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Polemical, fragile: Victorian Britain's parson

14 June 2019

On his bicentenary, Michael Wheeler explains why Charles Kingsley inspired such affection in Victorian Britain


Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby, illustrated by Jessie Willcox Smith in a 1916 edition of The Water Babies

Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby, illustrated by Jessie Willcox Smith in a 1916 edition of The Water Babies

ANGLICANS love labels, and few Anglican clergymen have attracted as many as Charles Kingsley, who was born on 12 June 1819. On top of an array of titles — Mr, Reverend, Canon, Professor — Kingsley was described by others as a Christian Socialist, a Broad Churchman, and a Muscular Christian, and called himself Parson Lot during the Chartists’ heyday. His close friend and colleague the Revd William Harrison, who shared his parish duties at Eversley, Hampshire, in the seven years that preceded Kingsley’s death in 1875, commented on this rage for classification:

“Doubtless there is more or less truth in the assertion that Mr Kingsley was a Broad Churchman. But assuredly in no party sense; and the only time I ever heard him approach to anything like an exact definition of his position, he described himself as ‘an old-fashioned High Churchman.’ It was his pride to belong to the Church of England, ‘as by law established.’ . . . With Puritanism he had little sympathy: with Ritualism none. . . None of the great parties in the Church — it is an important fact — could lay claim to him exclusively.”

ALAMYCharles Kingsley, in 1863

Something similar was said of the man whom Kingsley addressed as “Master”: Frederick Denison Maurice.

Harrison’s comments are quoted by Frances Kingsley in her hagiography of her husband, Charles Kingsley: His letters and memories of his life, published in two volumes in 1876 and later condensed to the single-volume edition to be found in many a secondhand bookshop. Her memories are vivid, offering unique insight into the daily life and work of surely the busiest country clergyman in Victorian England.

Here is Kingsley rushing off in response to a cry of “Fire!” in the village during divine service, dressed in his canonicals. There is Kingsley closeted in the study with a parishioner, surrounded by his books and his fishing tackle, before hurrying up to London to address a meeting on sanitary reform. Frances, known as Fanny, is frank about his nervous breakdowns, which were virtually annual occurrences in the second half of his life, forcing him to break away from a heavy schedule of parish work, writing, preaching, and lobbying, to paddle in rock pools in the West Country, and, like so many of his brethren, do some serious “botanizing”.


SIR David Attenborough has succeeded in drawing the world’s attention to the urgent matter of plastics polluting the oceans by combining his trusted voice with visual evidence provided by underwater camera crews. Kingsley also adopted a high moral tone in his writing on nature, but one grounded in natural theology that celebrated God’s creation.

Here is a characteristic passage from Glaucus; or, The Wonders of the Shore, in which he describes the “perfect naturalist” as “one who should combine in himself the very essence of true chivalry: namely, self-devotion, whose moral character, like the true knight of old, must be gentle and courteous, brave and enterprising, and withal patient and undaunted in investigation, knowing (as Lord Bacon would have put it) that the kingdom of nature, like the kingdom of heaven, must be taken by violence, and that only to those who knock earnestly and long, does the Great Mother open the doors of her sanctuary . . . always reverent, yet never superstitious, wondering at the commonest, yet not surprised by the most strange; free from the idols of size and sensuous loveliness . . . holding every phenomenon worth the noting down; believing that every pebble holds a treasure, every bud a revelation; making it a point of conscience to pass over nothing through laziness or hastiness, lest the vision offered and despised should be withdrawn, and looking at every object as if he were never to behold it more.”

The combination of chivalric nobility, an alert attention, and a willingness to work, places Kingsley firmly in the era of Philip Gosse, the Attenborough of Victorian popular science. Unlike Gosse, however, Kingsley took Darwin’s discoveries in The Origin of the Species in his stride.


