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Looking for Laura

By (February 1, 2012) 9 Comments

Stephen Family Portrait (1894), Mortimer Rare Book Room, Smith College
“Virginia Woolf was a Miss Stephen,” Quentin Bell wrote in the introduction to the biography of his aunt, published in 1972. Since then scholars have combed the family’s letters, diaries, essays, memoirs, novels, and the voluminous biographies and criticism that sprang from them. Is there anything left to say about the glamorous, gifted, troubled family at the center of the Bloomsbury Group? About the shared childhood of Virginia Stephen Woolf and Vanessa Stephen Bell? As the evidence they left has been turned over and over, the missing pieces have become more obvious.

In a rare photograph of the combined Stephen clan, included in a family album in Smith College’s Mortimer Rare Book Room, the parents are in the foreground, as expected. The mother, “J.P.S” for Julia Prinsep Stephen, is hollow-eyed and swathed in shawls. She gazes off to the side. The father, “L.S.” for Leslie Stephen, slightly slumped over, looks down. Five older children jostle for position in the crowded back row behind their parents. They are all tall and handsome, and their linked arms and leaning bodies could indicate closeness or claustrophobia. They press together, neatly composed in an alternating pattern of male/female, frozen in one balanced moment. The boy labeled “Thoby” seems caught in the act of some joke, looking for his sister Vanessa’s reaction. She smiles, but the sister on the other side, labeled “Ginia” but named Adeline Virginia, does not. She seems solemn and stands slightly behind the others. Already there is the slight differentiation typical of siblings: Vanessa and Virginia. Gerald (“G de l’E” on the left) and George (on the right). The flanking siblings seem paired off quite neatly, while the youngest son, Adrian (“A.L.S.”) seems left out. His pose and gaze reveal his connection to his mother. There is room for another sibling in the space next to George, the empty corner on the upper right where there is no name. Or perhaps another child could fit into the odd open space between the parents, where the skirt of Vanessa’s dress provides a diagonal line closing the circle between the figures. The eldest daughter was named Stella: she is not in the picture because she had been given a camera and probably took this photograph. And another girl, Laura Stephen, is missing from this and every other family portrait. The year before this photograph was taken, she had been committed to the Earlswood Asylum for Idiots and Imbeciles, one of the earliest psychiatric hospitals in England. I have been looking for Laura since I first heard of her. What role did she play in this literary family?

When this photograph was taken in 1894, the Stephens lived in the tall, narrow townhouse where Virginia was born and Julia and Leslie would die. Virginia shared that home with fourteen other people: her father, her mother, her mother’s three children by an earlier marriage to Herbert Duckworth, her two older siblings, her younger brother, and their live-in servants. The missing daughter, Laura Makepeace Stephen, was the only child of Virginia’s father by his first wife, Minnie Thackeray (daughter of the Victorian novelist William Makepeace Thackeray). After Minnie’s death and Leslie’s remarriage to the widowed Julia Duckworth, the newly combined family set up house in a leafy section of London, where the children could take daily walks in Hyde Park. Although not especially wealthy, the Stephens were part of what historian Noel Annan called “the intellectual aristocracy” of Victorian England. The house had a day nursery and a night nursery, servants’ quarters under the eaves, and a library, though no running water. Pails of water and coal scuttles were carried up and down the back stairs to fill basins and light fires. The back windows looking out over a small garden were covered in ivy, making the interiors dark. A heavy velvet curtain separated the dining room from the servant’s pantry and the work done there.

The first place to look for Laura, in Virginia’s voluminous memoirs, diaries, and letters, turns up only a few tantalizing details. Virginia mentioned her rarely and curtly, nor did her siblings leave much of a record of Laura’s existence. In the most detailed account, included in one of her informal reminiscences from around 1922, Virginia describes “Thackeray’s grand-daughter, 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,” as the family portrait confirmed. Laura’s pedigree may have been impressive, but she lacked the qualities Virginia thought essential—literacy, self-control, and interiority. The wording is self-consciously literary: the parallel clauses repeating “who,” “who,” “who;” the accumulating climax of “ands;” the emphatic opposition between the framing words “Thackeray’s daughter” and “us.” As at the dinner table, Laura was present where she should have been absent. In a letter from 1934 Virginia reflected on deaths in her family and repeated her husband’s conclusion: “Leonard says Laura is the one we could have spared.”

