1902 Encyclopedia > Charles Kingsley

Charles Kingsley
English clergyman and author

CHARLES KINGSLEY (1819-1875), an English clergyman, poet, and novelist, was born on the 12th June 1819, at Holne vicarage, Dartmoor, Devon. His early years were spent at his father's living in the Fen country, and afterwards in North Devon. The scenery of both made a great impression on his mind, and was afterwards described with singular vividness in his writings. He was educated at private schools and at King's College, London, after his father's promotion to the rectory of Cnelsea. In 1838 he entered Magdalene College, Cambridge, where he took his degree in 1842, first-class in classics, and senior optime in mathematics. In the same year he was ordained to the curacy of Eversley in Hampshire, to the rectory of which he was not long afterwards presented, and this was his home for the remaining thirty-three years of his life, although his residence there was much broken by various domestic circumstances as well as, in later years, by promotion to other offices in the church.

In 1844 he married Fanny, daughter of Pascoe Grenfell, and in 1848, when aged twenty-nine, he published his first volume, The Saint's Tragedy. In 1860 he was appointed to the professorship of modern history in the university of Cambridge, which he resigned in 1869, and was soon after appointed to a canonry at Chester. In 1873 this was exchanged for a canonry at Westminster. He died at Eversley, after a short illness, on the 23d January 1875.

It will be seen that his life had but few incidents. With the exception of occasional changes of residence in England, generally for the sake of his wife's health, one or two short holiday trips abroad, a tour in the West Indies, and another in America to visit his eldest son settled there as an engineer, his life was spent in the peaceful, if active, occupations of a clergyman who did his duty earnestly, and of a vigorous and prolific writer. But in spite of this outward peace he was for many years one of the most prominent men of his time, who both personally and by his works had no little influence on the thought of his generation. Though at no time profoundly learned, he was a man of wide and various information, whose interests and sympathies embraced almost all branches of human knowledge as well as speculations on subjects on which men but slowly learn that speculation avails them nothing. Gifted with great powers of language, both written and in conversation, with a keen wit, and a fund of knowledge far above the average, there were few subjects in which he did not shine, and many in which he excelled. The inherited peculiarities of his opinions and temperament, which made him seemingly though not really inconsistent, excited curiosity, and were in part the reason of his great attractiveness. Sprung on the father's side from an old English race of country squires, and on his mother's side from a good West Indian family who had been slaveholders for generations, he had the keen love of sport and the exceeding sympathy with country folk often fostered by such pursuits, while he had at the same time much of the aristocratic scorn for lower races to be found among those who have been in a dominant position among them.

With the sympathetic organization which made him keenly sensible of the wants of the poor, he threw himself heartily into the movement known as Christian Socialism, of which Mr Maurice was the recognized leader, and for many years he was considered as an extreme radical in a profession which holds as a rule but few such. While in this phase of mind he wrote his novels Yeast and Alton Locke, in which, though he pointed out unsparingly the folly of extremes, his sympathies were unmistakably shown to be, not only with the poor as in their strife against the rich, but with much that was done and said by the leaders in the Chartist movement. Yet even then he considered that the true leaders of the people were a peer aud a dean, and there was no real inconsistency in the fact that at a later period he was among the most strenuous defenders of Governor Eyre in the measures adopted by him to put down the Jamaican disturbances. In politics he might therefore have been described as a Tory aristocrat tempered by sympathy, or as a Radical tempered by hereditary scorn of subject races. The like seeming but not real inconsistencies were to be found in his attitude as a clergyman. He was a man of earnest piety, and lived so near in his own mind to the great realities of the unseen world that he could even afford to speak of serious subjects in a way which in one less reverent than he would have seemed to lack reverence; and, while he held in many respects what would be called a liberal theology, the church, its organization, its creed, its dogma, had ever an increasing hold upon him. Although at one period he certainly shrunk from reciting the Athanasian creed in church, he was towards the close of his life found ready to join an association for the defence of this symbol. With these two influences at work in his mind, it was not unnatural that the more orthodox and conservative should gain the upper hand as time went on, but the careful students of him and his writings will find a deep conservatism underlying all the most radical utterances of his earlier years, while a passionate sympathy for the poor, the afflicted, and the weak held possession of him till the last hour of his life.