LIKE all the great Victorians, Kingsley was an energetic letter-writer. What sets him apart, however, is his readiness to reply, often at length, to the often naïve questions concerning the Christian faith which poured into the rectory. Much can be learned from a correspondent’s hand: Newman had a light touch with his quill pen (iron being too heavy in his hand), whereas Gladstone’s words were strongly formed.

Kingsley’s pen must have moved quickly across the page, and he frequently underlined words for emphasis, applying heavy pressure to the underlining when roused. Detractors would say that in his more polemical writing, such as the angry “social-problem” tracts, or the anti-Catholic diatribes in Westward Ho!, it is as if every other word were underlined.

Supporters could counter by saying that his directness and his forthright defence of what he regarded as the truth were keys to his success as a writer for adults and children alike; and, indeed, to his being taken up by Queen Victoria, who loved the short, colloquial sermons of the kind that Bishop Sumner of Winchester criticised. Victoria’s patronage provided Kingsley with much greater reach, through successive appointments to a royal chaplaincy, a chair at Cambridge, and a canonry at Chester.

Susan Chitty caused a sensation in her centenary biography of Kingsley, The Beast and the Monk (1974), in which she not only quoted extracts from the long-lost love-letters that he wrote to Fanny during their engagement, but also reprinted examples of the drawings that he sent her. These drawings offer access to Kingsley’s unconscious, revealing the sexual fantasies of a frustrated and highly sexed young man who idealised his lover and thought of heaven as a place of endless copulation.

When confronted with images of Charles and Fanny wrapped in each other’s arms and lashed to a cross which floats on the sea, one recalls G. K. Chesterton’s comment on the publication of love letters exchanged between Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett: “Our wisdom, whether expressed in private or public, belongs to the world, but our folly belongs to those we love.”

Yet in our post-Freudian world, Chitty can say much more about Kingsley’s stutter, his breakdowns, and the springs of his manic depression than Fanny — herself no prude — could in the 1870s.


A THIRD female writer has also offered us a portrait of Kingsley, in a fictionalised form. In Robert Elsmere (1888), Mary Ward suggests parallels between the development of her eponymous hero and that of 19th-century culture. Elsmere moves from the Wordsworthian hills of Westmoreland, home to his beloved Catherine, to Murewell rectory, in Surrey, where he works as a Kingsleyesque Muscular Christian.

Like Fanny, Catherine Elsmere sees her husband preparing himself for his country living, “reading up the history, geology, and botany of the Weald and its neighbourhood, plunging into reports of agricultural commissions, or spending his quick brain on village sanitation”. Unlike Kingsley, however, Elsmere suffers a crisis of faith in the light of the higher criticism of the Bible, and ends up teaching in the spirit of Arnold and Clough in a London settlement.

Kingsley mattered to Mary Ward because he was a representative — almost archetypal — mid-Victorian. He was also a unique talent: he was the author of several volumes of poetry and sermons, reformist novels such as Alton Lock and Yeast, children’s classics such as The Water-Babies, religious fiction (Hypatia), and historical novels (Hereward the Wake).

It is unfortunate that he is most often remembered for his crushing defeat by Newman in the exchange of pamphlets which resulted in the future Cardinal’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua; for much is to be learned today, in our sceptical age, from his earnest life and writings.

True, Kingsley was over-promoted when he became Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, much to the amusement of the dons, but at least he had the good grace to admit his shortcomings, as he did when smothered by the dust of combat in his argument with Newman.

And, although the dons sniggered, the undergraduates loved him, as did the agricultural workers who listened avidly to his sermons at Eversley. Always open, engaged, and authentic, he preached the faith and lived by good works. He was the parish’s and the nation’s parson.


Dr Michael Wheeler is a Visiting Professor at the University of Southampton and Chairman of Gladstone’s Library. Among his books are English Fiction of the Victorian Period; Heaven, Hell and the Victorians (Cambridge University Press); and The Old Enemies: Catholic and Protestant in Nineteenth-Century English Culture (Cambridge University Press).

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