Church of England parson, novelist, Christian Socialist, Protestant controversialist, “muscular Christian,” poet, and amateur naturalist–stands importantly at the center of the Victorian age. Born on July 12, 1819, to Charles Kingsley, Sr., and Mary Lucas Kingsley, he counted among the early formative influences on his life his witnessing of the Bristol Riots in 1831. In 1832 he studied with Derwent Coleridge and in 1837 at King’s College, London; in 1838 he matriculated at Magdalene College, Cambridge. He met Frances (Fanny) Grenfell, with whom he fell almost immediately in love in July 6,1839. In February 1842, Kingsley left Cambridge to read for Holy Orders; in July of that year he became curate of Eversley Church in Hampshire, which he served for the rest of his life. In January 1844, he and Fanny were married; in May he became rector of Eversley Church, and during the summer began corresponding with Frederick Denison Maurice, whose influence permeated every aspect of Kingsley’s professional life and whom he addressed as “my Master.”
Kingsley 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.”
Despite his interest in the problems of urban workers, Kingsley turned for his first novel to the plight of agricultural laborers. During 1848 he addressed their plight when his novel Yeast appeared serially in Fraser’s Magazine. Two other works of note also appeared in this year: The Saint’s Tragedy, Kingsley’s only major effort at writing a tragedy, and “Why Should We Fear the Romish Priests?” Both of these works voice his early anti-Catholicism, which became a major theme of much of his writing and in the 1860s brought on his disastrous clash with John Henry Newman.
In 1850 his sympathies are apparent in articles he wrote for The Christian Socialist, A Journal of Association, as well as in his tract Cheap Clothes and Nasty and his novel Alton Locke, Tailor and Poet, the latter two being denunciations of the sweated tailors’ trade. Kingsley’s debt to Carlyle is clear in this novel through his thinly disguised portrait of Carlyle as the character Sandy Mackaye, a thick-brogued working-class Scottish philosopher. Mackaye, like Carlyle, rejects physical force Chartism and teaches the youthful Alton Locke, as Carlyle had taught Kingsley, to oppose a social order based on competition and laissez-faire policies.
Kingsley’s Christian Socialist sympathies voiced through the pseudonym “Parson Lot” continued to find expression in print at least through 1851. However, in 1852 The Christian Socialist failed, and Kingsley’s interests began to change. In that year, for example, he pilloried the American New England Transcendentalists in Phaeton; or Loose Thoughts for Loose Thinkers, and turned to historical fiction with the serial publication of Hypatia; or New Foes with an Old Face in Fraser’s Magazine. Phaeton satirized Ralph Waldo Emerson as “Professor Windrush,” whose teaching he characterized as “Anythingarianism.”
In Hypatia, issued in two volumes in 1853, Kingsley used as a setting fifth-century Alexandria shortly before its fall and took advantage of the occasion to give fictional expression to his belief in the providential character of history. The novel represents the clash of Christianity with Neo-Platonism as the first crisis in the history of Christianity. In it Kingsley portrays decadent Romans, effete Roman Catholics, sophisticated pagan philosophers, and vital Germanic warriors struggling for mastery as the world around them collapses. Setting his novel in the fifth century allowed Kingsley to attack from a distance nineteenth-century tendencies he believed were rending the fabric of English life. The fifth century was also, not incidentally, the period of the early church Fathers, that group so appealing to John Henry Newman and the other Tractarians. Thus, by critiquing the church of the Fathers, Kingsley also implicitly attacked what he considered destructive high-church tendencies in Victorian England.
Historical subjects remained on Kingsley’s mind. In 1854, for example, he published Alexandria and Her Schools, a work of popular scholarship which drew on materials he had read to prepare for Hypatia. But other issues had his attention as well. He published a volume of sermons, a consideration of public health matters titled Who Causes Pestilence?, and “The Wonders of the Shore” his first article dealing with marine biology. The outbreak of the Crimean War kindled his warrior spirit in Brave Words for Brave Soldiers and Sailors in 1855, and led most notably to his three-volume ferocity titled Westward Ho!
As Hypatia had dealt with the first crisis in the history of Christianity, Westward Ho! puts before its audience a crisis within Christianity itself: the clash between Protestant England and Catholic Spain.
Following the publication of Hypatia, Kingsley’s high-church antagonists, led by Edward Pusey, had charged it with being an immoral book. When the Crimean War broke out and high-churchmen failed to support it with the enthusiasm Kingsley believed it deserved, he accused the Puseyites of siding with the Russian Orthodox Church. He believed they did so because, in the context, it was as close to Catholicism as high-churchmen could come. At about the same time, Kingsley read Hakluyt’s Voyages, first published in 1582, and began discussing with his friend the historian James Anthony Froude the epic adventures of Elizabethan sailors.
