On Father’s Day, it seems fitting to recall that Leslie Stephen, Virginia Woolf’s father, played a key role in his younger daughter’s life.
As the author of the Dictionary of National Biography, he served as a role model for Virginia’s scholarly habits. As an avid reader and writer, he encouraged Virginia’s intellectual curiosity by allowing her to read books at will from his extensive library. As an outdoors-man and a mountaineer, he led her outdoors on long walks, a habit that was to stay with her throughout her life.
But as Woolf admits in her personal writing as well as through her depiction of Mr. Ramsey in To the Lighthouse, her father had a negative side as well. He was a difficult man to deal with, particularly for the women in his family.
In her biography of Woolf, Hermione Lee describes Stephen’s impact on his women this way: “The women in [Leslie Stephen’s] life . . . took the brunt of his sense of failure, his appeals for reassurance and his anxieties about money. The letters to Julia are sodden with the kinds of demands for reassurance which Mr. Ramsay is always making. Leslie, unlike Mr. Ramsay, knew he was doing it, but couldn’t stop himself. It provided (as To the Lighthouse brilliantly demonstrates) a form of sexual gratification: ‘I have a hideous trick of making myself out miserable in order to coax a little sympathy out of you, because I enjoy being petted by you so much’” (73).
As a result, Mr. Ramsey comes off as a brusque, arrogant, demanding and didactic figure in To the Lighthouse, But as the father figure viewed through the eyes of his wife and children, Woolf also portrays him with sympathy and affection. She shows him as a man shaped by his culture and stuck in the patriarchal mold it has made for him. As such, he is unable to dip or bend to accommodate the needs of his wife and children.
The same kind of ambivalence can be seen in Woolf’s writing about her father. In her essay “Leslie Stephen,” published by the Hogarth Press in The Collected Essays of Virginia Woolf, she describes him as a scholar, a writer and a mountaineer. She also describes him as a father who delighted in amusing his children by cutting paper into the shapes of animals and recounting his adventures on the trail, while worrying about their safety if they were a minute late for dinner. Yet she does not shirk from detailing his anger or impatience with guests who stay too long or family members who spend too freely.
This essay and another by Woolf titled “Edmund Gosse” are included in an anthology well-suited for today. Titled Fathers: A Literary Anthology,” it is edited by André Gérard and includes essays and poems from literary legends about their fathers. It was published by Patremoir Press last year. The work of Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, Doris Lessing, Alison Bechdel and Sylvia Plath are included, to name just a few.