»  The New Criterion

September 2006

  Divine Love, Divine Order

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My mother, when vexed by some family misfortune, was wont to console herself by murmuring: "Men must work, and women must weep, and the sooner it's over, the sooner to sleep." It never occurred to me, until I was fully grown, to seek out the original of those words. They come from a poem, "The Three Fishers," by a Victorian country parson, Charles Kingsley. The poet had spent his late childhood in the little fishing hamlet of Clovelly in North Devon, where his father, also a country parson, was rector of the church. Fishing was perilous work, and it was not unusual for men of the village to be lost at sea.

In the poem, three fishermen go sailing "away to the West," but are drowned in a storm. The last stanza reads:

Three corpses lay out on the shining sands
    In the morning gleam as the tide went down,
And the women are weeping and wringing their hands
    For those who will never come home to the town;
    For men must work, and women must weep,
    And the sooner it's over, the sooner to sleep;
        And good-bye to the bar and its moaning.

A few other lines of Kingsley's verse also survive, I think, at some very low level in our literary culture: "Be good, sweet maid, and let who will be clever"; "When all the world is young, lad"; "Across the sands of Dee." The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations also credits Kingsley with "More ways of killing a cat than choking her with cream," though that looks like a folk saying to my suspicious eye.

Kingsley's poems still showed up in British anthologies well into the later 20th century. Michael Turner's indispensable 1967 anthology of melodramatic verse, Parlour Poetry: A Hundred and One Improving Gems, has one, and Kingsley Amis, perhaps in a spirit of onomastic solidarity, included four in The Faber Popular Reciter (1978). Kingsley must have been known in the U.S.A. too: Hazel Felleman's 1936 anthology Best Loved Poems of the American People has a Kingsley poem, and Mary McCarthy mentions one of Kingsley's books en passant in Birds of America.

In fact Kingsley went on a lecture tour of the U.S.A., as famous British writers did, and still do. He sailed to New York at the end of January 1874, aged 54, and returned to Britain at the end of July. During his visit he met Longfellow, Whittier, and Twain, dined with President Grant at the White House, and was introduced to Charles Sumner just an hour before the latter's fatal heart attack in the Senate chamber. The letters Kingsley wrote home to his wife gratefully acknowledged the kindnesses he received from Americans, but he seems otherwise not to have liked the country much. New England in early March was "hideous, doleful barren." The Midwest was "a flat, dreary, aguish, brutalizing land." By June he was finding American food "more & more disgusting," and in his last letter home he declared that the trip "has taught me many things — especially, to thank God that I am an Englishman, & not an — well, it is not the fault of the dear generous people, but of their ancestors & ours."

It was not only, nor even mainly, as a poet that Kingsley was celebrated in his own time. He was also the author of seven novels, a play, two books popularizing science, and eight other books of essays, sermons, travelogue, and popular history. One of the novels, The Water Babies, was numbered among children's classics well into the 1950s; I knew the name of Kingsley from it long before I looked up my mother's favorite couplet. The verses beginning "When all the world is young, lad," first appeared in The Water-Babies. That is also the book Mary McCarthy knew, and references to Kingsley by twentieth-century writers usually carried the epithet "author of The Water-Babies."

Another of Kingsley's novels, Westward Ho!, has the remarkable distinction of having a town named after it (causing that town to have the equally remarkable distinction of being the only place in the British Isles with an exclamation mark in its name), thanks to a group of speculators in the Victorian leisure industry, who built a cluster of lodging-houses on the Devon coast near the novel's opening locale.

Is Kingsley entirely forgotten now? My sister recently retired after a long career teaching elementary school in England. I telephoned her to ask if The Water-Babies is still anywhere at all in the canon of children's literature. She: "If Disney didn't make a movie of it, no child has heard of it." Oh dear. It follows, I think, that if a person under the age of sixty has heard of Kingsley nowadays, it is probably from reading A.N. Wilson's The Victorians, which gives Kingsley an entire chapter.

Wilson's instinct was right: Charles Kingsley, though not a major figure in any of the fields he entered, is worth a little of our attention for the light he sheds on his age, the near ancestor of our own age.

