A Vision of Beauty: A Biography of Julia Prinsep Stephen by Marion Dell.

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Searching for the elusive Julia Prinsep Stephen

I first discovered Julia Stephen in the pages of a novel ‑ To the Lighthouse by her daughterVirginia Woolf. I was sitting on a balcony at Talland House in St Ives, Cornwall. This had been the Stephen family’s happy holiday home for 12 years, from 1882. In the novel it was fictionalised as the summer home of the Ramsay family; and for one week it was mine. 

1. Left: Talland House, St Ives, c.1882-1894. Leslie Stephen photograph album. 2. Right: My view from the balcony at Talland House across the Bay to the Godrevy Lighthouse, 1998.

Looking up from the pages I could see across the bay to the Godrevy Lighthouse – just the view which so inspired Woolf. I had read To the Lighthouse many times, but reading it in that location, with that view, was a whole new experience. I realised how autobiographical it was; how much of herself and her own memories Woolf had drawn upon. Teaching and studying literature in the 1970s and 1980s, I was used to a culture which assumed that ‘the author was dead’ and a writer’s biography was irrelevant. But now I wanted to know more of the Stephen family here at Talland House. I started reading Woolf’s memoir A Sketch of the Past, begun towards the end of her life.1

Sitting where Woolf would have sat, I read her first memory:

My mother would come out on to her balcony in a white dressing gown. There were passion flowers growing on the wall; they were great starry blossoms, with purple streaks, and large green buds, part empty, part full. If I were a painter I should paint these first impressions in pale yellow, silver, and green. There was the pale yellow blind; the green sea; and the silver of the passion flowers. I should make a picture that was globular; semi-transparent. I should make a picture of curved petals; of shells; of things that were semi-transparent; I should make curved shapes, showing the light through, but not giving a clear outline.2

3. Julia ‘A beautiful vision’, photographed by her aunt, Julia Margaret Cameron, 1872.

I loved Woolf’s evocative sense impressions of the sea and of the garden but it was descriptions of Julia Stephen which really caught my attention. Who was this beautiful woman who was central to Woolf’s memories of her childhood, and in the guise of Mrs Ramsay, central to To the Lighthouse? Woolf’s sister, Vanessa, confirmed the accuracy of this portrait, which she thought ‘more like her to me than anything I could ever have conceived of as possible. It is almost painful to have her so raised from the dead.’3 How, so long after her death, could Julia still inspire such a beautiful word-portrait? 

Woolf claimed that, until she was about 40 years old,

the presence of my mother obsessed me. I could hear her voice, see her, imagine what she would do or say as I went about my day’s doings. She was one of the invisible presences who after all play so important a part in every life.4

Writing To the Lighthouse was a form of therapy. After writing it she thought that she, ‘ceased to be obsessed by [her] mother’.5 After reading To the Lighthouse, on that balcony, my obsession with Julia Stephen began, and is on-going.

I knew little about Julia beyond the facts that her second husband was Leslie Stephen, the Editor of The Dictionary of National Biography, and that she had seven children including Virginia Woolf and the painter, Vanessa Bell. I started my quest for information at the Visitor Centre in St Ives, but found they had nothing to offer apart from a battered paperback copy of To the Lighthouse which they brought out from under the counter and gave me, ‘as nobody wanted it’!6 Encouraged by the late Cecil Woolf, I published a brief monograph on the Stephen family at Talland House, based on Woolf’s writing and research in the local Archive.7 This served to further whet my appetite. I wanted to know more about Julia.

I decided to follow what biographer Richard Holmes has called ‘the Footsteps Principle’.8 I must, ‘physically pursue’ my subject through the past by visiting places associated with her. These first steps in St Ives had plunged me straight into the middle or even near the end of Julia’s life story. I had to back track. I went to her home in Frant, where she had married her first husband Herbert Duckworth, and to his family home, Orchardleigh. I went to Upton Castle, Julia’s sister Adeline’s home, where Herbert Duckworth died tragically young; and to her Aunt Virginia’s home at Eastnor Castle where Julia and her second husband Leslie Stephen spent their honeymoon. I talked to some of her descendants. Along the way I found more fragments of Julia’s life and more aspects of her personality.

