Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Critical Introduction by George Saintsbury
Charles Kingsley (18191875)
[Charles Kingsley was born at Holne Vicarage, near Ashburton, in one of the most characteristic districts of the county of which he was afterwards to be the landscape-painter in prose, on 12th June 1819. He took his degree at Cambridge (his College was Magdalene) in 1842 with double honours, became curate of Eversley in Hampshire as soon as he was ordained, succeeded to the living in 1844, and held it till his death there on 23rd January 1875. The only events of his life, except the dates of publication of his books, that need be mentioned are his tenure between 1860 and 1869 of the Professorship of Modern History at Cambridge, his appointment to a Canonry at Chester when he resigned this post, his journey to the West Indies in 1871, and his translation, two years before his death, from Chester to Westminster.
Kingsleys works were somewhat voluminous, considering that his life was both short and busy professionally. He began by being what is called a Christian Socialist, and settled down into Broad Churchmanship. But his Sermons, which at their best are excellent, meddle very little with doctrine, either in the negative or positive way. Professorially, he wrote some historical books on which his fame does not rest. He was much interested in natural history, and one of his earliest books, Glaucus (1854), was the result of this interest, which appeared continuously in his work. And he was an excellent essayist, his contributions to magazines (chiefly to Fraser) being of remarkable excellence in their kind. But his great and durable claim in prose letters (his verse, small in amount, is excellent in quality) is as a writer of prose fiction. In this, beginning with two brilliant attempts in more or less political novel-writing, Alton Locke and Yeast (1849), he afterwards produced Hypatia, which some put at the head of his work (1853); Westward Ho! the general favourite, and one of the strongest and most brightly coloured of historical novels (1855); Two Years Ago (1857, a more unequal production), the delightful fantasy piece of The Water Babies (1863); and Hereward the Wake (1866).]
THE MERITS of Kingsley as a writer, and especially as a writer of fiction, are so vivid, so various, and so unquestionable by any sound and dispassionate criticism, that while cynics may almost wonder at his immediate and lasting popularity with readers, serious judges may feel real surprise at his occasional disrepute with critics. The reasons of this latter, however, are not really very hard to find. He was himself a passionate partisan, and exceedingly heedless as to the when, where, and how of obtruding his partisanship. He had that unlucky foible of inaccuracy in fact which sometimes, though by no means always, attends the faculty of brilliant description and declamation, and which especially characterised his own set or coterie. Although possessed of the keenest sense both of beauty and of humour, he was a little uncritical in expressing himself in both these departments, and sometimes laid himself open in reality, while he did so much oftener in appearance, to the charge of lapses in taste. Although fond of arguing he was not the closest or most guarded of logicians. And lastly, the wonderful force and spontaneity of his eloquence, flowing (like the pool of Bourne, that he describes at the opening of his last novel) a river all at once from the spring, was a little apt to carry him away with it.
This allowance is pretty ample, and will at once explain some critical depreciation of Kingsley, and cover everything that can fairly be said against him. But it must be a singularly hidebound and prejudiced judgment which allows more than his merits can meet and yet leave an ample credit-balance. Those, indeed, who can never admire unless they agree, may have difficulty with Kingsley; but anyone who is subject to this limitation is in truth and in fact incapable of criticism altogether. The point in Kingsley as a partisan, which is a positive literary merit, far transcending any possible defect in his selection of sides, is the marvellous and contagious enthusiasm which he displays, and the atmosphere of passionate nobility which he throws around his own creeds and idols. Nothing of this sort could be created except by an intense sincerity working through literary faculty of the highest kind, and this being so, a true critic, even though he should disagree with the creed, and discredit the idol in toto, ought to bestow unreserved admiration on the advocate.
The literary faculty just mentioned shows itself in ways sufficiently various. Its most obvious achievement is a very unusual combination in descriptive power, both of scenery and action. As a rule the great landscape painters in words, like those in colours, are rather in need of somebody else to put in the figures; and the great depicters of action content themselves with a fair working background. But there are exceptions, and Kingsley is one of the most noteworthy. His pictures, not less true than brilliant, of scenerywhether the scenery of the chalk downs and streams that he knew by constant eyewitness, or that of the tropics, which till the last he got from booksare unsurpassed anywhere. But they are not more vivid or effective than scores of his scenes of mere action, from the poaching affray in Yeast to the death scene of Hereward. No novelist who has written so few books has left anything like the same number of pictures of both kinds permanently engraved in his readers minds. His plots are at least respectable, and his dialogue, though his most unequal point, admirable at its best. But in the fourth element of novel writing, character, he rises once more to the first class. Strongly as his figures are affected by his own crotchets, they are yet almost always alive, while the best of them are much more than merely alive now; they are not likely ever to die.
In mere style he was more brilliant than impeccable. Like all Carlyles pupils he had caught not a few of his masters tricks; and, in Hypatia especially, the habit of arrested sentences, peppered with rows of points, may seriously endanger the equanimity even of a well-disposed reader. So also the extreme beauty of the best parts of The Water Babies is marred by the Rabelaisian imitations; while in Hereward the Wake there is an attempt to set off the antique story by a sort of modern smartness in dialogue which is totally wanting in grace of congruity, and has not much of any other kind. But all these faults may be summed up in the one admission that Kingsleynot even a very good critic of others (whom, as Nemesis would have it, he mainly judged by his agreement or disagreement with their opinions, just as his unfavourable critics now judge him)was a rather bad critic of himself. His creative and descriptive powers, whether in conception or in expression, were of such a high order that only greater certainty of touch was needed to put him with the very first.