Rev. Charles Kingsley [Obituary]

Transactions of the Devonshire Association, 1875, Vol VII, pp. 52-57.

Prepared by Michael Steer

Church of England parson, novelist, Christian Socialist, Protestant controversialist, "muscular Christian," poet, and amateur naturalist - Charles Kingsley stands importantly at the centre of the Victorian age. He moved onto the public stage in 1848 in response to the working class agitation that climaxed in the Chartist collapse of that year. As a result of his interest in the condition of the working classes, he joined with John Malcolm Ludlow, Frederick Denison Maurice, and others in forming the Christian Socialist movement. Although he published "Workmen of England" anonymously, he adopted the pseudonym "Parson Lot" for an article, "The National Gallery," which he placed in a new journal Politics for the People. He also used this pseudonym for a series called "Letters to the Chartists." The article, from a copy of a rare and much sought-after journal can be downloaded from the Internet Archive. Google has sponsored the digitisation of books from several libraries. These books, on which copyright has expired, are available for free educational and research use, both as individual books and as full collections to aid researchers.

The Rev. CHARLES KINGSLEY, Chaplain in Ordinary to the Queen and to the Prince of Wales, Canon of Westminster, and Rector of Eversley, was the son of the late Rev. C. Kingsley, who, some years after the birth of his distinguished son, became Rector of Chelsea, a fact of which the fruits are seen in the novel, The Hillyars and the Burtons, by Mr. Henry Kingsley. The future canon was, however, born at Holne, on the borders of Dartmoor, in 1819, during a temporary occupation of Holne by his father, in a house which no longer exists, but which stood on the site of the present vicarage. 

A finer or more picturesque site - on the edge of a wooded ravine, with the Dart winding below, and grey tors rising steeply on the farther bank - can hardly be found even in Devonshire. But the earlier years of Charles Kingsley were not spent at Holne, and it was not from the scenery of Dartmoor that he derived his first impressions of natural grandeur and beauty. His father became vicar of Clovelly, on the north coast of Devon, soon after 1819 ; and it was during a boyhood and youth, passed amidst all the influences of the wildest seas and the noblest rock scenery on the English coast, and in close and familiar contact with the fishermen and country folk, whose quaint, old-fashioned character he could so well appreciate, that Charles Kingsley imbibed the passionate love for Devonshire and its scenery, its climate and its people, which constantly breathes out in his novels and essays. Devonshire was not, however, his family county. He was the representative of an ancient family of Cheshire, the Kingsleys of Kingsley, in the forest of Delamere, who were distinguished as long ago as the Parliamentary wars, when different members of their house served, first in the armies of Cromwell, and afterwards under Monk, in the struggle which brought about the restoration of Charles II. It is not a little interesting to note these facts, as in some sort affording a clue to the curiously-mixed character of the late canon - a character which was so eminently English in its respect for antiquity and for authority, and in its contempt for all authority which could not prove its own innate right to existence. Time went by, and in 1833 Charles Kingsley became a pupil of the Rev. Derwent Coleridge, at that time master of the Grammar School at Helston, in Cornwall. He was also for a short time, with his brother Henry, resident with the Rev. Thomas Drosier, vicar of Colebrook, near Crediton (hence the many references to Crediton in Henry Kingsley's stories) ; and an old woman in the parish remembers them as "two of the blessedest boys that ever was." The word is somewhat equivocal; but in this case it was intended to convey the most unqualified admiration. He was afterwards a student at King's College, London, and from thence was removed to Magdalene College, Cambridge. During his university career he was well known as a boating man, and as one of those who first began to take an interest in athletic sports, the pursuit of which, however, does not appear to have interfered prejudicially with his progress in more serious work, seeing that he contrived early to win a scholarship, to carry off more than one of the important prizes, and to come out at last in the First-class of the Classical, and in the Second of the Mathematical, Tripos. 

