The Dictionary of National Biography was conceived in the early 1880s by George Smith, publisher of Ruskin, of the Brontës, Trollope, and many other leading nineteenth-century novelists, and of many journals including the Cornhill Magazine. Smith, happily replete with funds from publishing and from the manufacture of Apollinaris mineral water (whose spring he bought in 1873), sought fresh challenges. He enjoyed new enterprises and had an interest in biographical reference works. He inquired into the possibility of a new, English language version of the Biographie Universelle.
He discussed this with Leslie Stephen (father of Virginia Woolf) editor of his Cornhill Magazine since 1871 and as such publisher of many new authors such as Thomas Hardy and Robert Louis Stevenson.
In 1882 Smith was persuaded by Stephen that a universal biography on the scale envisaged was impracticable. As Sidney Lee, Stephen's successor as editor of the DNB, recollected, in what was in itself an admirably concise, accurate definition: Acting on Mr Stephen's advice, Mr Smith resolved to confine his efforts to the production of a complete dictionary of national biography which should supply full, accurate, and concise biographies of all noteworthy inhabitants of the British Islands and the Colonies (exclusive of living persons) from the earliest historical period to the present time. global/oxforddnb
Leslie Stephen wrote critiques of many authors and works, which were published in periodicals such as the Cornhill Magazine (of which he was editor from 1871), Fraser's Magazine and the Fortnightly Review. The Third Series, first published in 1879, includes commentaries on the works of Henry Fielding, Charlotte Brontë, Charles Kingsley and Walter Savage Landor, and the poetry of William Wordsworth. Stephen sets each writer's work in its historical context, comparing it to that of other significant authors of its era and evaluating its philosophical and moral qualities. His articles remain of great interest to scholars of early modern, Romantic and Victorian literature. abebooks/Hours-Library
Stephen’s own analysis of CB does, I think, display something like the desired balance. Here, for example, he proposes a standard against which to measure her overall achievement:
Miss Brontë, as her warmest admirers would grant, was not and did not in the least affect to be a philosophical thinker. And because a great writer, to whom she has been gratuitously compared, is strong just where she is weak, her friends have an injudicious desire to make out that the matter is of no importance, and that her comparative poverty of thought is no injury to her work. There is no difficulty in following them so far as to admit that her work is none the worse for containing no theological or philosophical disquisitions, or for showing no familiarity with the technicalities of modern science and metaphysics. But the admission by no means follows that her work does not suffer very materially by the comparative narrowness of the circle of ideas in which her mind habitually revolved. Perhaps if she had been familiar with Hegel or Sir W. Hamilton, she would have intruded undigested lumps of metaphysics, and introduced vexatious allusions to the philosophy of identity or to the principle of the excluded middle. But it is possible, also, that her conceptions of life and the world would have been enriched and harmonised, and that, without giving us more scientific dogmas, her characters would have embodied more fully the dominating ideas of the time. There is no province of inquiry–historical, scientific, or philosophical–from which the artist may not derive useful material; the sole question is whether it has been properly assimilated and transformed by the action of the poetic imagination. By attempting to define how far Miss Brontë’s powers were in fact thus bounded, we shall approximately decide her place in the great hierarchy of imaginative thinkers.
As Stephen points out: “What would Jane Eyre have done, and what would our sympathies have been, had she found that Mrs. Rochester had not been burnt in the fire at Thornfield?
Read more: openlettersmonthly./leslie-stephen-charlotte-bronte
Leslie Stephen was married to Minny Thackeray, the daughter of novelist William Makepeace Thackeray during this time. Julia developed a strong lifelong friendship with Minny’s sister Anny Thackeray.
Harriet Marian (“Minny”) Thackeray Stephen (1840-1875) and Leslie Stephen (1832-1904) are seen here standing outdoors, probably on their wedding trip to Switzerland in 1867. Reproduction of plate 35d from Leslie Stephen’s Photograph Album.
Original: albumen print, Mortimer Rare Book Room, Smith College kimberlyevemusings
by Gabriel Loppé (1825-1913)
Original: albumen print (17.0 x 12.3 cm.)
Mortimer Rare Book Room, Smith College