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Kingsley was quite precisely a Victorian, born in June 1819 just nineteen days after the Queen herself, the oldest of seven children in a comfortable clerical family. He was Victorian in every other way, too: earnest, superhumanly energetic, passionately engaged with every social, religious, and scientific controversy of his time, sure (as we have already seen) of the invincible superiority of the English over every other people, and slightly weird. Kingsley is in fact one of those characters who, when you read him and read about him, leave you wondering whether perhaps the Victorian English were actually a race of space aliens.

The weirdness showed up in 1949, when Una Pope-Hennessy, in her biography of Kingsley, reproduced two of the drawings he made to illustrate his play, The Saint's Tragedy, which concerns the thirteenth-century St. Elizabeth of Hungary. The drawings reveal a peculiar blend of religious and sado-erotic passion. Susan Chitty's 1974 biography went further, reproducing eight of the drawings. One shows the murder of Elizabeth's mother, Gertrude of Morania, by Hungarian noblemen: the naked Gertrude is having a flaming brand applied to her genitals by one attacker while another rips open her belly with a knife.

Chitty's book came out at the high summer of the sexual revolution, and excited widespread interest. The Water-Babies was still well known, and wits in the competition columns of literary magazines had much sport sexing up well-known passages from the book:

When every breast is firm, lad,
And all the girls are keen;
And all their thighs are warm, lad,
    Etc., etc.

These tendencies of Kingsley's may also have influenced the choice of subject matter for his third novel, Hypatia. The heroine of this book is the fifth-century neoplatonist philosopher of Alexandria, whose gruesome death in 415 at the hands of a Christian mob offered Gibbon an excuse for one of his swipes at religion:

On a fatal day, in the holy season of Lent, Hypatia was torn from her chariot, stripped naked, dragged to the church, and unhumanly butchered by the hands of Peter the reader and a troop of savage and merciless fanatics: her flesh was scraped from her bones with sharp oyster-shells, and her quivering limbs were delivered to the flames.

The book was considered off-color by Kingsley's clerical contemporaries, not so much on account of those quivering limbs — his account of Hypatia's death is quite restrained — but because, in his zeal for historical accuracy, Kingsley has Hypatia say just the kinds of scornful things about Christianity that Hellenized pagan intellectuals of the fifth century did say. The book was popular, none the less. It inspired a fine melodramatic painting by Charles William Mitchell, showing the naked (and, to my eye, curiously androgynous) Hypatia at the church altar the moment before her death.

More consequentially for Kingsley, Queen Victoria liked Hypatia the best of all his five novels up to that point. He thus entered decisively into the royal favor. Two novels later he preached a Palm Sunday service at Buckingham Palace; the following year he became tutor to the Prince of Wales, the future (though, alas, ineducable) King Edward VII.

On the other side of the sexual balance, Kingsley was one of the most uxorious men that ever lived. He first saw Fanny Grenfell on July 6, 1839, when he was twenty and she seven years older. Ms. Chitty, working from portraits, describes Fanny as "a well upholstered young woman with a creamy skin, glossy brown hair, and fine eyes." It was love at first sight for both of them, the beginning of a remarkable union of souls, minds, and bodies, and they both cherished the memory of that first meeting. (Responding to a questionnaire in 1870, Kingsley answered "Favorite reminiscence?" with "July, 1839.") They married in January, 1844, after some struggles with Fanny's family, who were much better placed in society than the Kingsleys. A few months later Kingsley was appointed rector of the church in Eversley, Hampshire, where he had previously done a stint as a curate. Both the ministry and the marriage thrived in glorious health for three decades, until Kingsley's death in 1875. The Kingsleys had four children, the last born in the fifteenth year of their marriage. Fanny survived her husband by sixteen years, and wrote a fine, though naturally restrained, biography of him: Letters and Memories.

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The following passage occurs early on in Fanny's book:

The Oxford Tracts had lately appeared, and, while discussing them from the merely human and not the religious standpoint, he fiercely denounced the ascetic view of the most sacred ties which he foresaw would result from them: his keen eye detecting in them principles which, as he expressed years afterwards in his preface to Hypatia, must, if once adopted, "sap the very foundation of the two divine roots of the Church, the ideas of family and national life."