On first leaving Cambridge, Mr. Kingsley appears to have intended to study for the bar ; but after a considerable time devoted to preparation for that profession, more serious impressions would seem to have been made upon him, and he devoted himself to the service of the Church, becoming curate of Eversley - that rural and picturesque parish in the moor land of Hampshire, and " the pleasantest home," in his own words, "that God ever gave to an undeserving man"- of which, on the presentation of the late Sir John Cope, Bart., he afterwards became rector. There can be little doubt that the influence of the late Professor Maurice had much to do with this change of purpose. When Mr. Kingsley came to be ordained deacon, Mr. Maurice was in the zenith of his intellectual power, and the influence which he always exercised over younger men was perhaps greater than at any subsequent time. The first page of the first work which Mr. Kingsley gave to the world bears remarkable testimony to the influence which the chaplain of Lincoln's Inn exercised over his intellect. He was but in his thirtieth year when he produced his Saint's Tragedy, a dramatic setting of the story of St. Elizabeth of Hungary, which, although it has gone through several editions, has not received the attention it unquestionably merits. Later on in life he published some other volumes of verse, a tragedy, and some lyrics; and though he failed to attain the very highest place, he will always take a high rank amongst poets of the second order, his efforts in that direction evidencing a very high appreciation of the highest forms of poetry. 

Always restlessly eager in philanthropic schemes, he came to the front in 1847 and 1848 as the advocate of the working classes, and unquestionably did much good, though not necessarily always in the best way. Mr. Maurice's schemes of "Christian Socialism" seem to have excited his ardent admiration, and he gave of his best for their advancement The grievous wrongs and sufferings of the journeymen tailors of London at the hands of the class of employers known as "sweaters" attracted his attention, and with characteristic energy he threw himself into the work of securing for them attention and redress. The first of his novels was devoted to this subject In the hands of a writer untouched by the live coal from the altar of genius, such a hero would have excited little interest; but Mr. Kingsley's Alton Locke had a very remarkable success. On all sides the story of the lame tailor's apprentice, with its remarkable episodes of life in the shops of the sweaters, and in the hideous fever-dens in which these slaves of a certain small section of the London tradesmen had their habitation, was received with something approaching to enthusiasm. What was perhaps of more importance was, however, the fact that its author was able to carry out a philanthropic scheme for the amelioration of the condition of these unhappy drudges, the effects of which have even now not ceased to exist. The crusade against the cruel and iniquitous " sweating" system which Mr. Kingsley begun has been wholly successful, and at the present time the working tailors of London are probably as well off in their way as the working-men of any other trade in theirs ; and although Parliament has stepped in to confirm by force of law the reforms which Mr. Kingsley urged, public opinion had under his inspiration practically done the work.

After the publication of his first novel, Mr. Kingsley seems to have glided off into a more purely literary groove than that which he had up to this time occupied. In 1852 he produced Phaethon ; or, Loose Thoughts for Loose Thinkers, perhaps the most appropriately-named of all his works. The following year was marked by the appearance of Hypatia; or, New Foes with an Old Face. It is probable that no novel ever went through a severer ordeal of criticism than this; and it is no small testimony to its genuine merits, that, in spite of its admitted faults, it still maintains its ground with the reading public. The time chosen is one of which very few "general readers" know anything; the subject- the Church of Alexandria in the fourth century—is far from being one of a popular kind; while the theological character of much of the writing is to novel-readers eminently unattractive. And yet the book sells with singular readiness even now ; and there are certainly few readers, especially amongst the young, who content themselves with a first perusal. The studies which had led Mr. Kingsley to the production of this novel resulted also in a volume of lectures, published in 1854, and entitled, Alexandria and her Schools.

