Blog #161: Informational post and thoughts about Laura Stephen

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Berfrois has just published the first segment of an essay cobbled together out of previous blog fragments. To view “Names, texts, and WWI in To the Lighthouse, go to:

A thought arising out of Woolf presentations at the Vancouver MLA conference: for me, the most memorable paper was Courtenay Andree’s “(Re)locating Laura: Disability and Retrospection in Memoirs from Virginia Woolf and Leslie Stephen.” By looking at Laura Stephen’s history, both within the family and within institutions, Courtenay raised all kinds of questions about Virginia’s childhood and about her adult self. As a child, Laura was initially subjected to same intense intellectual pressures under which Virginia was later to thrive. Courtenay didn’t say it, but it is possible to imagine that Leslie Stephen unintentionally helped drive his first daughter to behaviours which led to her being labelled as insane. Also not included in Courtenay’s paper, but addressed by her in questions after, is the question of whether she might have been molested by the Duckworth boys. This is certainly a possibility, given that her mental state became problematic after the merging of the two families and also given that she used to agitatedly talk about “The boys, the boys.” Laura was 9 when the two families merged in 1879, and she was not removed to private care until 1885, when she was 15. Her half-brother, Herbert Duckworth, was two years older than her, and Gerald, the other half brother, was her age.

A rather dramatic fact is that Virginia is not known to have visited Laura after she was institutionalized, even though Laura outlived Virginia and did not live too far from London. Virginia did receive some news of her from the Duckworths, who did visit on occasion. Laura, as older sister and playmate who was removed from the home because of insanity, must have been a very complex, very fraught figure for Virginia to contemplate. She would have been a haunting source of grief and of fear, and perhaps even of guilt. Does her ghost linger in To the Lighthouse, I wonder? Courtenay mentioned that in the Stephen family Laura was known as “the Lady of the Lake,” and in To the Lighthouse, there appears the following passage:

“What does it mean? How do you explain it all?” she wanted to say, turning to Mr. Carmichael again. For the whole world seemed to have dissolved in this early morning hour into a pool of thought, a deep basin of reality, and one could almost fancy that had Mr. Carmichael spoken, for instance, a little tear would have rent the surface pool. And then? Something would emerge. A hand would be shoved up, a blade would be flashed. It was nonsense of course.

Previously, I’ve thought of this passage as a Arthurian reference, an allusion to “the Lady of the Lake.” Now, I wonder if it isn’t also a tribute to Laura. There are eight Ramsay children in To the Lighthouse, just as there were eight Stephen children, and Virginia thought of To the Lighthouse as something of a family elegy. In her mind Laura must have belonged with Julia, Stella, Thoby, and Leslie.

For more interesting information about Laura, see the following article by Victoria Olsen: “Looking for Laura.”

Another very interesting site with information on Laura is the Woolf, Creativity and Madness site.


After posting the above, I sent an email to Courtney Andree, asking for more information about Laura. Courtney sent me a generous, detailed answer which included the following information:

The nickname “Her Ladyship of the Lake” was discussed in Louise DeSalvo’s book and in Vanessa Curtis’s book on The Hidden Houses of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, besides its use in the Hyde Park Gate News (the Stephen children’s newspaper). DeSalvo speculates that the nickname came from Arthurian legend and suggests that “Their names within the family embody the most salient aspect of how they were treated—Laura, ‘Her Ladyship of the Lake,’ isolated and confined as a prisoner within the household, banished, unseen; Stella, ‘the Cow,’ the archetypal nurturer, the mindless, unpaid household drudge; Vanessa, ‘the Saint,’ who supposedly transcended whatever suffering she endured, whose suffering was, thereby, effectively obliterated.”

Curtis notes that “During 1891 she seems to have been held in some affection by Vanessa and Virginia; all the children had nicknames for one another, and Laura’s was ‘Her Ladyship of the Lake’, a name bestowed on her by Virginia. Laura was certainly treated differently and might well have been referred to as ‘special’ by Leslie and Julia, and it could well have been this which earned her the ‘ladyship’ title. In her Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on Her Life and Work (The Women’s Press, 1991), Louise DeSalvo argues that the title refers to the original Arthurian legend of that same title, in which a water-fairy steals children and takes them on to an underwater fairyland where they are free to live ‘from the cares of the world.’ Laura, posits DeSalvo, was ‘locked away, unseen, as if she were underwater, or in a private realm of her own.’”

Laura also had a personal attendant in the home in the years leading up to her removal and separate quarters within the Stephen home. This additional attention and special treatment might also explain the nickname to a certain extent.

Like me, Courtney thinks it plausible that the To the Lighthouse “blade” passage connects to Laura.

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