James Russell Lowell: Virginia Woolf’s Godfather

James Russell Lowell was an American poet whom Virginia Woolf’s father, Leslie Stephen, met during Stephen’s trip to America during the Civil War.

The two became such close friends that Stephen later made him Virginia’s godfather when she was born in 1882.

Lowell frequently visited Virginia Woolf’s family at their Hyde Park Gate home when he was the U.S. Ambassador to the Court of St. James in London, much to Virginia and her siblings delight. The Stephen children adored Lowell and this adoration can be seen in Virginia’s first recorded letter, which was written to Lowell when Virginia was six years old:

“My dear Godpapa have you been to the Adirondacks and have you seen lots of wild beasts and a lot of birds in their nests you are a naughty man not to come here good bye your affecte Virginia”

James Russell Lowell engraving by J.A.J. Wilcox circa 1894

James Russell Lowell engraving by J.A.J. Wilcox circa 1894

During Lowell’s visits, he showered the Stephen children with presents, especially Virginia who was his favorite, according to Virginia’s biographer Quentin Bell:

“From a ring chain purse he would produce threepenny bits for each child; but for Virginia there was always a sixpence. This was distinction enough, but nursery jealousy knew no bounds when he gave her a real live bird in a cage. Undoubtedly, in the competition for Godparents, Virginia had won hands down.”

Virginia’s special treatment created tension and jealousy between the siblings that they would remember for the rest of their lives. Jane Dunn, author of the book A Very Close Conspiracy: Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf, described the bird cage present as:

“an incident that Virginia does not mention anywhere in her memoirs and yet caused Vanessa [Virginia’s older sister] to recall more than fifty years later the ‘evil passions’ this preferential gift aroused in her.”

The Stephen children believed Lowell favored more than just Virginia, they also suspected he was in love with their mother, Julia, although if he was he never acted on his feelings.

After Lowell was recalled back to the United States by President Cleveland in 1885, he continued to visit the Stephen family during trips to their summer home, Talland House, in St. Ives until he passed away in 1891 at the age of 72.

Lowell’s many essays and poems not only influenced Virginia’s own work later on in her life but also spurred her love of American writers.

Sources:
“Selections from Lord Macaulay, Robert Browning, George Eliot, and James Russell Lowell”; Baron Thomas Babington Macaulay Macaulay, Robert Browning, George Eliot, James Russell Lowell; 1891
“A Very Close Conspiracy: Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf”; Jane Dunn; 1990
“Virginia Woolf: A Biography”; Quentin Bell; 1972

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About Rebecca Beatrice Brooks

Rebecca Beatrice Brooks is a freelance writer and history lover who got her start in journalism working for small-town newspapers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Rebecca graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a B.A. in Journalism in 2001.

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