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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 Charles Kingsley (1819–1875)

IN the autumn of 1849, in the midst of the famous Chartist movement in England, there appeared a book, a romance, which excited the enthusiasm of all “Young England” and kindled afresh the spirit of revolt against class oppression. It was called ‘Alton Locke’; and was the story of a young London tailor, who, filled with yearnings, poetical and political, which his situation rendered hopeless, joined the Chartists, shared their failure, and in despair quitted England for the New World, only to die on reaching the promised land.

All his misery and failure are ascribed to the brutal indifference of the rich and well-taught to the needs and aspirations of the workingman. When it became known that the author, Charles Kingsley, was a clergyman of the established church, a man of ancient family; that he had been forbidden by the Bishop of London to preach in that city on account of a sermon embodying radical sentiments; and that he was suffering social ostracism and newspaper attack for the stand he had taken, party enthusiasm burned still higher. He became the knight-errant, the chosen hero, of the movement known as “Christian Socialism.”

Charles Kingsley was born in Dartmoor, Devon, England, the 13th of June, 1819. He took honors at Cambridge, was ordained, and in 1841 became in turn curate and rector of the church at Eversley, Hampshire, where he lived and died; varying his duty only when in residence as canon at Chester and Westminster, or at Cambridge where he was a professor of modern history in 1861–9. With the exception of two short holidays in the West Indies and America, and two trips on the Continent, his external life saw few changes. But the peace was outward only.

As long as there was evil in the world he stood up to fight it; head downwards he charged at every red rag of doctrine, either in defense or offense. He attacked political economy, competition, the laws of gravitation, the Manchester school, the cholera, Bishop Colenso, and Cardinal Newman. On the other hand, he pleaded the cause of the undefended, from the oppression of Indian widows or the preservation of village greens to the struggles of the Australian canned-meat industry, the success of which, he maintained, would settle the food question forever.

The key to Kingsley’s mental development must be sought in his emotional history. His youth was passed in a Devon parish, of which his father, an old-fashioned parson and keen sportsman, was rector. The boy rode to hounds as soon as he could sit a horse, and was a devoted naturalist before he was old enough to know the scientific name of a single specimen of his collection. His love of nature, so rare a quality in children, “had the intensity,” said Mr. Stephen, “and the absorbing power of a sensual appetite. He gave himself up to the pure emotion as a luxuriant nature abandons itself to physical gratification.”

On reaching manhood, the strength of his sympathies and the vigor of his perceptions threw him headlong into the revolt of the time against oppression and wrong. But Kingsley was as far as Disraeli from being a democrat, and as sincere in defending a social and religious hierarchy. His politics were in fact those of the great statesman’s Coningsby,—a “Young England” Tory who denounces social wrongs and provides the workingman with good clothes, good food, and amusements, but will listen to no revolutionary remedy to destroy the evil.

His fighting propensity left a mark on the time and its literature. It formulated the creed that pluck and Bible texts would regenerate the world; and it created the “muscular Christian” who strutted through the pages of most of the novels of the day, from Bulwer with his ‘Kenelm Chillingly’ to the waxwork Sir Galahads of the Misses Wetherell. Kingsley disliked the cult, and denied that he was responsible for it; but it became to him a sort of Frankenstein’s monster, growing till it assumed the proportions of strength-worship and the elevation of physical over moral force.

A passionate Protestant, he was deeply affected by the agitation in the English Church known as the “Oxford Movement,” and the spirit of what was called “Manichæism,” or the principle which placed the monkish over the domestic virtues. He had a theory that the love of woman is the guide of the intellect, and that the love of nature teaches the theory of the universe. Elizabeth in the ‘Saint’s Tragedy,’ the heroines in ‘Westward Ho!’ Hypatia, Grace in ‘Two Years Ago,’ are the saving influences of the men of these books. Lancelot in ‘Yeast’ designs a great allegorical drawing, which sets forth the influence of the feminine charm on every variety of human being. “The picture,” says a reviewer in Cornhill, “could hardly be put on canvas; but it would be a perfect frontispiece to Kingsley’s works.”