Kingsley believed he had located in the adventures of the great sailors of the Elizabethan age an heroic model for his own. Also, and importantly for Kingsley’s career as it neared his clash with Newman, he found in Elizabethan materials the means by which to warn English Protestants of Catholic duplicity following the “Papal Aggression” of 1850. Once more Kingsley found in a bygone age a mirror wherein Victorians could see the issues of their own day reflected, and once more he could attack them from the distance history provided. Kingsley’s presentation of Roman Catholicism in Hypatia and in Westward Ho! very likely provoked John Henry Newman in 1855 to publish his own historical novel Callista.
In 1856, Kingsley turned his interest in heroes and heroism to preparing a volume for children. The Heroes; or, Greek Fairy Tales for My Children is a retelling of ancient tales and indicates his growing interest in writing for children, an interest to which he would return in 1862 with The Water-Babies and in 1868 with Madam How and Lady Why. But in 1857 he returned to the contemporary Victorian scene in Two Years Ago, expressing satisfaction with improvements in the conditions of agricultural life since Yeast and exploring the chastening effects of the Crimean War on his physician hero. In this novel, which features a cholera epidemic, Kingsley also raised the twin issues of sanitation and public health. These issues increasingly occupied his attention. In the subplot he introduced the related issues of race and slavery in the United States. In 1858 he gathered his poetry into the volume published as Andromeda and Other Poems.
The 1860s brought both deserved recognition and the climax of his dispute with John Henry Newman that had been brewing for years. Largely on the strength of his historical fiction Kingsley was appointed Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge in 1860; in 1861 he was appointed tutor to the Prince of Wales. The Water-Babies: A Fairy Tale for a Land-Baby, arguably his most enduring work, appeared serially in Macmillan’s Magazine in 1862 and was published in volume format in 1863.
The Water-Babies touches upon most of Kingsley’s favorite themes: the working conditions of the poor, in this case those of chimney sweeps; education; sanitation and public health; pollution of rivers and streams; and evolutionary theory. In the central character’s spiritual regeneration, Kingsley presents a vision of nature as the tool of divine reality, which Thomas Carlyle and F. D. Maurice had taught him underlies the imperfect human world. Viewing nature as governed by a redemptive spirit allowed Kingsley to remain untroubled by Darwinism.
The year 1864 was noteworthy for the publication of The Roman and the Teuton, a historical study which both recalls his novel Hypatia published eleven years earlier and anticipates Hereward the Wake which began its serial appearance in 1865. All three of these works, presented either as fiction or as history, extol bluff Germanic strength at the expense of effete and treacherous Latin civilization. In fact, if one adds to the list Kingsley’s earlier portrayal of Spaniards in Westward Ho!, one sees his consistent presentation of Rome’s Catholic descendants as treacherous and effeminate and the pagan Germanic people or their English Protestant descendants as honest, trustworthy, and physically strong defenders of truth. For years, therefore, Kingsley had opposed nearly everything Newman and the high-church party at Oxford had advocated. Both Kingsley and Newman had smarted from attacks, Kingsley from the high-church party and Newman from English anti-Catholic Protestants who had distrusted him since before his conversion to Catholicism.
Thus when, in 1864, Kingsley issued an ill-considered broadside in Macmillan’s Magazine, asserting that “truth, for its own sake had never been a virtue with the Roman clergy . . . [and] Father Newman informs us that it need not, and on the whole ought not to be; that cunning is the weapon which Heaven has given to the saints wherewith to withstand the brute male force of the wicked world which marries and is given in marriage,” Newman was offended. An exchange of letters ensued which resulted in Newman’s pamphlet Mr. Kingsley and Dr. Newman: A Correspondence on the Question Whether Dr. Newman Teaches That Truth is No Virtue. Instead of letting the matter drop, Kingsley flailed out in his own pamphlet: “What, Then, Does Dr. Newman Mean?” A Reply to a Pamphlet Lately Published by Dr. Newman. In his pamphlet Kingsley foolishly broadened his charge: not only had Newman made a statement he denied having made and which Kingsley was unable to locate, Newman had also lived a dishonest life. Newman’s response was The Apologia Pro Vita Sua.
In 1865 Kingsley published his final novel serially in Good Words; in 1866 it was published in two volumes as Hereward the Wake, “Last of the English”. Here, in a heavily researched and footnoted novel, he marks the passing of the Anglo-Saxon heroic age as the last Anglo-Saxon holdout against the Normans succumbs to William the Conqueror. Once again Kingsley admires mythic Germanic-English muscularity in sharp contrast with Continental guile.
Although Kingsley contemplated writing other novels, he never did. Instead, he edited Fraser’s Magazine briefly in 1867. In 1869 he resigned his Cambridge professorship, an academic position in which he had never felt comfortable. In 1868 and 1869 he published a series of articles for children; these were collected and issued in 1870 as Madam How and Lady Why: First Lessons in Earth Lore for Children. A tour of the West Indies followed in 1870, producing notes which became At Last: A Christmas in the West Indies in 1871. In 1872 he published Town Geology and became President of the Midland Institute in Birmingham. In the next year he collected a group of prose essays, publishing them as Prose Idylls, New and Old. In 1874 he published Health and Educationand made an exhausting six-month tour of the United States. When he returned to England he was worn out. On January 23, 1875, he died.