Julia Stephen: From Freshwater Bay To The Lighthouse

Pity has no creed. We are bound to these sufferers by the tie of sisterhood and while life lasts we will help, soothe, and, if we can, love them. Women are not all blind followers of men. They have power to think as well, and they will not weaken their power of helping and loving by fearlessly owning their ignorance when they should be convinced of it. Women should not reject religion merely because they desire to please men. Man and woman have equal rights but with different areas of influence. Women do not stand on the same ground as men with regard to work, though we are far from allowing that our work is lower or less important than theirs, but we ought and do claim the same equality of morals. [1]

When aunt Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879) took an albumen print of her ‘favourite niece’, Mrs Herbert Duckworth, the year was 1867 and Mrs Duckworth had been married for less than a year. She was born Julia Jackson, and her image would go down in the annals of history as one of the great beauties, but little is known of this mysterious woman. An image captured in a moment by a family member would launch infinite mystery and curiosity.

Julia Jackson and Mia Jackson, by the London Photographic Company.
Albumen print, c. 1867. National Portrait Gallery, London, UK.

She was born Julia Prinsep Jackson on 7 February 1846 in  Calcutta, India, the daughter of Dr. John Jackson and Maria Theodosia Pattle, youngest sister of Julia Margaret Cameron. The Prinsep name enters the frame when another aunt, Sarah Pattle, married Henry Thoby Prinsep (1792-1878). She became cousin to their son Valentine Cameron Prinsep. Julia and her mother – known as ‘Mia’ -stayed with Sarah and Thoby Prinsep from 1848 until Dr. Jackson returned to England in 1855. The matriarch of the family moved them into Brent Lodge, Hendon, while Julia was educated at home, becoming her mother’s nurse and companion. The Jacksons lived at Brent Lodge for ten years and the story goes that a young, 21 year-old beauty, Julia Jackson, paid a visit to her cousins at Little Holland House where she met a 34 year-old barrister named Herbert Duckworth. She later admitted that part of her attraction to him was his straightforwardness with her. He stood out among the other men who ‘attempted’ to court her; namely, sculptor Thomas Woolner and painter William Holman Hunt.

Julia and Herbert Duckworth by Oscar Rejlander, 1867. Leslie Stephen’s Photograph Album, plate 33a. Mortimer Rare Book Room, Smith College.

Mr. and Mrs. Duckworth were married for three years. They were devoted to each other, rarely apart – ‘the greatest happiness that can fall to the lot of a woman’ [2] – until, in September 1870, while Herbert was attempting to pick a ripe fig from a tree branch, an undiagnosed internal abscess burst and he died. Julia Duckworth lay grieving for hours on her husband’s grave at Orchardleigh. She gave birth to their son, Gerald Duckworth, six weeks later at the age of twenty-four. She went from being restrained and undemonstrative to no longer being ‘inclined to optimism’, taking on a ‘melancholy view of life’. She would describe her loss using one simple word: ‘shipwreck’. ‘The world was clothed in drab, shrouded in a crape-veil’. [3]

Julia Stephen and Gerald Duckworth, by Oscar Rejlander, c. 1871. Leslie Stephen’s Photograph Album, plate 34. Mortimer Rare Book Room, Smith College.

The fact that Julia was a young mother would help sustain her. Herbert’s resulting loss left Julia with a lifelong need to help those suffering pain, illness, and loss of any kind. She adopted a stoicism that only those in her inner circle would observe and comment on. She rejected Christianity and began reading articles by a man named Leslie Stephen about agnosticism, which brought her much comfort. Leslie was married to Minny Thackeray, the daughter of novelist William Makepeace Thackeray, and Julia developed a strong lifelong friendship with Minny’s sister Anny Thackeray.

Harriet Marian (“Minny”) Thackeray Stephen and Leslie Stephen, 1867. Leslie Stephen’s Photograph Album, plate 35d. Mortimer Rare Book Room, Smith College.

