The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

II. Historians, Biographers and Political Orators

§ 56. Sir James Stephen

Whatever may be the place of Sir James Stephen among the historical writers of the earlier Victorian period, he is sure of remembrance among English biographical essayists. His “works,” no doubt (as Charles Lamb might have said), repose, for the most part, at the Colonial office, which he ruled for many years as under-secretary. But the fruits of his scanty leisure, gathered in 1849 under the title Essays in Ecclesiastical Biography, together with Lectures on the History of France, the solitary published memorial of his efforts as William Smyth’s successor in the modern history chair at Cambridge, display high literary qualities, with characteristic features of their own. To his legal training, Stephen owed his introduction to administrative work, and he was the maker of many constitutions, before, in his Lectures on the History of France (which extended over the whole period from the separation of Gaul from the Roman Empire to Louis XIV), he expounded at length the inner political history of that country. The “sociological” view of history was an abomination to him. His early connection, strengthened by marriage, with the evangelical school of religious thought, and, more especially, with that “Clapham sect,” to which one of the best known of his essays offers a lasting tribute, lent force to his religious convictions and warmth to his moral sympathies. He could not see more than one side to the conflict between the rise of Christianity and the decay of the Roman Empire, and he perceived the retributive hand of Providence in the troubles of the church of Rome following on the persecution of the Albigenses. But, as time went on, his wide reading, combined with the teachings of experience, broadened his sympathies, more especially as he did not transfer his official dogmatism into his best literary work. “The historian,” he says, “aims at one kind of praise, the lecturer in history at another.” In many of his essays, as well as in those of his lectures which dealt with “the Power of the Pen in France,” he succeeded in blending with a vivid characterisation of real men something of the imaginative power that projects itself into great lives of the past.

There was, perhaps, more difference than resemblance in the gifts which the two sons of Sir James Stephen respectively inherited from their father, or which were peculiar to themselves; but, though Sir Leslie Stephen, in his Life of Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, naturally dwelt on family features, the elder brother’s interests did not lie in the direction of biographical or other history. Leslie, on the other hand, among his many claims to an enduring literary fame, has none superior to those arising out of his work as a biographer, and as the first architect of the greatest monument of national biography possessed by our literature.