The most genuine and spontaneous of Mr. Kingsley's books are doubtless the novels of Westward Ho! published in 1855, and Two Years Ago, published in 1857. By these he will be remembered when Hypatia is forgotten, and when the story of Hereward the Wake, and the lectures on Alexandrian Religion and Philosophy, and the Holy Roman Empire, have long ceased to attract attention. There has seldom been a fresher, more exciting, or more delightful novel than the story of Sir Amyas Leigh; and it is no small testimony to its merits, that boys delight in it more than anything else which its author produced. Two Years Ago was perhaps hardly so successful, but maturer judgments will perhaps be scarcely disposed to maintain that it did not deserve to be. Tom Thurnall, the hero, is an admirably-conceived character; and the mystic maiden who fills the part of heroine is hardly less admirably drawn. In both novels it will possibly be objected that the plot is somewhat feeble and confused; but the fact remains, that their publication has had the effect of doing for Devonshire, and especially for North Devon, pretty much the same thing as was done by Sir Walter Scott for the Highlands. The charm was completed by the publication of the Miscellanies, a collection of essays from Fraser's Magazine, which appeared in 1859, and which have undoubtedly sent thousands of readers "Westward Ho!" in search of the lovely country which Mr. Kingsley has so lovingly and so ably described.

Too much time and space would be consumed were we to remark at length upon all the writings which issued from Mr. Kingsley's prolific pen ; suffice it to mention, that besides the above-mentioned works, he gave forth in 1863 The Water Babies, a satire of no common power, and irradiated with a rare amount of humour ; The Roman and the Teuton, lectures delivered at Cambridge in 1864 ; Hereward, the Last of the English, in 1866; The Hermits, a little book which is in its way a model of style and condensation, in 1867; How and Why in 1869; At Last: a Christmas in the West Indies, one of the most graceful pieces of purely descriptive writing in the English language, in 1871; and various volumes of sermons. He was appointed Professor of Modern History in the University of Cambridge in 1860; and after resigning that post, was made Canon of Chester in 1869, and a few months before his death Canon of Westminster. 

Mr. Kingsley, however, did not concentrate the great powers of his mind on literature exclusively; he was a man of considerable scientific attainments. His love for Natural History and Botany, which he first drank in during his youthful rambles by his father's side among the rocky slopes of Clovelly, led him to prosecute his researches in those and kindred subjects ; and he became a Fellow of the Linnsean, as well as of the Geological, Society. He was elected President of the Devonshire Association in 1871, and the old haunts and familiar places were visited by him with the greatest delight when he presided at the meeting at Bideford, and addressed his audience "with a sigh of relief" at finding "still unabolished the Torridge, and the Hubbastone, and Instow, . . . and the beloved old Braunton marshes and sand hills." He filled the office of a Vice-President in the following year, and in 1874 was elected an Honorary Member of the Association. 

At the close of last year he was seized with a painful and protracted illness, which at last ended as his friends and those about him most feared. In but little more than middle life, he succumbed to pulmonary disease. On Saturday, the 23rd of January, 1875, at noon, he passed quietly away, to the grief of his relatives - to the grief not less of the thousands of readers who have learnt from him to appreciate much that was best in the literature of the day. It certainly is no flattery to say that the late Canon of Westminster was one of those who have left a very distinct impression on the men and books of his time. The occasional eccentricities which disfigured them will speedily be forgotten. The peculiar social theories to which he lent his support will die out, as all such things do die. The blunders of which he was so savagely accused by critics of a certain school will have wrought their own refutation. The net result will be, that his influence has been one of almost unmixed good, and that few men have of late years gone to their rest with greater regret from their fellows, and more genuine regard and esteem from the world at large. He was admirable in the open air. He could tie a fly with the most accomplished of salmon fishers; he had a marvellous eye for the picturesque, a keen sense of humour, and an infinite store of good sense. All that we encounter in his writings is manly, honest, straight forward, couched in strong and nervous English, and wholly free from those lines which, dying, their author "would wish to blot." But he was at no time an extraordinarily profound student, and in recalling his work we are compelled to own that not a little of his erudition seems to have been got up for the occasion. This one fact, however, by no means neutralizes the real genius which illuminates his works, and which has maintained their popularity in spite of criticisms often severe, and sometimes not unmerited.