Both as a writer and in his personal intercourse with men Kingsley was a thoroughly stimulating teacher. He would not probably have wished to found a school, and most certainly never did so. As with his own teacher Mr Maurice, his influence on other men rather consisted in the fact of his inducing them to think for themselves than that he led them to adopt his own views. Perhaps these were at no time quite definite enough to have been reduced to such system as is demanded for one who would make his disciples think as himself. But his healthy and stimulating influence went far beyond the boundaries of his parish, his canonries, and his wide circle of friends, and was largely attributable to the fact that he gave utterance to the thoughts which were stirring in many minds during the time of his own most vigorous life. His originality, which was great, lay rather in his manner of crystallizing the current thoughts of men, and giving them apt expression, than in any new discoveries in the matters of which he treated. Just because he was completely the product and the mouthpiece of his own time, it may be doubted whether his influence on the future will be very great, and it is possible that men who may read his works by chance some years hence will fail to understand how wide was the influence he exercised.

As a preacher he was vivid, eager, and earnest, equally-plainspoken and uncompromising when preaching to a courtly congregation or to his own village poor. One of the very best of his writings is a sermon called The Message of the Church to Working Men; but as a rule his sermons cannot be read with the interest with which they were heard, aud none of his later published sermons equal the little volume of Twenty-five Village Sermons which he preached in the early years of his Eversley life.

As a novelist his chief power lay in his descriptive faculties. Yeast and Alton Locke were written out of the heat of strong conviction, and dealt in a brilliant manner with great social questions, but the later novels seem to have been written rather because he wished to say something than because he had something to say, aud in spite of new and ever new editions it may be doubted whether the real interest felt in these works is considerable. Few persons read them twice, although it is fair to say that this may partially arise from the fact that the story is so vividly told that it is not forgotteii, and therefore needs no second reading. But the descriptions of South American scenery in Westward Ho, of the Egyptian desert in Hypalia, of the North Devon scenery in Two Years Ago, are among the most brilliant pieces of word-painting in English prose writing, and the American scenery is even more vividly and more truthfully described when he had seen it only by the eye of his imagination than in his work At Last, which was written after he had visited the tropics.

As a poet he wrote but little, but that little he wrote with singular facility, and there are passages in the Saint's Tragedy, and many isolated lyrics, which ought to take their place in all future standard collections of English literature. Andromeda is a very successful attempt at naturalizing the hexameter as a form of English verse, and reproduces with great skill the sonorous roll of the Greek original.

In person Charles Kingsley was tall and spare, sinewy rather than powerful, and of a restless excitable temperament. His complexion was swarthy, his hair dark, and his eye bright and piercing. His temper was hot, kept under rigid control, his disposition tender, gentle, and loving as that of a woman, with flashing scorn and indignation against all that was ignoble and impure; he was a good husband, father, and friend.

Kingsley's life has been written by his widow, in two volumes, entitled Charles Kingsley, his Letters and Memories of his Life, and presents a very touching and beautiful picture of her husband, but perhaps hardly does justice to his humour, his wit, his overflowing vitality and boyish fun.

The following is a list of Kingsley's writings:—Saint's Tragedy, a drama, 1848 ; Alton Locke, a novel, 1849 ; Yeast, a novel, 1849 ; Twenty-five Village Sermons, 1849; Phaeton, or Loose Thoughts for Loose Thinkers, 1852; Sermons on National Subjects, 1st series, 1852; Hypatia, a novel, 1853 ; Glaucus, or the Wonders of the Shore, 1854 ; Sermons on National Subjects, 2d series, 1854; Alexandria and her Schools, 1854 ; Westward So ! a novel, 1855 ; Sermons for the Times, 1855 ; The Heroes, Greek fairytales, 1856; Two Years Ago, a novel, 1857 ; Andromeda and other Poems, 1858 ; The Good, News of God, sermons, 1859 ; Miscellanies, 1859 ; Limits of Exact Science applied to History (Inaugural Lectures), 1860 ; Town and Country Sermons, 1861 ; Sermons on the Pentateuch, 1863 ; Water-babies, 1863 ; The Roman and the Teuton, 1864 ; David and other Sermons, 1866 ; Hereward the Wake, a novel, 1866 ; The Ancient Regime (Lectures at the Royal Institution), 1867 ; Water of Life and other Scnnons, 1867 ; The Hermits, 1869 ; Madam How and Lady Why, 1869 ; At Last, 1871 ; Town Geology, 1872 ; Discipline and other Sermons, 1872 ; Prose Idylls, 1873 ; Plays and Puritans, 1873 ; Health and Education, 1874 ; Westminster Sermons, 1874 ; Lectures delivered in America, 1875. He was a large contributor to periodical literature ; many of his essays are included in Prose Idylls and other works in the above list. But no collection has been made of some of his more characteristic writings in the Christian Socialist and Politics for the People, many of them signed by the pseudonym he then assumed, "Parson Lot." (C. K. P.)

The above article was written by C. Kegan Paul, M.A., author of William Godwin.

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