The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 11. Kingsleys lectures and essays
In 1860, Kingsley was appointed regius professor of modern history in the university of Cambridge, an office which he held during nine years. He was as deeply gratified by the circumstances of his appointment as he was afterwards depressed by the responsibilities of a chair to which, from first to last, he never failed to devote the best of his powers. But they were not suited to many sides of the work, and could not be made to suit them. That, with many other things, he quickened, among his hearers, the interest in historical studies is indisputable. The publications connected with his tenure of the professorship are few. Besides the modest inaugural discourse on the human interests of history, printed (1860) under the title The Limits of Exact Science as applied to History, he published, in 1864, a course of lectures entitled The Roman and the Teuton. The subject, always particularly attractive to him, called for a close examination of evidence, in such enquiries, for instance, as that into the character of later imperial administration. The modest disclaimer “I am not here to teach history—no man can do that; but to teach you to teach it” will not prevent the conclusion that, as a historian, he was not equal to his task, and this, not because of inaccuracies, partly disproved, partly shown to be exaggerated, but, chiefly, by reason of his want of insight into historic method. His historical essays published in 1873, of course, lay less open to this objection. In the last of these, Kingsley was found ready to accept without hesitation the authority of Froude; and it was a second review of the same History that drew him into the controversy with Newman, which, inasmuch as it gave rise to Apologia, belongs, rather, to an estimate of the works of that writer. Kingsley’s breakdown in the fray was due to his original blunder of basing on evidence in part unfortunately chosen and in part left vague the statement of a general conclusion on a question not admitting of debate from two totally different points of view. He was by nature neither dogmatical nor obstinate, as, indeed, a candid examination of this controversy will itself suffice to show. His lectures entitled The Ancien Régime, delivered at the Royal Institution in 1867, have been left behind by later research. During the last six years of Kingsley’s life (1869–75), in which, after resigning his Cambridge chair, he successively held canonries at Chester and at Westminster (the latter from 1873), he was more or less relieved from the necessity of work with his pen; but it was never idle. Nothing further, however, need be said here of his sermons, of which there are many volumes, from the Village Sermons of Eversley to those delivered in Westminster abbey: most of them are distinguished not only by an incisive brevity, but, also, by a skilful, as well as courageous, choice of social or ethical topics, and all of them breathe a spirit of generous humanity, as well as of true piety. Among the writings which testify to his love of natural scenery and its associations, the Prose Idylls, varying in theme from the home counties to the fens and the Pyrenees, are, perhaps, the most delightful; and the same appreciative spirit accompanied him across the sea on a three months’ visit in 1869, to the West Indies, recorded in At Last (1871)—a happily chosen title—which tells the story of a life’s longing satisfied. He paid another visit to the new world, in the year before he died; but its literary memorial deals with monuments and lessons of the old. To an earlier year (1863) belongs The Water-Babies, a Fairy Tale for a Land-Baby, written in a happy vein of humorous fancy, while the didactic element introduces itself without insistence, as it should in a story meant for children and not for the grown-up people in the back seats.
Kingsley’s life and literary career reflect and represent a restless age. He belonged to a band of courageous and clearsighted men who, with Maurice at their head, tried to understand their countrymen and to lead them to a better time. Kingsley was gifted, like few of them, with a strong imagination and the power of direct and striking, as well as fervent and sympathetic, expression; and, thus, he, more than any one of his companions, imparted to the most popular literary form of his times that quality of earnestness which associated it indelibly with the great social endeavours of the age.