According to Leslie’s letters, it was Julia’s remote and reserved approach that he first noticed about her. She met his practical and emotional needs. Caring for Leslie fulfilled her nursing vocation as well as a need for safety, companionship and appreciation. He later described a winter’s evening when he and Minny were sitting at home ‘in perfect happiness’. Julia looked in and found them ‘so happy together that she thought the presence of a desolate widow incongruous, and left us to return to her own solitary hearth’. [4] It should not be surprising that Julia was visiting the Stephen family, since she was a friend of the Thackerays, going back to her days at Little Holland House. It was Julia who helped Anny keep her manuscripts in order and did copying work for her. Julia said of Anny, ‘she helped me into some sort of shelter and made things more real to me again’ [5] when her husband died. Sadly, it was that night, after Julia’s visit, that Minny went into severe convulsions and suffered what today we would call eclampsia. She died on November 28, 1875.

Leslie, Anny and Laura moved from 8 Southwell Gardens to 11 Hyde Park Gate South in June 1876, when Leslie inherited it from Minny. Julia helped her new neighbours settle in. She had just moved from 90 Redcliffe Gardens into 13 Hyde Park Gate. It was during this period that Leslie Stephen would refer to Julia Duckworth as his ‘saving angel’. He was in danger of becoming depressed and a recluse. Julia recognised the signs of grief and spent all of her free time making herself available to Leslie’s every need. Their children played together and one year later, on July 5, 1877, Leslie knew he was falling in love with Julia. He had papers drawn up naming Julia a household accountant of sorts, even giving her guardianship of his only daughter with Minny, Laura Makepeace Stephen (1870–1945), who was born three months premature and suffered from mental retardation, according to Leslie’s letters. [6]

Leslie and Julia Stephen in Grindelwald, Switzerland, 1889. By Gabriel Loppé. Leslie Stephen’s Photograph Album, plate 39e. Mortimer Rare Book Room, Smith College.

On March 26 1878, Leslie and Julia were married. Even though Laura was looked after by governesses in a separate part of the house, Julia had her committed to the Earlswood Asylum for the Imbecile and Weak-Minded. Laura’s family rarely visited her.

Even with periods of difficulty in their marriage, Leslie’s letters reveal a harmonious domestic life surrounded by the joy and happiness his children brought him. It was during their marriage that Leslie became founding editor of the Dictionary of National Biography. He was a well-known editor, critic and biographer by this time. Together they had four children: Vanessa (b. 1879), Thoby (b. 1880), Adeline (b. 1882), and Adrian (b. 1883). Thoby would become known for starting the Bloomsbury Group, and his brother Adrian became an author, psychoanalyst and member of the group. Vanessa Stephen became Vanessa Bell, English painter, interior designer and member of the group.  The most well-known of the siblings was Adeline Stephen, who would become Virginia Woolf.

Julia Stephen, Grindelwald, Switzerland, 1889. By Gabriel Loppé. Leslie Stephen’s Photograph Album, plate 39c. Mortimer Rare Book Room, Smith College.

During their marriage, The Stephen Family lived at 22 Hyde Park, which had been Julia’s house prior to her marriage. The children complained about the cold, calling it ‘a regular mausoleum’. It was set in a gloomy cul-de-sac across the street from Kensington Gardens. According to Virginia, ‘her mother sketched the plans of the house to save on architect’s fees’. The top of the house was where Leslie’s large study, library, and nurseries for their four children could be found. Vanessa remembers coal fires warmed the nurseries, making the house ‘very snug, if stuffy’ with ‘a very unhealthy atmosphere’. Windows were never opened. On the first floor, three bedrooms were reserved for the Duckworth children as well as the marital bedroom and another nursery. The servants used the basement as their own space and the kitchen was looked after by the cook, Sophie Ferrell. On the ground floor you would find the dining room and large double room opening from ‘a cheerful little room, almost entirely made of glass with a skylight, windows all along one side looking on to the back garden.’ [7] A total of sixteen people lived here and all daily arrangements were supervised by Julia Stephen.

When a lamp flares up in the nursery; Ellen, the housemaid, is called, then Annie, the parlor maid, then Adrian, ‘summoned his mater and Thoby’. Julia successfully deals with every situation showing examples of her energy and enthusiasm. She rises at 6 and ‘defied the burst pipes alone’. She is the kind of person who ‘sees gold under a covering of copper.’  Although, Julia is ‘an ardent lover of rats’ she wants a dog to rid her of the creatures that destroy her provisions; she adores birds and scatters crumbs to ‘entice the feathered favorites’. [8]

According to Hyde Park Gate News, ‘there are trips to glass blowing, a ventriloquist, the pantomime, Kensington Park, the Zoo, birthday parties, plays, musicals, Gondola rides, skating, and an ice carnival in Regents Park.’ [9]

Talland House, c. 1882-1894. Plate 37c, Mortimer Rare Book Room, Smith College.