Leslie Stephen resisted placing Laura with “idiots,” but that was how Virginia described her. Hilary Newman, the scholar who published the Bloomsbury Heritage’s account of Laura’s life, notes that the Victorians distinguished between imbeciles, idiots, and lunatics, with “imbecile” marking the mildest form of congenital mental deficiency. These terms were shifting, though, and national laws like the Lunacy Act of 1845 and the Idiots Act of 1886 struggled to define them. Laura was admitted to Earlswood as an “imbecile” but was labeled a “lunatic” in the census of 1901, which suggests worsening symptoms. In an oft-quoted diary entry from 1915, Virginia wrote about seeing a group of “imbeciles” file past her in Kensington Gardens. She was appalled by their hideous grins and wild stares, details which evoke Laura’s vacant eyes. “They should certainly be killed,” she concluded. It is easy to imagine that Virginia’s antipathy to the mentally ill sprang from awareness of her own mental fragility (indeed, in 1915 she suffered another breakdown) and anxiety about sharing any part of Laura’s fate—mad, exiled from home, abandoned by family, without reason, self control, or independence. After all, Virginia shared tragic elements of Laura’s story: she too suffered from a lifelong struggle with mental illness; she too suffered devastating losses, like her mother’s sudden death when Virginia was thirteen. And she too struggled with the weight of her father’s high expectations for his children, even though she would end up meeting them more than any of her siblings. A large Victorian family like the Stephens’ demonstrated Herbert Spencer’s controversial phrase “the survival of the fittest.” In the jostle for love and attention that is visible in the family portrait, some won and some lost.

Laura Stephen as a Baby (1870), Mortimer Rare Book Room, Smith College
In contrast to her later life, Laura’s infancy was well documented. As Thackeray’s first grandchild, it was Laura who seemed destined for literary gifts. Her birth in 1870 had been auspicious. She had been born three months premature yet had survived against Victorian odds. Leslie Stephen had not yet taken up the work that would get him knighted—editing the multivolume Dictionary of National Biography—but he was editor of the influential literary journal The Cornhill Magazine. For her third birthday Robert Browning gave Laura a copy of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem Aurora Leigh inscribed “With all good Christmas wishes to Laura Makepeace Stephen from Robert Browning. London, Dec. 28, ’73.” Leslie doted on Laura and collected autographed volumes into a library that she was to inherit. When she was still a child he took her with him to visit the Victorian literary eminence, John Ruskin—as if this brush with genius would rub off. Her father joked with his friends that Laura’s baby hands were “obviously framed to grasp the pen.”

Into this sunny picture soon came shadow. Minnie Thackeray Stephen died suddenly on her husband’s 43rd birthday in 1875, when Laura was five years old. Distraught, Leslie turned over Laura’s care first to his sister-in-law, then his sister, and then a series of nurses. By the time Laura was nine years old, though, it had become apparent that something was wrong with her. She was slow to talk, then slow to read. She spat out any meat she was given, talked excitedly in gibberish, and liked to spin in wild circles. Leslie tried to teach her himself but found it immensely painful. He shouted and she cried. Her behavior swung between extreme fatigue and violent tantrums. After Leslie remarried, he and his new wife Julia tried to integrate Laura into their growing family, but Julia struggled under the burden and her son George intervened with Leslie to insist that his mother shouldn’t have to manage Laura. Was the implication that, after all, Laura was not her own child? Oddly, Leslie had made Julia Laura’s guardian even before their marriage, although Laura’s aunt Annie Thackeray was the more obvious choice. But Leslie disapproved of Annie’s marriage to a much-younger cousin and Julia was known for her caretaking abilities.

