Literary Hub

How the Alphabet Helped Virginia Woolf Understand Her Father

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Mr. Ramsay of To the Lighthouse has long been one of the most disliked characters in Virginia Woolf’s fiction. The frustrated philosopher and father of eight is rigid, punishing, and always seeking sympathy from the women around him. Woolf modeled Mr. Ramsay on her own father, Leslie Stephen, a Victorian man of letters with whom she had a very complicated relationship; Stephen was a staunch supporter of Woolf’s intellectual and professional development, but he was also, in Woolf’s words, a “tyrant father” like Mr. Ramsay. In her memoir A Sketch of the Past, she described Stephen as “the exacting, the violent, the histrionic, the demonstrative, the self-centered, the self pitying, the deaf, the appealing, the alternatively loved and hated father.”

The relationship between Woolf and her father has long been of interest to her readers and critics. And a little-known document from the novelist’s childhood can help us understand both the character of Mr. Ramsay and Woolf’s ambivalent relationship with her father more clearly: that document is “An Easy Alphabet for Infants,” an alphabet poem that the young Virginia wrote at just nine years old.

For years, readers and critics have read Mr. Ramsay of To the Lighthouse, well, critically. In the novel, Mr. Ramsay, uses the alphabet as a metaphor for knowledge. He imagines thought as the 26 letters of the alphabetic sequence, and Woolf tells us that the character’s “splendid mind had no sort of difficulty in running over those letters one by one, firmly and accurately, until it had reached, say, the letter Q. He reached Q. Very few people in the whole of England ever reach Q.” He thinks “that one perhaps. One in a generation” will reach the letter “Z.”

But Mr. Ramsay: well, he can’t make it to “Z.” He can’t even make it to “R,” the letter that begins his own name.

Mr. Ramsay’s alphabet has long been a sign not just of his philosophical failures, but of a certain masculinist narrow-mindedness, a linear and reductive way of thinking. To organize and then to try to understand the world from A to Z is to have a limited perspective on it, to say the very least. But Mr. Ramsay’s alphabetic quest is not just some intellectual exercise; it is very much rooted in the work of Woolf’s father.

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Virginia Woolf was born to Julia and Leslie Stephen in 1882, and she and her remarkably literate siblings created their own family magazine, which was modeled after magazines such as the popular 19th-century Tit Bits and contained a miscellany of short pieces. The Hyde Park Gate News, which the children wrote in the early 1890s, features work by the young Virginia Stephen, Vanessa Stephen (later Bell), and their younger brother Thoby. It included articles about the comings and goings of the Stephen household at 22 Hyde Park Gate, drawings of family members, jokes and riddles, advice columns, fabricated love letters, character sketches, and serialized stories.

A little-known document from Woolf’s childhood helps us understand both the character of Mr. Ramsay and Woolf’s ambivalent relationship with her father more clearly: “An Easy Alphabet for Infants,” an alphabet poem that she wrote at just nine years old.

When the Stephen children began writing the Hyde Park Gate News in 1891, Virginia was nine years old and Vanessa was eleven. The Stephens, encouraged by their parents, followed in a long line of other Victorian juvenile writers, most famously the Brontës, who also produced family magazines. But where the Brontës produced hermetic fantasy worlds as an escape from daily family life, the Stephens relished the day-to-day events of their late Victorian childhoods. Woolf later described her childhood milieu as “a very communicative, literate, letter writing, visiting, articulate, late nineteenth century world,” and this is very much the place that we see in the family magazine.

A representative piece on the Stephens, for example, reports that “the Editor of this pamphlet”—the young Virginia—“has recently been to Messrs. Goberg for the purpose of having a fringe cut: while her younger brother had his hair cut moderately short The Editor now looks so like a cockatoo that she is ridiculed on all sides.” While most of the pieces of the Hyde Park Gate News are unsigned and written in Vanessa’s handwriting, Vanessa Bell recalls that the young Virginia authored most of the pieces herself.

The Hyde Park Gate News provided an opportunity for the young Stephens to flex their precocious literary muscles. On Monday, November 30, 1891, the Stephen children “published” “An Easy Alphabet for Infants,” an abecedarian—or alphabet poem—that glories in England’s contemporary and historical personages. A more perfect specimen of Victorian juvenilia could not be fabricated. A is for Prince Albert, C is for Thomas Carlyle, and V is for Queen Victoria. The poem extends its historical reach back to “the 8th Henry” and “Sam Johnson,” and comes close to home with the entry for S: “S for Leslie Stephen / Well known to you.”

