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

§ 4. Charles Kingsley

The life of Charles Kingsley is outspanned at both ends by that of lord Beaconsfield; it was, in its outward circumstances, as simple and modest as the career of his senior was worldembracing in its notoriety. But, in the writings which have secured to the one and to the other a place in every history of English literature, they dealt, each after his own fashion and in his own spirit, with many of the same social problems of the age of transition which, in this and other European lands, set in with the fourth decade of the nineteenth century. Though, in heart as well as by profession ever since he had grown into manhood, a country parson, and yet, also, an author whose fullfledged imagination felt at home alike in the oases of the eastern desert and amidst the waters of the western main, Kingsley, if any man, was always the same in his life and in his writings, and the latter can never be dissociated from the experiences and conditions of the former. For what was most vital in his books was inspired by the ideas and purposes which determined the essential course of his life, and took immediate shape under the impulses which created them. Kingsley, in the words of one of the most just as well as most affectionate of his critics—Max Muller—always “did his best at the time and for the time.” He disliked being called a muscular Christian; but he would not (at least in his own day) have repudiated the title of a militant apostle. Deliberation was not less foreign to his nature than were afterthoughts; and, though he was not given to inner self-contradictions, even self-consistency he held of small account as compared with the duty of declaring that which was in him. He was, it may confidently be added, wholly devoid of either literary or other personal ambition, properly so called, and was quite conscious of his powers as forming part of himself. But what he had in view was the end. In the same letter in which, when, on the very threshold of his career as a writer, he acknowledged the weight of his wife’s advice that he should write no more novels, and allowed that, as a matter of fact, he had no more to say, he declared that, while God had bestowed on him

  • a certain artistic knack of utterance (nothing but a knack), He had done more; He had made “the Word of the Lord like fire in his bones” giving him no peace till he had spoken out.
  • It is partly because of these characteristics and partly notwithstanding them, that his life and works appear fused together like the bronze in the statues of those Greek heroes—a Perseus or a Theseus—in whom he loved to trace the congenial features of Christian chivalry.

    Charles Kingsley, who described his own talent as “altogether hereditary,” owed many enduring impressions to the scenes and associations of his boyhood, his father’s livings on the edge of the fens and in north Devon, his mother’s West Indian descent, and his schooldays at Helston under Derwent Coleridge. He afterwards entered King’s college, London, of which, in his manhood, through the intervention of Frederick Denison Maurice, he had nearly become a professor. Thence, he passed to Magdalene college, Cambridge, and, after taking a good degree, into the active service of the church, to which, as an undergraduate, he had resolved on devoting his life. He became curate at Eversley on the borders of Windsor forest, and, after a very brief interval, was, in 1844, appointed rector of the parish—an office which became an integral part of his life and which he held till its close.

    Yet, it was not likely that either his care for his parish, or his happy home life, should confine his interests within the circle of the chalk streams and firtrees of his Hampshire home. At an early date, he was led to enquire into the condition of the working masses and into the problems suggested by it, above all to those called upon by their profession to minister to the poor. The writings of Carlyle, which, in this period, were reaching the height of their power, were among the earliest of these influences; but it should be noted that Kingsley strongly deprecated being considered “in any wise in theology as a follower of Carlyle.” In 1844, Kingsley made the acquaintance of Maurice, who soon became “the Master” to him and to a band of fellow-teachers and workers. When the year 1848 drew near, from which, in England, also, much was expected and much feared, Kingsley had come to be frequently in London, and, in this and the following year, he held a professorship of English literature in Queen’s college, Harley street. More or less under Maurice’s guidance, he and the friends with whom he was more especially associated—John Malcolm Ludlow and Thomas Hughes above all—were preparing to play their part in the movement for social reform into whose broader and deeper channel they hoped that the angry chartism of the day might be merged.