I went back to Cornwall many times and with my friend, the late Marion Whybrow, an art historian who lived there, I researched how St Ives influenced Julia’s daughters,9 and discovered more of what it meant to her. I read her stories for children, many set there, and discovered Julia the lively, amusing, story-teller. I also found Julia the practical, dedicated nurse whose legacy in St Ives was the Nursing Association in her name. Then, guided by the late Professor Julia Briggs, and Dr Jane de Gay, I researched the impact of Julia’s own work and writing on that of her daughter Virginia Woolf. In my doctoral thesis and subsequent book,10 I began to see her as a woman who took her work seriously, though it was unpaid. I found an activist concerned to improve the conditions of women’s lives, a role model for her children, and an influential, supportive member of a network of professional women writers and artists, which included her aunt Julia Margaret Cameron and her friend Anny Thackeray Ritchie. She played many roles and was portrayed in many guises. What I wanted to find was that elusive woman, ‘the real Julia’; but, like Virginia Woolf, I soon found, ‘how difficult it is to single her out as she really was; to imagine what she was thinking, to put a single sentence into her mouth!’11

The more I knew about her the more elusive, shape-shifting and complex she seemed. Leslie Stephen elevated her to sainthood, claiming, ‘Her loveliness thrills me to the core, whenever I call up the vision’.12 More mundanely, to her older sisters, Mary and Adeline, she remained ‘Babe’ all her life, and to her young nephew Herbert Fisher, she was ‘Ticky’. Her friend Elizabeth Robins remembered her as ‘the most beautiful Madonna & at the same time the most complete woman of the world’.13 Julia Margaret Cameron, took over 50 remarkable photographs of her, in which as Angelica Garnett, Julia’s granddaughter, claimed, she

appears as either upright, statuesque and infinitely noble or as loose-haired, passionate and dionysiac. Extraordinarily different though they are, both manifestations are equally powerful, leading one to speculate about a personality that remains comparatively mysterious.14

4. Left: Julia, ‘upright statuesque and infinitely noble’. photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron, April 1867. 5. Right: Julia, ‘loose haired, passionate and dionysiac’, photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron, April 1867.

Woolf decided that, ‘if one could give a sense of my mother’s personality one would have to be an artist. It would be as difficult to do that, as it should be done, as to paint a Cézanne.’15 In To the Lighthouse, the artist Lily Briscoe despairs of ever completing her portrait of Mrs Ramsay satisfactorily, so changeable does she seem: ‘Fifty pairs of eyes were not enough to get round that one woman with, she thought’.16 One of the few certain things about her mother, Woolf realised, was that

she was capable of falling in love with two very different men; one, to put it in a nutshell, the pink of propriety; the other, the pink of intellectuality. She could span them both. This must serve me by way of foot rule, in trying to measure her character. The elements of that character, though, are formed in twilight.17

How to write her Life? How to portray someone who was ‘an invisible presence’, a ‘beautiful vision’, ‘formed in twilight’? How to make sense of all this elusive, slippery, tangled, often contradictory, material? From Julia herself there was little revelation; nothing tangible to hold on to. Remarkably, in an age and a family which documented and published the minutiae of their daily lives in journals, diaries, photograph albums, memoirs and biographies, there is virtually nothing in her own hand or voice, though I did know that that voice once had a French accent. She apparently did not have a camera, album, sketch book, or diary of her own. Though she wrote many letters daily, these letters now exist only as the missing spaces in someone else’s correspondence. There are caches of letters to her, but few extant from her.

However, I realised that what I did have was an abundance of stories. Julia, according to her granddaughter, ‘could captivate people by her gift as a story-teller’.18 I decided to explore Julia’s personality, and tell her life story, through the stories which she told, and bequeathed to her descendants to be endlessly retold; and through those which were told about her and her many fabulous forebears.

But this was easier said than done. Family anecdotes of Julia Stephen’s colourful ancestry become more fantastical and sensational with each retelling through the generations, taking on mythic qualities. Many narratives are unreliable, full of inconsistencies, inaccuracies and only partial truths. Many narrators are fallible. Episodes are misremembered, puffed up for dramatic effect, artfully fabricated, or deliberately suppressed. Some of Julia’s ancestors carefully invented their own fabulous identities. Equally interesting are the family stories which were not told, which were consciously or unconsciously supressed; but which were just as amazing and illuminating. Only two months before she died, Virginia Woolf was still playfully creating a flamboyant narrative of her own genealogy, through her mother’s line of descent:

Marie Antoinette loved my ancestor; hence he was exiled; hence the Pattles, the barrel that burst, and finally Virginia.19

Had Marie Antoinette really loved Julia’s great grandfather, the Chevalier de L’Étang? Had her grandfather James Pattle’s embalmed body really burst out of a barrel on board ship from India – and did the shock of this kill his wife? And why did no one, apparently, tell family stories of Julia’s other grandfather, the Free Mariner George Jackson, who sailed the South China seas trading opium and indigo; nor her great-grandmother, Sarah, who tragically died abandoned in the workhouse?