That the young Virginia figures her father among these major English personages speaks to the powerful role he played in her imagination as a man of historical as well as personal importance. While the children do include a few women in the poem—including writers Maria Edgeworth and Charlotte Mary Yonge—they do not include their mother. The abecedarian is for public figures only, and Leslie Stephen was one.

In full, and with misspellings from the original manuscript retained, “An Easy Alphabet for Infants” reads:

A is for Prince Albert
so good and so kind

B for the black Prince
Who was never behind

C for Carlyle
a great author was he

D for Drake
Who sailed O’er the sea

E for Miss Edgeworth
Who wrote many books

F for the Frenchmen
Who take care of their looks

G for Goliath
so great and so strong

H the 8th Henry
Who to his wifes did great wrong

I for Hal Irving
a painstaking actor

J for Sam Johnson
your minds benefactor

K for John Keats
a poet of merits

L for Sir Lawson
Who puts down the spirits

M for Lord Macaulay
Who wrote the Laws of Rome

N for Nelson
Before whom the French have flown

O for Will Owen
Who portraits did

P for William Pitt
Who was minister to the state

Q for John Quick
Who acted in plays

R for Hal Reaburn
Well known for his ways

S for Leslie Stephen
Well known to you

T for Hal Talor
a poet so true

U for James ussher
Archbishop was he

V Victoria queen to
you and me

W for Watts
a painter is he

X for XERXES
Murdered B.C.

Y for Miss Yonge
Who many things can tell

Z for Zuckertort
Who played chess very well

At just 10 years old, Virginia could not only compose a long rhyming poem, but could also reference and even contextualize some of England’s major historical figures, as well as contemporary authors, painters, politicians, mythological and Biblical figures. Virginia and her siblings were bright, knowledgeable, and eager to show off that knowledge to their magazine’s readers: their parents.

Looking back on her father years after his death, Woolf, would blame her father’s all-consuming work on his encyclopedia—a stand-in for Leslie Stephen himself—for much of her own suffering.

But “An Easy Alphabet for Infants” is more than just a curiosity. Young Virginia wrote it upon her father’s retirement from his job as the editor of the Dictionary of National Biography in 1891. Leslie Stephen’s work on this massive encyclopedia was all-consuming; he referred to his intellectual labor as “drudgery” and the dictionary itself as “infernal” and “diabolical.” And Stephen did not just edit the encyclopedia; he also wrote a number of the entries. The whole project was done alphabetically; the first volume two volumes of “A” and some “B” names, Abbadie—Anne, and Annesley—Baird, appeared in 1885. The work was intense, Stephen’s retirement was brought on by several breakdowns that he suffered from overwork.

Looking back on her father years after his death, Woolf, would blame the encyclopedia—a stand-in for Leslie Stephen himself—for much of her own suffering. Her father’s pathologies had a profound effect on her life and her many subsequent illnesses. “Lord! What a bore!” Woolf wrote, “to think that my father’s philosophy and the Dictionary of National Biography cost me this! I never see those 68 black books without cursing them for all the jaunts they’ve lost me.”

The alphabet for Woolf, is personal; it’s part of her family’s story. The obsessive intellectual engaged in a single-minded intellectual pursuit, attempting to go from A to Z, but never quite making it: this is not just the story of Mr. Ramsay, but of Leslie Stephen, too.

And when we know the story of Leslie Stephen’s work on that “infernal” encyclopedia, the importance of “An Easy Alphabet for Infants” comes into sharper relief. The alphabet poem is the Dictionary of National Biography in miniature—it is the Stephen children’s imitation of their father’s work, for which he is still known today. But in the alphabet poem, we see none of the overwork, the obsession, the stress, the breakdowns that Leslie Stephen suffered. We see his children’s joy in his work, not quite understanding that their father might have ambivalent feelings about his retirement.

But in this childhood poem, we can see also see the young Virginia beginning to position herself as inheritor of her father’s literary legacy. Leslie Stephen may have put aside his alphabetic biographical task, but Virginia was there—at just nine years old—to take up the family business of biography. Woolf’s alphabet is a locus of familial intimacy, a form of intellectual transmission between generations, and even a generative structure that provides the opportunity for creation. In Woolf’s life, nothing is actually easy, not even the ABCs.

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