The stories ‘Yeast’ and ‘Alton Locke,’ written on the same theme and in the same year, are both clumsily constructed and uneven; and fifty years later, lack the interest they excited when their topics were new and immediate. Kingsley has the tendency to preach, common to all novelists with a purpose. The power of these books is in their intense feeling and sincerity, and the genuine force of their attack upon injustice. And there are scenes in ‘Yeast,’ such as the village feast, and the death of old Harry Verney the gamekeeper; and in ‘Alton Locke,’ such as the Chartist rising in the country,—as bold as anything in English fiction. ‘Alton Locke’ is the more sustained effort, the more ambitious conception; but Carlyle describes it as a “vivid creation, still left half chaotic.” But of Kingsley’s masterpiece in the way of character, the old Scotchman Mackaye, he says, “My invaluable countryman in this book is nearly perfect.”

Kingsley’s historical novels are in a different strain. The further he removes his story from his own time, the more pictorial the presentation. His freshness and vigor seize upon the reader; the roots of feeling strike down into the heart of life. The desert scenes in ‘Hypatia,’ the thrilling tragedy of the death of the martyr, which if bad history is admirable fiction, the sea-fight in ‘Westward Ho!’ an epic “not of dull prose but of the thunder roll of Homer’s verse,” stir the blood and mock criticism. Concerning the history and the theology the general reader does not concern himself. The genius of the author has already possessed him. Raphael, Wulf, and Amal—beings begot of fancy, dwelling in an unreal time—are more alive than modern photographic realism makes the latest realistic hero.

No writer in the language has shown a greater power of description than Kingsley. Landscape, beast, and bird are invested with poetic charm. He is as close an observer as John Burroughs, and as great an artist as Turner in painting grand effects of sea and sky. There is no elaboration of detail, no exaggeration, in his glimpses of the fens of Devon and the cliffs of Lundy. The writing is alive; the man tells what he has seen; we have the atmospheric effect and the dramatic character. “In one of his pictures of Cornwall,” says Sir Leslie Stephen, “we can tell the time of day and the state of the weather, as if he were a meteorologist.”

The verdict of time has placed Kingsley among the minor poets. Great things were expected of the author of ‘The Saint’s Tragedy.’ ‘Andromeda’—the most successful attempt in the language in the use of hexameter verse—fulfilled these expectations in a measure. But his genius was not equal to a sustained flight. He will be best remembered by those short dramatic lyrics which he sang in measures approaching perfection.

Kingsley’s is a character easy to criticize. He had a feminine side, which in a truly feminine fashion admired force, however exerted; a side which is responsible for that “muscular Christianity” whose paternity he denied. In his rôle of reformer his vehemence and impetuosity stood him in good stead; but impatience like his is the enemy of the grave and noble style. Though not profoundly learned, he had wide and varied information. He came near being a great preacher, for he chose living topics; and he had the gift of clothing in picturesque imagery an abstract truth, first perceived perhaps by a more original mind. He wrote one really great story, ‘Hypatia’; and five brilliant ones: ‘Yeast,’ ‘Alton Locke,’ ‘Hereward the Wake,’ ‘Westward Ho!’ and ‘Two Years Ago.’ His ‘Water-Babies’ is one of the few perfect fairy stories in the language. Even its moralities cannot wither it, nor its educational intention stale its infinite variety. ‘The Tutor’s Story,’ laid aside and lost for many years, was completed by his daughter, Lucas Malet (Mrs. Mary St. Leger Harrison) in 1916. Such an act of filial devotion is beyond criticism, and the novel has a certain interest because it is different from his other work, but it leaves the judgment on his literary achievement unchanged. Kingsley had the lyric quality and the poet’s heart. Had he devoted himself to his favorite pursuit, he would have been a famous naturalist. And from his first published work to his premature death he was a distinct moral force in England.