Nourishing the Curiosity: Leslie Stephen and the English Men of Letters Series

By Fenwick, Gillian | Nineteenth-Century Prose, Fall 1995 | Go to article overview

Nourishing the Curiosity: Leslie Stephen and the English Men of Letters Series


Fenwick, Gillian, Nineteenth-Century Prose


At the turn of the century Leslie Stephen (1832-1904) was recognised as the greatest living man of letters, his reputation based on forty years as journalist, essayist, biographer, critic, literary historian, travel writer, philosopher, and editor. After a seemingly established life as a Cambridge cleric and don, he left Trinity Hall in 1864 for London and the uncertainties of what he called 'scribbling' and 'penny-a-lining'. He went on to become founding editor of the Dictionary of National Biography, contributing z84 articles; he published 18 books; he contributed to another 50; and he wrote nearly 500 attributable journal articles and literally hundreds of others, now unidentifiable. (1) Among his massive output are five volumes in the English Men of Letters series: not monumental biographies such as his Lift of Henry Fawcett (1885) and Life of Sir James Fitzjames Stephen (1895); not voluminous literary criticism or histories, such as his Hours in a Library (1874, 1876, 1879), The English Utilitarians (1900), and English Literature and Society in the Eighteenth Century (1904); and not landmarks in the history of ideas, such as his History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century (1876). And yet, these five short books played an important role in establishing his reputation by bringing his writing to a broad, general readership. Despite disdain of both the project and Leslie Stephen's contributions from higher brow critics, the series was an immediate success, and, as reissues, new editions and international editions prove, it retained its popularity well into the twentieth century. (2)

Leslie Stephen's involvement in the English Men of Letters series stemmed from his friendship with John Morley (1838-1923), driving force behind the project, series editor, and a contributor. After leaving Oxford, Morley struggled to make a living in London as a hack writer, only slowly establishing himself as a respected journalist--in his words 'a scrawler'--for The Saturday Review and Macmillan's Magazine. He was editor of The Fortnightly Review from 1867 to 1882. Stephen became one of his contributors, and a close friend: in 1874 Stephen told his American friend, Charles Eliot Norton, 'Certainly I have no friend now on this side of the water whom it gives me such pleasure to meet'; by 1875 Morley was 'very intimate with me'; and Stephen told him, 'I value your friendship as highly as any man's'. (3) When, in 1877, Morley conceived the idea for a series of literary biographies, his choice for the author of Samuel Johnson, the first volume, was Leslie Stephen.

In his autobiography, Morley says remarkably little about the series. He describes it as 'a useful contribution to knowledge, criticism, and reflection, and bringing all these three good things within the reach of an extensive, busy, and preoccupied world.' (4) An advertisement in Samuel Johnson explains:

   These Short Books are addressed to the general public with a view
   both to stirring and satisfying an interest in literature and its
   great topics in the minds of those who have to run as they read. An
   immense class is growing up, and must every year increase, whose
   education will have made them alive to the importance of the
   masters of our literature, and capable of intelligent curiosity as
   to their performances. The Series is intended to give the means of
   nourishing this curiosity, to an extent that shall be copious
   enough to be profitable for knowledge and life, and yet be brief
   enough to serve those whose leisure is scanty.

The Macmillan publishing records, now at the British Library, throw a little more light on the work. Macmillans offered Morley 200 [pounds sterling] for the first year's editorial work. Morley asked for and was eventually given 250 [pounds sterling], on the grounds that within the year Macmillans would have at least four books published--he promised them Johnson, Gibbon, Scott, and Shelley, and probably his own Swift. …

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