The various pressures within the combined families came to a head around 1885. Laura was fifteen years old when the Stephens consulted the famous nerve specialist Dr. John Langdon Down (namer of Down’s Syndrome), who advised them that she was unlikely to make more progress. Leslie was crushed, but he agreed to move Laura to a cottage in the country where she could be cared for by a private nurse. For the rest of her adolescence she would see her family only for holidays, if at all. Virginia saw Laura mostly during the long summers in Cornwall, where one of the few positive references to Laura appears in a family newspaper called The Hyde Park Gate News that Virginia edited. On August 8, 1892 she wrote that Laura’s train was late in arriving and those who went to meet her were “disappointed.” When she finally arrived Laura was “heartily welcomed by all her family.” On another occasion Laura was sent by train to Cornwall by herself and missed her stop. She managed to find a hotel and stay the night until someone could fetch her, which suggests some competence. Yet letters from family visitors to Cornwall describe her howling through the night. A few years later Laura was moved again, to the Earlswood asylum, and then to a series of private institutions where she lived out her long life until 1945. Leslie and Julia visited her 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.

If Laura is missing from family photographs and diaries, she seems equally absent from Virginia’s fiction. The Ramsay family in To the Lighthouse, which is based on the Stephens’ summers in Cornwall, has no specific analogue to Laura, no disabled or damaged child. But the novel is haunted by loss, much as scholars claim Woolf was herself: the loss of a mother, of a sister, of childhood and the past. And the family does have eight children, which was the number of children in the Stephen family if Laura were included. Laura may not have counted for much in Virginia’s explicit reckoning, but she did count in some way. Laura seems to be there and not there at the same time, not even a character, but a fictional marker—a trace, perhaps, of a literary trope familiar to Virginia from her readings in Victorian fiction: the figure of the “madwoman.”

This figure would have had personal as well as literary resonance for Virginia.

In a poignant coincidence, Charlotte Brontë dedicated Jane Eyre, the most famous example of a family hiding a madwoman in its midst, to Thackeray himself, in admiration for his Vanity Fair. At the time, Brontë did not know that Thackeray had a “mad” wife of his own, Isabella Shawe, who was cared for by a companion in her own cottage, as Laura would be later; indeed the Stephens liked to claim that Laura’s condition was inherited from this grandmother. Isabella may have been a victim of severe postpartum depression. After the birth of her second daughter, Isabella tried to drown her firstborn, Annie, but was thwarted by her husband. Thackeray was grief-stricken and compassionate about his wife’s condition: he supported her during his lifetime and left a legacy to provide for her care after his death, just as Leslie would do later for Laura. In an era when most sick or disabled people were cared for at home, Brontë’s sensational account of a raging and uncontrollable relative hidden behind a façade of respectable domesticity may have been painfully familiar. For families who could afford it, like the Thackerays and Stephens, a private nurse in a separate residence was often the best compromise: relatives were cared for in a safe and domestic environment while still kept contained and separate from the rest of the family. Both Isabella Thackeray and Laura Stephen spent parts of their lives in private homes with personal caretakers. This discreet and expensive practice began to change as institutional settings like Earlswood became more popular.

In Wilkie Collins’s bestselling novel of 1860, The Woman in White, this cultural shift from private to institutional care is central to the plot. The narrator of the novel, a young drawing master named Walter Hartright, encounters a mysterious and “melancholy” woman in white on his way home. He later discovers that she has escaped from a nearby insane asylum, which is already identified as a place no one would choose to be. More strangely, Walter is struck by the resemblance between his new pupil, Laura Fairlie, and the mysterious madwoman, Anne Catherick.

Although Laura Fairlie begins the novel in a happy and privileged position as the heiress of a country estate, her physical resemblance to the madwoman is an ominous sign. In due course, that resemblance becomes stronger and stronger as calamity overtakes her: eventually her husband takes advantage of this seeming coincidence to stage her death, take her fortune, and incarcerate her in the asylum. As Laura’s health and beauty suffer, her likeness to Anne increases, making the substitution more plausible. In the end, Laura regains some degree of happiness, but the original mystery is the last to be solved. Why does Laura look so much like Anne? Because they are half sisters, of course. Laura shares a mother with one half-sister (though they look nothing alike), but unbeknownst to her she shares a father with Anne. The Victorians loved to speculate on how the sins of fathers could be visited on their children, and here Mr. Fairlie’s pre-marital assignation with a maid has resulted in tragedy for both of his daughters. Even when the madness itself is not inherited, the misfortunes are, and one of the standard misfortunes of Victorian life and fiction was to be sent away from home.

