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Virginia Woolf and Caroline Emelia Stephen

Posted by. Jane de Gay
Posted on 08 March 2017

blogs:Leeds Centre for Victorian Studies

​​​For International Women's Day, Revd Dr Jane de Gay reveals an unlikely influence on Woolf's feminism and spirituality iIn the latest blog from the Leeds Centre for Victorian Studies: her Quaker aunt Caroline Emelia Stephen.

[header image: Caroline Emelia Stephen, by Leslie Stephen via Wikimedia Commons]​​

It is generally accepted that a seminal moment in the making of Virginia Woolf as an author, a feminist, and a modernist, was her move from the stuffy house of her Victorian upbringing in Hyde Park Gate to Gordon Square in bo​hemian Bloomsbury after her father's death in 1904. Staid tea-parties entertaining elderly men gave ​way to uninhibited conversations with Cambridge graduates that challenged every aspect of life and led to experimental ways of living.

Yet, as with all legends, it didn't quite happen like that. It was her sister Vanessa who dismantled the childhood home and set up the Bloomsbury ménage, for Virginia was at that time recuperating from a breakdown in the company of two Quaker women: firstly her good friend Violet Dickinson and then her aunt Caroline Emelia Stephen. As we will see, Stephen played a key role in helping Virginia Woolf distance herself from patriarchal ideologies by developing a radical approach to religion and spirituality that was deeply feminist.

Caroline Emelia Stephen

Caroline Emelia Stephen (1834-1909) was the younger sister of Woolf's father, Leslie Stephen. She had had a strict Evangelical upbringing that reinforced the conventional constraints of a Victorian woman: she was educated by a governess while her brothers went to public school and university, and then dutifully cared for her parents until their deaths. After that, however, she carved out an alternative lifestyle as a single woman living in what Jane Marcus has called a 'convent of one' in The Porch in Cambridge, espousing celibacy and rejecting Victorian appropriations of the female body and the sexual double-standard.[1] She was a significant figure in the revival of the Quaker Movement in the early twentieth century, and produced a range of spiritual classics, including Quaker Strongholds and Light Arising. She was committed to pacifist causes and, with her cousin Sarah Stephen, she established the Metropolitan Society for Befriending Young Servants to support working women.

Stephen influenced Woolf's views on the importance of personal space in A Room of One's Own, on pacifism in Three Guineas, and on women's employment in several essays including 'Professions for Women'. She also spurred Woolf to become a writer. During formational visits to her aunt between 1904 and 1906, the pair were involved in parallel projects of producing biographies of their fathers: Caroline Emelia Stephen edited The Letters of Sir James Stephen and Woolf wrote a sketch of her father for Frederic Maitland's Life of Sir Leslie Stephen, both of which were published in 1906. Both projects involved producing private, personal views of their fathers as a counterbalance to well-known conventional, public images. Woolf was also staying with Stephen when one of her first articles appeared in print: a piece on the Brontës in the clergy journal The Guardian.  

However, Woolf was ambivalent about Stephen. She disparaged her aunt, nicknaming her 'the nun', the 'Quaker' and the 'quacking Quaker', but there is also evidence of great warmth and affection, for Woolf described her as 'charming and wise and humane' and enjoyed conversations that lasted for 8 or 9 hours at a time. One reason for Woolf's ambivalence is her perception that her aunt was a product of the Victorian Evangelical world: 'the Quaker has a well worn semi religious vocabulary; left her by the late Sir James, I think'.[2] Rather than being an unequivocally positive role-model for the rejection of patriarchal religious values, therefore, Stephen represented someone who was engaged in the shared problem of negotiating patriarchy.

Unlikely contemporaries

This shared endeavour becomes clearer when we realise that, despite the generational difference, Woolf saw herself as being shaped by the same constraints: she too had been home-schooled while their brothers went to public school and Cambridge, and she too had been expected to fulfil a domestic role. It is important also to note that their lifetimes overlapped by 27 years, from Woolf's birth in 1882 to Stephen's death in 1909: years that were particularly formative for Woolf. Stephen paid two memorable visits in Woolf's childhood when the family were holidaying in St Ives, but their mature relationship began a decade later when Vanessa and Virginia visited The Porch in 1898. Regular visits ensued, including a period in 1907 when Virginia and her brother Adrian lived with Stephen after Vanessa's marriage. Woolf was one of very few people at Stephen's funeral and (if economic generosity can be taken as a measure of affection) Woolf's inheritance of £2,500 from her aunt, in contrast to just £100 each for Vanessa and Adrian, suggests a particular degree of closeness.

Challenging ideologies

A brief look at some of Stephen's work reveals its significance for Woolf in helping her overcome the ideologies of the milieu in which she grew up. In her book, Quaker Strongholds (1890), which she gave to Woolf as a present in 1898, Stephen critiques her Evangelical background in order to define her own religious views, for she argues for the importance of liberating the faith from what the church had made it:

Are there not many, in these days especially, who would willingly listen to the Christianity of Christ himself, could they but find it disentangled from the enormously 'developed' Christianity of the dominant churches?[3]

There are echoes of this idea in The Voyage Out, in the scene where Rachel attends a church service and discovers that she does not believe in God. As Kathy Heininge has noted, there are parallels between this scene and Caroline's account of her own conversion on attending a Quaker meeting, [4] which she found to be a blissful alternative to Church, preferring silence over word-laden liturgy and the personal engagement with God over clerical intercession. Significantly, Woolf's Rachel resents the minister and dismisses the Old Testament reading as the ravings of a savage, but feels drawn to 'the sad and beautiful figure of Christ.'[5] Later, in Three Guineas, Woolf criticized the clergy for excluding women from public life and for aggrandizing war, but also argued that they were being anti-Christian in doing so, arguing for example that women had been excluded from the priesthood not by appeal to the 'mind of the founder' but to the 'mind of the church'.[6] Both writers, therefore, argue that the established church had defined Christianity as a religion that suppressed women, and both sought to liberate Christ's teachings from what the church had made of them.

