Julia Prinsep Stephen is usually known, if she is known at all, as the mother of the writer Virginia Woolf and the artist Vanessa Bell. Beyond that she remains a shadowy, elusive figure, often described as a vision, an angel, or an invisible presence. It was her beauty which most people noticed.
I became fascinated by Julia through Virginia Woolf’s writing, especially her portrayal as the complex Mrs Ramsay in To the Lighthouse and memories of her in A Sketch of the Past.
She was born in 1846 in Calcutta, the daughter of John Jackson and Maria Pattle. She grew up in Paris, where her great-grandmother Thérèse de L’Étang lived, and in London. Here she was often at Little Holland House, the celebrity salon hosted by her aunt Sarah Prinsep. She was drawn, painted and sculpted by George Frederic Watts, Edward Burne-Jones, Holman Hunt and Baron Carlo Marochetti. Her aunt, Julia Margaret Cameron, took over fifty amazing photographs of her. Her happy first marriage to Herbert Duckworth was cut short by his tragically early death just before the birth of their third child. Her second marriage was to Leslie Stephen, editor of the Dictionary of National Biography, who idolised her.
I wanted to know more of Julia Stephen, to try and find the ‘real woman’ behind all these images and fictions. The resulting biography is available here.
I had planned to publish this as a book, but realised that the research will never be finished, partly because of closed archives and travel restrictions, but also because new material is constantly becoming available. So this is an on-going, open-ended, resource allowing me to share what I have found.
Julia Stephen came from a large, cosmopolitan, family with English, French and Indian roots. There is a brief introduction to this ancestry in the section on Fabulous Forebears.
You will find additions, amendments and digressions to Julia’s story in Scraps, Orts and Fragments, a phrase borrowed from Woolf’s novel Between the Acts. There are also family trees, a bibliography and useful links.
There is still more to be discovered. The search for the elusive Julia Prinsep Stephen is endless.
Dr Marion Dell
In memory of Marion Whybrow, Professor Julia Briggs, and Cecil Woolf for encouraging me to begin looking for Julia.
With grateful thanks to my husband, my daughter, and my friends in the Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain for their endless support, guidance and expertise; and to all those others who helped me along the way.
With special thanks to Elaine Ireland and Helen Dell for their invaluable technical and design skills and support.
Header image: G.F. Watts Portrait of Mrs. Leslie Stephen, undated. Black and white chalk on dark brown paper, 45.4 x 37.3cm, Watts Gallery Trust.
Biography cover: Mrs Herbert Duckworth. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Licensed for Creative Commons usage. http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O1098318/mrs-herbert-duckworth-photograph-cameronjulia-margaret/ (accessed 27/01/2021).