The plot of Woman in White evokes basic anxieties about family ties and identity. Members of large Victorian families faced the problem of how to differentiate themselves from each other and how to fulfill individual roles within a group. Laura is uneasily similar to Anne: their sameness seems fated to be a cause of trouble. Indeed, their resemblance becomes alarming enough to threaten both women’s identities, as Laura is incarcerated as Anne and Anne is buried as Laura.

Like Laura Fairlie, Virginia Woolf shared a father with one (mad) half-sister and a mother with another (not mad) half sister. Couldn’t she too be brought down by a mad half-sister? There is no specific proof that Woolf read The Woman in White, but it seems likely that this voracious reader would have read it in her father’s library, especially since she was known to have read Collins’ other bestseller, The Moonstone. Besides, Collins was one of the many prominent authors who wrote for The Cornhill Magazine, which first Thackeray and then Stephen edited. Leslie Stephen was not above reading popular literature. It was Stephen who published and promoted the early work of Robert Louis Stevenson, whose Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde dramatizes the Victorian belief that sanity and insanity, like good and evil, were polar opposites (with insanity closely associated with evil). But it is important to recognize, as Woolf’s biographer Hermione Lee does, that “the fearful opposition” critics see between Laura and Virginia can be read as both similarity and difference.

While Virginia left behind mountains of paper in diaries, letters, book reviews, essays, novels, and other manuscripts, Laura left only one or two notes in a childish hand. The sheer volume of material about Virginia may prevent us from seeing Laura anywhere in the margins. Although I had looked for Laura in family albums, letters, diaries, and fiction, the most telling and confusing evidence about Laura came from a surprising source. Newman traced Laura’s movements through various censuses and unearthed her clinical history when her Earlswood records entered the public domain in 1997, one hundred years after Laura’s discharge. For the four years that Laura spent there, doctors’ notes describe a “well-behaved” young woman with very bad teeth who (ironically) loved to read. Laura seemed content there but suffered from periods of delusion. These notes, of course, never mention Virginia Woolf or the Bloomsbury group. They are all about Laura herself. The shreds of evidence remaining from the family of Laura’s aunt Annie, who had Laura for occasional home visits through the 1920s, also reveal a more benign and manageable character. Annie Ritchie’s granddaughter, Belinda Norman-Butler, described Laura as

perfectly all right, really. Of course, she had some companion to look after her. She was craggy-looking, with the Stephen nose, like Leslie’s. She was tall and thin and dressed in black lace. She was utterly sweet to us. She was nice to us. When we broke something once, I remember she helped us to pick up the pieces of some china we had smashed. She laughed and was kind, and didn’t scold us.

Laura’s character remains elusive and contradictory, but she may be most present where Virginia is absent.

Laura Stephen at Earlswood Asylum, Reproduced by permission of Surrey History Centre
Laura Stephen is still visible as a handful of baby portraits in her father’s scrapbook and in one surviving photograph from Earlswood, the only one in which her heavy-lidded eyes stare directly back at us. She exists as a patient in a hospital’s casebook, a name in an index. She was neither a character in Woolf’s fiction nor simply the “idiot” of Woolf’s reminiscence. The modern medical and psychological professions cannot tell us exactly what Laura suffered from, just as the Victorians struggled to name it. Having left few records of her own, Laura was almost effaced; she is an empty space in the family portrait and a gap in Woolf’s fiction, but she can still be found in the shadows. Even Woolf couldn’t figure out how to tell Laura’s story: when she was preparing materials for her father’s biographer she wrote, “the history of Laura is really the most tragic thing in his life I think,” and yet “one can hardly describe” it. Laura’s absence is a story of its own.

Victoria Olsen is the author of From Life: Julia Margaret Cameron and Victorian Photography (2003). She teaches in the Expository Writing Program at New York University.