Challenging dogmas

Caroline Emelia Stephen's later works – Light Arising (1908) and the posthumously-published selection of essays The Vision of Faith and Other Writings (1911) – showed a desire to free herself spiritually by defining her own faith position clearly and with confidence in the context of rapidly-changing attitudes to religion. In The Vision of Faith she notes that the 'flood of free thought' had made it impossible to 'formulate opinions' about higher truths that are both 'correct and adequate', and continues:

I suppose this is a mild form of agnosticism, but I don't think it is any the worse for that. Agnosticism with mystery at the heart of it seems another description of the 'rational mysticism' which is my favourite expression of my own ground.[7]

It is crucial to note the Stephen's thought is both rational and mystical. Jane Marcus has described mysticism as a subversive feminist discourse, 'the purest religious concept' that 'allows access to the community of saints without the dogmas and disciplines of organized religion' and a 'refuge of silence'. However, Stephen did not seek escape and refuge, but she wrestled with dogma, and she did not dispense with words but used them wisely, as Woolf wrote in her obituary: 'She was 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 to accurately.'[8] Woolf, too, we should note, wrote very eloquently about silence.

An example of Stephen's wrestling is her debate about salvation and damnation: key concepts of Evangelical Christianity and that were often misused to keep people spiritually and intellectually enslaved. Stephen challenged such views by arguing that unbelievers who have lived a good life are worthy of salvation. She found Dante particularly helpful in her thinking here: she gave Woolf a copy of The Divine Comedy in 1898 and, although the pristine state of this book in Woolf's library at Washington State University suggests that she made little use of this particular edition, we know from Woolf's diaries, and from annotations in her other editions of Dante, that she engaged with The Divine Comedy throughout her life, reading it in English, translating it from the Italian, and quoting it in both The Waves and The Years. In The Waves in particular, that 'mystical, spiritual book,' Woolf explored 'lives together' to explore the possibility of the continued existence of the self in the collective being of a group.

Pioneers of a new religion

We cannot know what Woolf and Stephen discussed during their lengthy conversations, but in tracing their relationship through the books they wrote and the books they shared, we can see that they embarked on a shared journey of detaching themselves from the Evangelical values that had continued to permeate English society. Woolf's comment towards the conclusion of Three Guineas can be read as a tribute to Stephen in this respect:

By criticizing religion [the daughters of educated men] would attempt to free the religious spirit from its present servitude and would help, if need be, to create a new religion based it might well be upon the New Testament, but, it might well be, very different from the religion now erected upon that basis.[9]

The ideology that continued to hold Christianity in thrall was the middle-class, Evangelical heritage of the Stephen family, whereas the 'new religion' that Woolf proposes has many of the hallmarks of the Quakerism of Caroline Emelia Stephen. Both Woolf and Stephen were therefore reaching towards a 'new religion', a form of thought and spirituality that was more conducive to women than the established church could offer.

[1] Jane Marcus, Virginia Woolf and the Languages of Patriarchy (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1987), pp. 117-18.

[2] The Letters of Virginia Woolf, ed. Nigel Nicolson, asst. ed. Joanne Trautmann Banks, 6 vols. (London: Hogarth Press, 1975–1980), Vol. 1, p. 235.

[3] Caroline Emelia Stephen, Quaker Strongholds (London, 1890), pp. 95-96.

[4] Kathy Heininge, 'The Search for God: Virginia Woolf and Caroline Emelia Stephen', Virginia Woolf Miscellany (80) 2011, 20-21.

[5] Virginia Woolf, The Voyage Out, ed. and intro. Lorna Sage ([1915]; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 263.

[6] Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas, intro. Hermione Lee ([1938]; London: Hogarth Press, 1986), p.333.

[7] Caroline Emelia Stephen, The Vision of Faith, and Other Essays: with memoirs by her niece Katharine Stephen and Dr. T. Hodgkin (Cambridge: Heffer, 1911), p. cxi.

[8] Quoted by Alister Raby in Virginia Woolf's Wise and Witty Quaker Aunt: A Biographical Sketch of Caroline Emelia Stephen (London: Cecil Woolf, 2002), p. 25.

[9] Three Guineas, pp 129-30.

Revd Dr Jane de Gay is Reader in English Literature at Leeds Trinity University and Programme Leader for the MA in Victorian Studies. She was organizer of Virginia Woolf and Heritage: The 26th Annual International Conference on Virginia Woolf (LTU, June 2016), and is currently editing the Selected Papers with co-organizers Anne Reus and Tom Breckin (Clemson UP/Liverpool UP, forthcoming 2017). She is the author of Virginia Woolf's Novels and the Literary Past (Edinburgh UP, 2006) and is currently completing a second monograph, contracted to Edinburgh UP, on Virginia Woolf and Christian Culture. ​