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

XI. The Political and Social Novel

§ 10. Two Years Ago

In Two Years Ago (1857), Kingsley once more returned to contemporary life, dealing with such of its moral difficulties and of its material evils as more particularly came under his cognisance. The main teaching of the book may, perhaps, be said to be that the processes of Providence are to be read by him who runs in both the happiness and the unhappiness of which the world around us is full—in the beauty of nature, and in the power granted to human action to set right much of the wrong wrought by human sloth and self-indulgence, and that, consequently, man is called upon for faith and hope and the self-devotion of love, thus receiving the one answer for which pure and honest spirits are, consciously or unconsciously, in search. Had it not been for the force of some of the characterdrawing in this novel, especially for the figure of the hero of the tale, Tom Thurnall, and for the vivid picturesqueness of the writing, both in passages of pure description and in the highly wrought episode of the storm, Two Years Ago would probably not have excited much interest as a story. The main plot, on the whole, is too transparent, and the advent of the cholera has been too fully prepared to tell strongly when it actually breaks out. The Crimean war has no real bearing on the narrative, though Tom’s imprisonment forms the turning-point of his inner life. The by-plot of Marie’s (Cordifiamma’s) love adventures has, as Kingsley confessed, no organic connection with the story; and the introduction, which dates two years after the action itself, throws no new light upon it. Nor are the lesser characters as interesting as is usual with Kingsley. The poet, Elsley Vavasour, who seems to be intended as a contrast to the downright Tom, is a mere caricature of what is most contemptible in a self-conscious and effeminate man of the pen. The moraliser of the argument, major Campbell, is not the less a shadowy figure because Kingsley drew him from life, and because he shares with at least two other characters in the story that passionate love for nature and the study of nature without which, to its author, life was colourless. Claude and Sabina are, as he told his critic George Brimley, only “two dolls” with whom he had been playing, “setting them to say and do all the pretty naïve things anyone else is too respectable to be set about, till I know them as well as I know you.”

Kingsley’s belief that the true task of the age was self-sacrifice in the cause of suffering humanity—not talk but work, albeit not to be brought home to the national conscience without a great deal of talk—and his conviction that sanitary reform and what it implied was the most pressing of its needs, were in harmony with some of the noblest impulses of the era of Florence Nightingale and her contemporaries. But, of the vehemence of his earlier denunciations of existing social evils there is not much to be found in Two Years Ago. He has a kindly eye for helpless guardsmen, and even something more than this for well-meaning high-church curates; and the general note of his social philosophy is optimism. To Christianity, he steadfastly looks as to the crowning grace of all, and, in a corner of his heart, there lurks the belief that, in the crises as well as in the general conduct of life, a gentleman is not a gentleman for nothing.

After Two Years Ago, Kingsley but once returned to the novel; for the project which he entertained of writing a story on the subject of the Pilgrimage of Grace was abandoned by him in 1858, after part of the book had been written. His last completed novel, Hereward the Wake, was not published till 1866, with a dedication to Thomas Wright, to whose researches the author warmly acknowledged his indebtedness. It is one of the least read of his historical romances, and there is no reference to it in his biographical memorial. But it is a work of much vigour and freshness, and hardly inferior to Westward Ho! in the picturesque vividness of its setting; for the homeliness of much of the scenery (the fens are not all sunsets) finds a compensation in the truthfulness of the picture, familiar to Kingsley in his childhood and in his later days. Nor is the characterisation less forcible, to whatever extent the reader may feel further removed from the followers of William and Harold than from the lieges of queen Elizabeth. On the other hand, the earlier of the two novels more successfully unites the personal with the historical interest called forth by it, and less encumbers itself by critical references to its sources. Thus, it comes about that the earlier part of the book, which tells of Hereward’s strange adventures by flood and field as an outlaw before the landing of William, is more attractive than the later, in which the story becomes involved in that of the conquest itself and deals not only with the climax of the hero’s career, the defence of Ely, but, also, with his rather inglorious exit. In Torfrida, the author of Hereward draws a fine and impressive female character such as is wanting in Westward Ho! and the figure of Martin, faithful to her even more than to her wayward hero, is, likewise, admirable. “But as with Napoleon and Josephine, so it was with Hereward and Torfrida.” This analogy, like the less dignified remark that “if tobacco had been known then, Hereward would have smoked all the way” to Crowland, fails to impair the historical veracity of the romance; the danger of a professor of history indulging in imaginative literature lay in a different direction.

The causes of the great popularity of Kingsley’s novels as a whole, and of the attraction which they exercised upon a very large and diversely composed body of readers, are not far to seek. The strength of his imagination could throw its brilliant light both upon material taken from his own age and scenery with which he was familiar, and upon past periods of history known to him only from books, and lands and seas seen by him only with the mind’s eye, while his descriptive power enabled him to reproduce them not so much with abundance of detail as with graphic distinctness of touch. These gifts made his fiction real to all who, like himself, were interested in the world and its inhabitants, in the life of nature with all its secrets and in human life with all its longings. But he wrote, as he made no secret that he wrote, for other ends than that of giving pleasure, or of stimulating sympathy with the things with which he sympathised himself; he also meant, not only in those /??/, as he calls them, which go direct from author to reader, but by the whole current of his stories, to enforce certain ideas and principles, or the meaning of certain spiritual tendencies and movements of which those ideas formed part. In the correspondence with George Brimley to which reference has already been made, he observes that, in the modern novel, if it is to be a picture of actual life—and this was an end which, with his hatred of unreality, he always kept in view—“you must have people talk, as people do in real life, about all manner of irrelevant things,” but you must

  • take care that each man’s speech shall show more of his character, and that the general tone shall be such as never to make the reader forget the main purpose of the book.
  • There could be no better description of the novel with a purpose—the Tendenzroman—which artistically conceals its moral, religious, political, or social aims, and gives pleasure without losing sight of its didactic object. It remains not the less a hybrid, even when the artist’s satisfaction in his work from time to time overpowers the sense of his commission as a teacher. To Kingsley, this commission, as he believed, came from the same authority as that which he obeyed as a minister of religion and which he followed in taking upon himself what he held to be part of his ministerial duty, the task of social reform. All the manifold activities of his life—his work as a parson, professor, writer, poet—he sought to fuse in these works of fiction, together with his memories of “the Berkshire chalkstreams and the Devonshire coast,” and of the town alleys where he “preached his Gospel of godliness and cleanliness, while smoking his pipe with soldiers and navvies.”

    Apart from his novels and his solitary tragedy, Kingsley’s contributions to pure literature were by no means numerous. He wrote a considerable amount of miscellaneous verse—some of it so excellent as to make it intelligible that he should, at times, have thought poetry the branch of composition for which his genius pre-eminently qualified him. Of the larger poems, Andromeda tells the familiar myth, with, perhaps, excessive elaboration, in not unharmonious hexameters—a metre to the English form of which he gave much consideration; the poet would not have been himself had he not made his poem a tribute to the sea and even to the

  • Silvery fish, wreathed shell, and the strange lithe things of the water.
  • His own favourite poem seems to have been St. Maura, which had satisfied Maurice. There are other legends, sages and ballad-romances of slighter pretensions; but the best of all are the quite short ballad-songs, some of them imbedded in his novels, which reveal their depth of feeling in a few words, of which the cadence persistently haunts the ear—such as The Sands of Dee, The Three Fishers and may be one or two more.