“Words are an impure medium; better far to have been born into the silent kingdom of paint.” © Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf and her sister, the artist, Vanessa Bell, were the daughters of the historian Sir Leslie Stephen and Julia Prinsep Duckworth.
Left: Vanessa Bell, 1902. Right: Virginia Woolf, 1902. Images via Wikimedia Commons © https://tinyurl.com/5n7z87cs
Their mother, Julia Prinsep Stephen had become a widow in 1870 after her first husband, Herbert Duckworth, died of a burst abscess. She already had three children: George, Stella, and Gerald. The latter was born shortly after Herbert’s death in 1870.
Eight years later Julia married Leslie Stephen. English society in the late 1800s was built on a rigid social class system, and as a graduate of Eton and Cambridge, a respected literary critic and biographer, Leslie was seen as one of the literary aristocracy. He was also a widower and father of a girl, Laura, who had a learning disability, and who, incidentally, was the granddaughter of the Victorian novelist William Makepeace Thackeray.
Laura Stephen at Earlswood Asylum: Reproduced by permission of Surrey History Centre © https://tinyurl.com/36sj5mc5
Despite Leslie doting on Laura as a tiny child, by the time she was nine it was obvious that something was wrong; she was slow to talk or read, and veered from total fatigue to violent tantrums. It was a problem for both her father and Julia (although Julia, as friend of the family, had already partly taken on the role as a surrogate parent after Leslie’s wife, Minny, had died when Laura was five). But marriage and producing four children in quick succession: Vanessa in 1879, Thoby in 1880, Virginia in 1882, and Adrian in 1883, increased the difficulties for the two parents. Neither of them were equipped to deal with a child who had special needs.
Besides being agnostics, both Leslie and Julia were humanists, who advocated the rights for women to be the same as for men, to reach their own conclusions in matters of religion. Yet both believed that the home was the true basis for morality, a sanctuary free from corruption, and therefore home was the place for women. So Julia, who despaired that she was unable to discipline Laura, or train her to carry out domestic chores, apparently felt that her stepdaughter was deliberately wilful. And Leslie, who, during a time when society viewed anyone who was not seen as “normal” as undermining that society, was ashamed of her. His domineering patriarchy in in this upper-class, intellectual, and claustrophobic household would be viewed as bullying these days.
He must have been very frustrated by Laura, and it was a conflicted family: having little parental authority over one daughter, whilst succeeding in having total control over the other two.
Unlike their brother, Thoby, neither Vanessa nor Virginia were allowed to go to school. It was still not considered suitable to send girls to school, so they were educated at home by tutors.
Initially, as small children, they spent their days inventing whimsical stories about their neighbours, then progressed to writing illustrated stories and poems, and making up riddles and jokes for a family magazine they called the Hyde Park Gate News. In years to come, biographers of the two sisters were to declare this as early proof of the reciprocal nature between them that, well before any formal training, they nurtured each other’s art, acting as the other’s friend, adversary, and creative muse. And they must have decided between themselves which of them followed which creative path: Virginia the writer, Vanessa the artist. Yet each one’s individual talents led to the same ending, an endeavour to tell stories through their craft, Virginia with words, Vanessa through her paintings.
But, in the background there was always the perceived family problem of Laura. And, in 1886 at the age of sixteen, when Vanessa was seven, and Virginia was four, Laura was sent away to live with a governess. And was absent from the public family.
This is a family photograph of Gerald Duckworth, Virginia Stephen, Thoby Stephen, Vanessa Stephen, and George Duckworth (back row); Adrian Stephen, Julia Duckworth Stephen, and Leslie Stephen (front row) at Alenhoe, Wimbledon. (Reproduction of plate 37a from Leslie Stephen’s Photograph Album Original: albumen print (7.8 x 10.4 cm.) Presented by Quentin and Anne Olivier Bell. Mortimer Rare Book Room, Smith College) © https://tinyurl.com/3mjxe2uw
Four years later, despite being deprived of any early official schooling, and notwithstanding the Victorian restrictions on girls and women, Julia and Leslie decided to encourage their other daughters to pursue their talents. Over time, Vanessa studied both at the Royal Academy Schools and the Slade School of Fine Art, Virginia took classics and history in the Ladies’ Department of King’s College London.
Laura, on the other hand had been diagnosed by psychiatrists as suffering from ‘imbecility’. However I do need to point out that, despite extensive research, I could find no established medical rules of defining mental illnesses at this time. Yet in law, under such acts as the Lunacy Act of 1845 and the Idiots Act of 1886, there were precise specific and distinct legal classifications for certain conditions. These groupings fluctuated though. Laura was initially admitted to Earlswood Asylum in 1893, aged twenty-three, as an “imbecile” but in the 1901 census she was labelled a “lunatic”. which could suggest worsening symptoms
Virginia and Vanessa had battles of their own to contend with; both, as children, were sexually abused by their half-brothers, George and Gerald Duckworth. As an adult Virginia Woolf wrote extensively about this incestuous abuse in her diaries and letters, although there is little I can find about the abuse with either sister. Understandably, many say this was the origin of the fragility of Virginia’s psychological state. But It needs saying that it has been suggested in various papers that there were genetic connections of mental instability on the paternal side: Leslie Stephen was prone to violent mood swings, his father suffered from depression, a nephew had a bipolar disorder and was admitted into an asylum for mania. Virginia herself suffered from depression, and Vanessa is reported to have had at least one nervous breakdown. I should also add here that therefore it could follow that this family history of the Stephen family means it is likely that whatever condition Laura suffered from in her life, her genetic composition means she was more susceptible to other mental disorders.
