Victorian Literature Charles Kingsley
by
Jonathan Conlin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 05 October 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 July 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0109

Introduction

Novelist, Christian Socialist, and Church of England priest, Charles Kingsley’s prolific literary output, sanitary crusades, and “muscular Christianity” seem to epitomize the bustling Victorian man of faith and letters. Kingsley packed a lot of activity into a relatively short life (b. 1819–d. 1875), including a good deal of controversy (most famously with John Henry Newman) and anguished struggles with himself. A strong rather than subtle mind, Kingsley saw intellectual activity as a pendant to physical activity. In practice the latter could overshadow the former at times, notably in his justification of armed conflict and imperial expansion. This conflict and expansion formed part of a racialist, providentialist view of England’s mission to subdue the world. Kingsley’s definition of “English” included Scots and English settlers in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, as well as citizens of the United States, who gave Kingsley a hero’s welcome when he toured their country in 1874. Within a few years of Kingsley’s death the following year, swashbuckling historical novels such as Westward Ho! (1855) merged with that public-school manliness more often associated with Kingsley’s fellow Christian Socialist, Thomas Hughes, author of Tom Brown’s School Days (1857). Such works remained popular among teenage readers until World War II, while Kingsley’s reputation as a thinker on social justice stood surprisingly high among Fabian Socialists. Kingsley’s posthumous influence on British identity has been largely overlooked, however. Kingsley’s historical fiction and his 1860 appointment as Regius Professor of History at Cambridge University have aroused considerable scholarly interest in Kingsley as an “amateur” excluded from the ranks of “professional” historians in the founding era of the historical discipline in Britain. All of Kingsley’s writing is strongly gendered. Although “traditional” in one sense, Kingsley’s enthusiastic embrace of the sexual body within companionate marriage was unusual for the times. With the revival of interest in Kingsley in the 1970s, scholars became fascinated with this aspect of his personal life. Psychobiographical approaches found a rich field for investigation in Kingsley’s evolutionary fairy tale, The Water-Babies (1863). Since the early 1990s there have been moves toward a more balanced view of this polymath, who defies neat categorization as “children’s author,” “historical novelist,” or “popular-science writer.” More recent scholarship has considered his commitment to evolutionary thought as a lens through which to reassess his career. Large areas of his output, notably his poetry, sermons, and quasi-pantheist theology, remain to be explored, however.

Biography

Klaver 2006 is authoritative and detailed, though some readers will be put off by its length. Vance 2004 offers more of a critical biography, though necessarily short. All earlier biographies have serious shortcomings, but Colloms 1975 is fairly balanced and useful, and Kendall 1947 remains a useful intellectual biography, free of the reverence that characterizes earlier biographies, such as Kingsley 1877. Chitty 1974 is significant for featuring reproductions of a series of highly sexualized private drawings Kingsley made for his wife. A revelation at the time, the drawings and the associated correspondence had a deep impact on the work listed here under Christian Manliness and The Water-Babies.

  • Chitty, Susan. The Beast and the Monk: A Life of Charles Kingsley. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1974.

    E-mail Citation »

    Chitty was the first biographer to have access to Kingsley’s correspondence with his wife, and she is primarily interested in Kingsley’s sexuality, interpreting it as the key to his work and achievements. Many quotations are unreferenced, however, and the location of the aforementioned trove of Kingsley letters is not given.

  • Colloms, Brenda. Charles Kingsley: The Lion of Eversley. London: Constable, 1975.

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    Published shortly after Chitty but places less emphasis on Kingsley’s sexuality. A useful, accessible account, which devotes slightly more attention to his poetry than do other studies.

  • Kendall, Guy. Charles Kingsley and His Ideas. London: Hutchinson, 1947.

    E-mail Citation »

    Kendall’s approach is more intellectual than narrowly biographical. He considers Kingsley’s theology and his interest in evolutionary biology carefully. Although his references are incomplete, his analysis of Kingsley’s thought is more developed than that found in Chitty 1974 or Colloms 1975. Republished as recently as 1973 (New York: Haskell House).

  • Kingsley, Frances E., ed. Charles Kingsley: His Letters and Memories of His Life. 2 vols. 5th ed. London: Henry S. King, 1877.

    E-mail Citation »

    A biography interspersed with excerpts from original correspondence. Edited by Frances (Fanny) Kingsley shortly after her beloved husband’s death, there are concerns about accuracy and objectivity. There is no mention, for example, of Charles Kingsley’s brother, the novelist and adventurer Henry Kingsley, doubtless a result of Fanny’s low opinion of him.

  • Klaver, J. M. I. The Apostle of the Flesh: A Critical Life of Charles Kingsley. Brill’s Studies in Intellectual History 140. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2006.

    DOI: 10.1163/9789047409588E-mail Citation »

    The authoritative biography, exhaustively researched and with a clear year-by-year chapter structure. Klaver gives an unflinching account of Kingsley’s sexuality but does not see it as the key to his entire career, all of whose aspects are presented in some detail, along with some interpretation of individual publications. Its length (nearly seven hundred pages) renders it less accessible.

  • Vance, Norman. “Kingsley, Charles (1819–1875).” In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: In Association with the British Academy; From the Earliest Times to the Year 2000. Edited by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

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    A thorough account of the life as well as succinct assessments of the works. Includes an assessment of Kingsley’s critical fortunes and legacy, concluding that Kingsley did many different things but could be diffuse and overly fond of controversy. Available online by subscription.

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