Home  »  library  »  prose  »  Critical and Biographical Introduction

C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Alexander William Kinglake (1809–1891)

KINGLAKE the historian did not turn literary man of set purpose. After a trip in the Orient he jotted down his reminiscences; talking, as he himself says, to a certain friend, rather than writing for the public. The resulting book, ‘Eothen,’ was a brilliant success: the author became famous at a bound. In after years his solid literary performance as historian of the Crimean war confirmed the position so easily won.

Alexander William Kinglake was the eldest son of a banker of Taunton, England, where Alexander was born August 5th, 1809. He was reared in a home of refinement, and as a lad was a notable horseman and had a taste for Homer. He went to Eton in due course, and thence in 1828 to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was the friend of Thackeray and Tennyson. He got his B. A. in 1832, entered Lincoln’s Inn, and was called to the bar in 1837. But before beginning his legal career he took the Eastern tour, from which he made literary capital by writing ‘Eothen.’ The book, which did not appear till 1844, is one of the most enjoyable chronicles of travel in English; full of picturesque description, quiet humor, and suggestive thought,—the whole seeming freshly, spontaneously thrown off, though in reality the work was several times rewritten. ‘Eothen’ is as far as possible removed from the conventional account of tourist doings. It gives in a charming way the personal and independent impressions of an Englishman of brains, culture, and literary gift. The style is at once easy and elegant. The success of the volume, coming in a day when travel-books were not so numerous as they now are, is not hard to understand.

Kinglake practiced law with only a desultory attention. The success of ‘Eothen’ made him think of further literary work; and a natural disposition towards travel and an interest in affairs military drew him in the direction of his master work, the Crimean history. In 1845 he went to Algiers, and accompanied the French general St. Arnaud on his expedition in Algeria. In 1854 he joined the campaign in the Crimea, was present at a battle, and remained with the English army until the opening of the siege. This practical experience paved the way for his acceptance of Lady Raglan’s proposal that he should write the history of the campaign, which her husband Lord Raglan conducted. He agreed to do so, and all papers were turned over to his care. Kinglake displayed the most painstaking care and diligence in working up his material, and was also conscientious in polishing his writing. The result is a work that is an authority in its field and an attractive piece of literature. There can be but one opinion with regard to the honesty, care of workmanship, and literary brilliancy which it shows. The historian at times enters too minutely into details, and he is frankly prejudiced; his disapproval of Napoleon III. coloring his view, while his belief in his friend Lord Raglan gives his account something of party bias. But with Kinglake the judgment is always based on moral principle. And he possessed some of the finest qualities of the history-writer. He could make historic scenes vivid and vital; he had sympathy, imagination, knowledge of his subject. His marshaling of events has coherence and unity. The human interest is strong in his pages. In fine, he is among the most readable of modern writers of history.

Kinglake served in Parliament as a Liberal from Bridgewater from 1857 to 1868: his influence was felt in worthy reforms. The preparation of his eight-volume history occupied him for thirty-four years, and it will remain his monument. ‘The Invasion of the Crimea, its Origin, and an Account of its Progress down to the Death of Lord Raglan,’ the first volume of which appeared in 1863 and the last in 1888, represents the life work of a writer of force and originality. Kinglake was a man of charming personality. His final illness, a cancer of the tongue, was borne with great courage; his death occurring on January 2d, 1891. His dislike of the parading of one’s private life is shown in his instructions to his literary executor that none of the manuscripts he left should be published.