In 1895, their mother. Julia Stephen died of heart failure, following a bout of influenza. Shortly afterwards, Virginia had her first mental breakdown. And, when their older half-sister Stella Duckworth, who in the absence of their mother had stepped in to run the household, also died two years later, and after their father died in 1904 after a long battle with stomach cancer, Virginia made her first suicide attempt.
Vanessa took charge. After dealing with all the domestic affairs, she moved the family (Vanessa, Thoby, Virginia, and Adrian) from Hyde Park Gate to the Bloomsbury district of London in 1904 to begin a new life.
Here Vanessa, Thoby, Adrian and Clive Bell started The Bloomsbury Group with friends who were writers, intellectuals, philosophers, and artists who rejected the oppressive Victorian principles of their parents’ generation, and they adopted creative freedom, sexual permissiveness, and atheism. They became known for their unconventional lifestyles and love affairs, shocking many outside their social group.
Vanessa Bell © https://tinyurl.com/5n7944n4
As the older sister Vanessa dealt with many of Virginia’s emotional and mental breakdowns. But she also held true to her own code of conduct; her lifestyle, her unconventional, sometimes eccentric relationships, were reflected in her art: the nude portraits of her friends and family, the use of design in her work. (both considered to be the prerogative of male artists) Yet her loving care for her sister was balanced by the long term and continuous rivalry in their separate spheres of creativity. Reading through the lines during my research I wondered whether, sometimes, this conflict was wearisome for the older sister; whether Vanessa’s marriage, in 1907, to Clive Bell was subconsciously an effort to distance herself from Virginia.
circa 1927 Harvard Theater Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University. https://tinyurl.com/mryj58p5
The marriage, a year after their brother Thoby’s death from typhoid, made Virginia descend again into some sort of nervous breakdown. The marriage meant that Virginia and their brother Adrian had to move out of the Bloomsbury house, thus providing a distancing between the two sisters. A distance Virginia resented, because, before long, she began to pursue Vanessa’s husband, Clive. Their love affair lasted, intermittently, over six years. And there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that reveals enough proof, I think, to believe that the underlying reason for the affair was so that Virginia was once again at the centre of her sister’s life.
In 1914 Vanessa began a life-long relationship with Duncan Grant, who was bi-sexual. Taking Vanessa’s two sons, Julian and Quentin, from her marriage to Clive, and accompanied by Duncan’s lover, the writer David Garnett, they moved to Charleston Farmhouse, Sussex. In 1918 Vanessa and Duncan had a daughter, Angelica.
Because I have concentrated on these two women as sisters, and because much has been written about their achievement by far more scholarly people than me, I have left out details of the body of work that both women produced. I was more interested in what made them ‘be’, what formed them as human beings.
I found an extensive amount of articles, journals, newspaper reviews, discussions, diary quotes, lectures etc. on Virginia that revealed much of her personality and mental health. But far less details on Vanessa’s character. Because she didn’t keep a diary as Virginia did there is little written about her personally, except for the time of her son, Julian’s death during the Spanish War, when she became extremely and understandably depressed. But, mainly, there are only facts about her place in the family, about her marriage and relationships, her part in the Bloomsbury set, and the cannon of her work. And I found almost nothing on Laura. Having left few records of her own, she’s as invisible in history as she was in her family. And yet, her small story needs to stand alongside her famous sisters, because, I think, her presence (wherever she was during her life) must have had some effect on Vanessa and Virginia. There had to be some experiences, some memories they shared, that would always have impacted on the three of them.
Troubled by mental illness throughout her life, Virginia was institutionalized several times and attempted suicide twice before drowning herself by filling her overcoat pockets with stones and walking into the River Ouse on March 28, 1941. Her ashes are buried in the National Trust garden of Monks House, Rodmell.
Vanessa died at Charleston Farmhouse, at the age of eighty-one, after a bout of bronchitis, on 7th April 1961. She was buried on 12th April, without any form of service, in Firle Parish Churchyard.
Laura Stephen, c.1870 Reproduction of plate 35f from Leslie Stephen’s Photograph Album.© Mortimer Rare Book Room, Smith College.https://tinyurl.com/2zxbrek8
Laura Makepeace Stephen (1870-1945) was born prematurely on 7 December 1870. She was the only child of Leslie and Minny Thackeray Stephen. Laura was “mentally deficient,” according to Leslie Stephen, and may have suffered from a form of autism. She lived at home with a German nurse, Louise Meineke, when Virginia Woolf was a child. In 1888, Laura was settled with Dr. Corner at Brook House, Southgate, and she died at the Priory Hospital, Southgate, in 1945. https://tinyurl.com/2zxbrek8. Her burial details are unknown.
N.B. Leslie and Julia visited Laura until Julia’s death in 1895. Stella visited her until her death in 1897. Her aunt Annie Thackeray Ritchie visited her until her death in 1919. Annie’s daughter Hester Ritchie brought her home for visits on occasion. Then the visits stopped. When Laura died in 1945 the asylum did not know of any living relatives, though both Vanessa and Adrian outlived her and even inherited the remainder of the legacy Leslie had left for her care
Sometimes, family members can become estranged from one another, either by choice or by circumstances. “In one of her informal reminiscences from around 1922, Virginia describes ‘Thackeray’s grand-daughter, (Laura) a vacant-eyed girl whose idiocy was becoming daily more obvious, who could hardly read, who would throw scissors into the fire, who was tongue-tied and stammered and yet had to appear at table with the rest of us.’ Virginia makes the difference between them clear: Laura was not, in fact, one of “us,”’ https://tinyurl.com/36sj5mc5
And, in a way, this is how Lisa (formerly Mandy) feels about her sister, Angie, in my next book, Sisters, when she says, “I never wanted to be in Micklethwaite ever again. Yet here I am. And meeting the one person I never wanted to see again. “
Sisters will be published by Honno on the 26th January 2023, It’s available to be pre-booked: