argued against, in The Service of the Poor: the right to live her life as a nun.
She became a “sisterhood of one,” donned the plain grey dress of Quakers and spent the rest of her days in spiritual pursuit, taking time for writing and speaking on spiritual topics. She became the most eloquent spokesperson for her faith in her day and according to Jones “the influence of her exposition of [the Society’s] central ideals and practices was very great both within and beyond the Society” (967). She also directly influenced a generation of young Friends, from the Quaker students at Cambridge who visited her when she resided there, to the Young Friends of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, to whom she wrote in 1907. Her life echoes those of other female mystics such as Julian of Norwich, who devoted themselves to the spiritual life, but who also felt the need to put their experiences and ideas down in writing, and who drew a large number of visitors seeking advice and counsel.
Virginia Woolf never had a desire to be a nun, although she did refer to herself as retreating to a nunnery when she wrote (Marcus, “Niece,” 13). And she did propose the creation of an “Outsider’s Society” in her strongly feminist Three Guineas. In spite of the radical nature of this work, there are many ways in which the Outsider’s Society recalls the sisterhoods of Caroline’s first book.
Woolf echoes the traditional monastic vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience when she recommends to women that “in the practice of your profession you refuse to be separated from poverty, chastity, derision and freedom from unreal loyalties” (80). She defines poverty as “enough to live on but no more” (80). She advocates women’s right to work, earn money and not be dependent upon others, but she does not advocate blind ambition. Women should be different from men in this respect; they should be able to see that greed and high salaries for one class of people means abject poverty for another.
Woolf’s call for chastity has been termed “intellectual chastity” (Marcus, “Niece.” 9). By this she meant that “you must refuse to sell your brain for the sake of money” (Three Guineas, 80). Intellectual celibacy would free women of the external restraints on thought that so concerned Caroline Stephen. In Woolf’s plan she did not advocate obedience for her Outsiders, but rather derision and freedom from unreal loyalties. In this, she came very close to advocating anarchy and revolution, by flying in the face of all that the established order finds sacred: patriotism, the honoring of one person above another, the right to compete for a highly ornamented pot.
But, like her aunt, Virginia Woolf was not really suggesting lawlessness. She seemed to have a sense similar to Caroline Stephen’s that obedience to your own moral leadings would result in actions that would benefit the individual and society. Virginia Woolf seems to have been what her aunt characterized as “naturally religious,” that is, “as having as it were an eye for the unseen, as others have an ear for music, or an eye for colour” (Light, 19).
Caroline Stephen is using the word “religious” here in the context of mysticism; it would probably be more accurate to describe Virginia Woolf as a “natural mystic.” Since childhood she had had encounters with an outside “reality” which occasionally flooded her everyday existence, which she described in her autobiographical essay “Sketch of the Past.” Woolf called these encounters “moments of being,” when one is fully and consciously living, and contrasted them with moments of non-being, what she called the “cotton-wool” of everyday life. When moments of being break through upon the consciousness, it is “a revelation of some order; it is a token of some real thing behind appearances; and I make it real by putting it into words” (Moments, 72).
These moments of revelation show a mystical unity to the greater whole, which brings us to the closest thing that Virginia Woolf may have had to a creed. She believed that “behind the cotton-wool is hidden a pattern; that we – I mean all human beings – are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art” (Moments, 72).
The word “mystical” remained a favorite adjective of Woolf’s, especially in relation to her writing. Though she sometimes hesitated over using the term, it was repeatedly the only word which came close enough to capturing the elusive quality of bringing forward the unseen or unknown within her writing.
Mysticism does not need to interfere with the power of reason, however, as Caroline Stephen described it: “I wish distinctly to make the claim of reasonableness for the mystical position, although it may imply the existence of something beyond reason; or rather I claim it with the more confidence on that very account, for I believe that Reason itself points in the same direction – that is to something beyond itself” (Light, 2). This is “rational mysticism” and although Caroline approached it from a Christian perspective, it resonated with Woolf’s own brand of spiritual agnosticism.
Caroline herself acknowledged that mysticism “is a temper of mind, as we all know, which may be found in combination with every variety of religious, perhaps even of non-religious, belief” (Light, 32). She even went so far as to declare that “agnostics are not necessarily adversaries of faith, but often the most earnest seekers after it” and to warn against “block[ing] up the entrance to our sanctuary with words and dogmas” (Light, 62-3). The freedom to seek, rather than the compulsion to believe, is what makes possible the mystical breaking of boundaries to move towards the new and the unknown.
When Three Guineas was published in 1938, it was not well received. Although some women resonated with Woolf’s propositions, many other readers, both male and female, were highly critical of it. The main problem seemed to be Woolf’s insistence on mingling the topics of women’s rights and pacifism. Bell writes that the book “is the product of a very odd mind and, I think, of a very odd state of mind” (204).
Another way of looking at it is not that the book is odd, but rather that it was ahead of its time. It is not difficult to see how someone who lived under the tyranny of Leslie Stephen could see a connection between patriarchy and fascism, and further believe that if women gained more power and privilege it might bring about a desire for greater cooperation rather than a will to dominate.