I needed one firm anchor. So, after many false starts, I decided to begin with a letter from Calcutta telling the story of Julia’s birth, and then to backtrack, as Virginia Woolf had done, to explore Julia’s rich, exotic, Indian and French ancestries. These were the genetic inheritances which gave Julia her legendary beauty and her personality, and which were the source of many of the stories of which Virginia Woolf and others made such creative use.


I am indebted to the late Marion Whybrow for sharing her love and knowledge of St Ives. I am grateful to Karen Kukil, then Assistant Curator of Special Collections at Smith College, Massachusetts, for first showing me Leslie Stephen’s photograph album in 1999.

Picture credits

  1. Talland House, St Ives, c.1882-1894. Unknown photographer. Leslie Stephen photograph album, 37c, Mortimer Rare Book Collection, MS 00005, ©Smith College Special Collections, Northampton, Massachusetts. (accessed 27/01/2021).
  2. My view from the balcony at Talland House across the Bay to the Godrevy Lighthouse, 1998. Author’s own photograph.
  3. Mrs Herbert Duckworth by Julia Margaret Cameron. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. (accessed 27/01/2021).
  4. Mrs. Herbert Duckworth by Julia Margaret Cameron. Public Domain image, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (accessed 27/01/2021).
  5. Julia Prinsep Stephen (née Jackson, formerly Mrs Duckworth) by Julia Margaret Cameron. National Portrait Gallery, London NPG x18016. (accessed 27/01/2021). 
  6. Family tree:  
    Julia Prinsep Jackson. See credit 3.
    Virginia Woolf in 1902 by George Charles Beresford. (accessed 02/02/2021).

Notes and References

  1. Woolf states that her memoir was begun ‘Sunday 16th April 1939 to be precise.’ Virginia Woolf, A Sketch of the Past in Jeanne Schulkind (ed.), Virginia Woolf: Moments of Being (Pimlico: London, 2002) 78. [Sketch].
  2. Ibid. 79-80.
  3. Letter from Vanessa Bell to Virginia Woolf 11 May 1927, Nigel Nicholson and Joanne Trautmann (eds.), The Letters of Virginia Woolf Vol. 3 Appendix (London: Hogarth Press, 1977). 
  4. Sketch 92.
  5. Ibid. 93.
  6. Thankfully things have changed and there is now an awareness and interest, as evidenced not least by the wonderful exhibition at Tate St Ives – Virginia Woolf: An Exhibition Inspired by Her Writings in 2018.
  7. Marion Dell, Peering Through the Escallonia: Virginia Woolf, Talland House and St Ives (London: Cecil Woolf, 1999).
  8. Richard Holmes, The Long Pursuit: Reflections of a Romantic Biographer (London: William Collins, 2016).
  9. Marion Dell and Marion Whybrow, Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell: Remembering St Ives (Padstow, Cornwall: Tabb House, 2003).
  10. Marion Dell, Virginia Woolf’s Influential Forebears: Julia Margaret Cameron, Anny Thackeray Ritchie and Julia Prinsep Stephen (Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).
  11. Sketch 98.
  12. Alan Bell (ed.), Sir Leslie Stephen’s Mausoleum Book (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977)33.
  13. Virginia Woolf’s Diary, 4 May 1928, Anne Olivier Bell (ed.), The Diary of Virginia Woolf Vol. 3 (London: Hogarth Press, 1980).
  14. Angelica Garnett, Prologue in Lia Giachero (ed.), Vanessa Bell: Sketches in Pen and Ink (London: The Hogarth Press, 1997) 15.
  15. Sketch 96.
  16. Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, Oxford University Press, 2006)161. 
  17. Sketch 96-97.
  18. Angelica Garnett, Prologue, 15.
  19. Letter from Virginia Woolf to Ethel Smyth 12 January 1941, Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann (eds.), The Letters of Virginia Woolf Vol.6 (London: Hogarth Press, 1980).