Some of the happiest times were spent in St. Ives, Cornwall, at Talland House, a retreat from the city where the family spent summers from 1882 to 1894, with visits from friends and relatives. In contrast to the Hyde Park townhouse, Talland House was full of light and warmth. Virginia looked back at her years here as ‘days of pure enjoyment’. As children they ate cherries, cream, bread and jam, grapes, peaches, strawberry ices, cake and chocolates and remembered the food most of all later in life. The garden was divided into separate sections by thick sweet-smelling escallonia. Virginia explained how every small room had its own function: the coffee garden, the cricket lawn, the Love Corner—covered in purple jackmanii, the Fountain, the kitchen garden, the strawberry beds, the pond, the Lookout place. They played endless games and activities. A neighbour at St. Ives described Julia’s children as, ‘tall and fair, never mixing with other children, almost like Gods and Goddesses.’ [10]

Julia Stephen was always there to support her family and friends. She nursed the sick and dying, travelled round London by bus visiting hospitals and workhouses, and was never afraid to speak out ‘on behalf of workhouse inmates whose half-pint beer allocation had been removed by temperance campaigners’. [11] In 1883 she published her book, Notes from Sick Rooms, a discussion of good nursing practice, which demonstrated attention to detail and to language. Her Stories for Children, Essays for Adults’ was published in 1987, consisting of tales she told her very own children. They were stories that promoted the values of family life, including kindness to animals, with titles such as ‘Cat’s Meat’, ‘The Monkey on the Moor’ and ‘The Black Cat or the Grey Parrot’.

On 5 May 1895, Julia Stephen died at the age of 49. Virginia Woolf’s memories of her mother would remain permanently tangible.

She wore a white dressing gown and next to her were great starry purple passion flowers, the buds part empty, part full. She wore three rings diamond, emerald, and opal with silver bracelets that twisted and jingled as she lay sleepless. Their sound meant that she would be coming to sooth her restless daughter telling her of rainbows and bells. She remembered how her mother held her very straight. [12]

Julia’s final words to her thirteen year-old daughter as she crept out of the door were, ‘Hold yourself straight, my little Goat’. [13]

Julia Stephen, 1894. Plate 38k, Leslie Stephen’s Photograph Album. Mortimer Rare Book Room, Smith College.

Kimberly Eve (@musingswriter) is a writer and independent scholar with a focus on the personal lives of artists and authors of the nineteenth-century and Victorian era. Her work is featured on her website, Victorian Musings.

Notes & references

Title image: My niece Julia full face, by Julia Margaret Cameron. Albumen print, 1867, National Portrait Gallery, London, UK.

[1] Julia Duckworth Stephen (ed. Diane F. Gillespie & Elizabeth Steele), Stories For Children, Essays For Adults (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1987), 243.

[2] Stephen, Martin, Leslie Stephen, Leslie Stephen’s Mausoleum Book, (Clarendon Press, 1977), 38.

[3] Gillian Gill, Virginia Woolf: And the Women Who Shaped Her World (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019), 143.

[4] John W. Bicknell (ed.), Selected Letters of Leslie Stephen. Volume 1: 1864-1882, The Death of Minny (Palgrave Macmillan, 1996), 162.

[5] Stephen, Stories For Children, Essays For Adults, 7.

[6] John W.Bicknell (Ed.), Selected Letters of Leslie Stephen. Volume 1: 1864-1882, The Death of Minny (Palgrave Macmillan, 1996), 162.

[7] J. H. Stape (ed.), Virginia Woolf: Interviews and Recollections (Palgrave Macmillan, 1995). 7.

[8] Lowe et al., Versions of Julia: Five Biographical Constructions of Julia Stephen, Volumes 41-47 (Cecil Woolf, 2005), 37-38.

[9] Lowe et al., Versions of Julia, 38.

[10] Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf (Chatto + Windus, 1996), 26.

[11] Pall Mall Gazette, 4 October 1879.

[12] Katherine Hill-Miller, From The Lighthouse To Monk’s House: A Guide to Virginia Woolf’s Literary Landscapes (Bristol Classical Press: 2003), 36.

[13] Jeanne Schulkind, Virginia Woolf: Moments of Being (Harcourt Brace  & Company: New York: 1985), 84.

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