Woolf had an intuitive understanding of pacifism from an early age. In her memoirs, she writes of an incident from childhood, when she is physically fighting with her brother. She had raised her fist to hit him, but then stopped, thinking “why hurt another person?” (Moments, 71). She stood there and let him beat her, feeling a sense of “hopeless sadness” and “powerlessness.”
This can of course be read as a negative display of female passivity. Louise DeSalvo interprets this event as “She had already internalized the fact that she should not fight back, that she should, simply, take it” (106). There may be some truth in this perspective, and yet the incident can also be read as the young Virginia making a simple yet profound moral discovery, and taking a difficult and courageous stand. If one is part of a greater whole, then to do damage to any part of the whole is to do damage also to oneself. She was doing what Gandhi’s highly disciplined and morally rigorous followers would do in later years: prove that to react non-violently to violence takes greater courage than to retaliate violently.
This perspective is closely related to one expressed by Caroline Stephen in her explication of the Friends’ peace testimony in Quaker Strongholds, where she writes that pacifism is not “an abject submission or a tame indifference, but an undaunted persistence in blessing – a fearless overcoming of evil with good” (100).
Caroline Stephen lived to the age of seventy-five. She died in 1909, after a short illness and a long life. As her niece wrote in her obituary: “The last years of her life among her flowers and with young people round her seemed to end fittingly a life which had about it the harmony of a large design” (qtd. in Marcus, “Thinking,” 29-30). Virginia here seems to be one of a special type of surviving family members which her aunt referred to in an essay on attitude towards death. They are not mourners in the traditional sense of the word, but are “filled with a solemn joy in the completed course to which added length of days could scarcely have added either beauty or dignity” (Light, 155).
Caroline had a simple, practical approach to dealing with death, and believed that death is not necessarily always a bad thing. While this belief is not the norm of society, and especially was not in her day or her family, it was no doubt shared by many others of practical and religious frames of mind. Perhaps Woolf had at some point found consolation in her aunt’s words on death: “not to exist cannot possibly be in the slightest degree painful or even unpleasant” and “either death leads to nothing at all, and to fear it is unmeaning; or it is a mere parenthesis” (Light, 162-3).
Caroline also understood that “weariness of mere existence makes the thought of annihilation more attractive to some of us than any celestial visions. Those who suffer from it would not welcome the brightest prospects of heaven, unless they could hope first for a ‘long and dreamless sleep’ in which to wash off the travel-stains of the past” (Light, 159).
These thoughts are in some ways eerily like apologetics for suicide; to Woolf, death was ultimately preferable to a world in which warplanes rumbled overhead, the fear of fascism was widespread, and the voices had returned to her head. In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf’s persona tells of her Aunt Mary Beton, who rather poetically and not unlike the heroic Percival of The Waves, “died by a fall from her horse when she was riding out to take the air in Bombay” (37).
It is from this aunt that the speaker receives her legacy of five hundred pounds a year, an event which means more to her than gaining the right to vote. Money of one’s own was needed before one could gain the privacy afforded by a room of one’s own. In real life, Caroline Emelia Stephen was Woolf’s “Aunt Mary.” When she died in 1909, Virginia was left a legacy of twenty-five hundred pounds, far more than her sister Vanessa, who was married, and her surviving brother Adrian received.
Virginia already had some money of her own from her father’s estate, but it was a meaningful gesture on Caroline’s part to contribute to the support of her unmarried, unstable, creative niece. The financial security she helped to create insured that Virginia need never become dependent upon the good graces of male family members for her survival.
When Woolf further records that “my aunt’s legacy unveiled the sky to me, and substituted for the large and imposing figure of a gentleman, which Milton recommended for my perpetual adoration, a view of the open sky” (Room, 39), she hints at more than one level of what Caroline’s legacy meant to her. Obviously, Caroline’s money gave her financial security and independence from the domination of any larger-than-life “gentleman” playing god.
But, Caroline also gave another sky-opening legacy to Virginia. She gave her a sense of freedom from the power of patriarchy and showed her an open, feminine space where the “inner voice” is heeded rather than the priest’s or the father’s, and where a feminine silence held truth that was beyond any argument with words. Caroline Stephen’s “rational mysticism” gave Virginia Woolf a touchstone for understanding the mystical “moments of being” she had experienced since childhood. The model of a woman taking control of her own life and writing her own books with a view toward the greater good helped to give Woolf the confidence that she later expressed when she said “I feel that by writing I am doing what is far more necessary than anything else” (Moments, 73).
Note: While this paper is indebted to Marcus’ view of Caroline Stephen’s influence on Virginia Woolf, the reader should be warned that Marcus’ knowledge of Quakerism is limited and causes her to make a series of misleading statements about the Religious Society of Friends and their beliefs. In “Niece of a Nun” Marcus credits Caroline Stephen with the “single-handed revival of the almost extinct English Society of Friends” (15); claims that Caroline started “a movement to abolish ministers” (16) because she (Marcus) misunderstands Caroline’s explanation of the lack of paid ministers among silent meeting Friends; claims that silence “is a form of stern self-discipline in Quaker worship” (26); and assumes that there is a “Quaker practice of not mourning the dead” (33). She further says that Caroline wrote the lives of Quakers in the Dictionary of National Biography (15), a statement that can be easily refuted by simply consulting the authors’ index to those volumes.
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