Kingsley came of age at the time of the Oxford Movement of the 1830s. This was an effort by a small group of Anglican intellectuals, centered on Oxford University, to revivify the Church of England by demonstrating that its teachings and practices, properly understood, were more consistent with the true Christianity of the Apostles than were those of the Roman Catholic Church. Some of the Tractarians (as these intellectuals were called) found that their inquiries and debates led them in a direction opposite to the one originally intended — to Rome, in fact. The most famous such case was John Henry Newman, who entered the Catholic Church in 1845, and in 1879 was made a Cardinal by Pope Leo XIII.

Fanny's remarks, quoted above, nicely encapsulate all of her husband's relations with the Anglican and Catholic churches. "God is love" was indeed the keynote of his faith, and the "merely human and not the religious standpoint" was indeed his position. Though intelligent, and possessed of a well-stocked mind, Kingsley was not really an intellectual, certainly not a religious intellectual. Neither his schoolmasters nor his Cambridge tutors had a high opinion of his mind.

From that strong attachment to "the ideas of family and national life" came his antipathy to the Roman Catholic Church. Family life, in Kingsley's mind, was centered around the sexual love between husband and wife, of which the Roman church's priestly celibacy was a denial. National life was embodied in the national church, the Church of England, which, wrote Kingsley, "is wonderfully and mysteriously fitted for the souls of a free Norse-Saxon race." The internationalism of the Catholic church was, he believed, ill-suited to the English. Love of one's wife; love of one's country; Kingsley felt both very intensely, and believed with all his heart that both were manifestations of the divine love.

Kingsley's dislike of the Roman Church is most openly on display in his fine adventure novel Westward Ho! I greatly enjoyed this book as a youngster, when it too was part of the English children's classics canon, and I am sorry to say I swallowed the anti-Catholic rants uncritically. One of the most vivid scenes — it has lodged itself very securely in my memory — is the one where the bold English sea-dogs (this is the 1580s, just before the Armada) have taken a Spanish galleon, and hold as prisoners a bishop and two friars. A plot twist reveals that the bishop and one of the friars were instrumental in putting an English man and woman to the Inquisition's torture, and burning them. The two clerics are promptly hanged, to the author's obvious relish.

All of this — Kingsley's intellectual weakness, and his antipathy to the Roman church — led him into controversy in 1864 when, in a review of his brother-in-law James Froude's History of England, he made the offhand remark that: "Truth for its own sake has never been a virtue of the Roman clergy. 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 the saints wherewith to withstand the brute male force of the wicked world which marries and is given in marriage."

The reference was to a sermon the aforementioned John Henry Newman had published some years previously, in which Newman had argued that the brutishly physical part of humanity were so little capable of understanding the humility, innocence, and forbearance of the Church that they took them for hypocrisy and deception. An unkind person might say that Kingsley's misapprehension of Newman's point rather makes that point. Be that as it may, Newman took umbrage, and there was an unsightly clerical spat, the outcome of which was Newman's Apologia pro vita sua, widely considered to be the finest spiritual autobiography of the nineteenth century.

The controversy smoldered on long after both Newman and Kingsley had had enough of it — indeed, long after both were dead. Ms. Chitty notes a book titled Apologia pro Charles Kingsley, published in 1969 by a Kingsley partisan. A.N. Wilson compares Newman's Apologia with Kingsley's The Water-Babies, to the advantage of the latter: "The journey of little Tom the sweep [protagonist of The Water-Babies] to his watery paradise engages mind as well as heart rather more than the crotchety Oxford don's — Newman's — journey from the Oriel [i.e. Oxford college] Common Room to the Birmingham Oratory." Most people, however — including Kingsley himself (according to Fanny) — saw that Kingsley had taken on an intellect much superior to his own.

Even in such an elevated intellectual dispute, it is hard to avoid the impression that Kingsley had quivering limbs on his mind. His intensely heterosexual nature caused in him a powerful aversion to anything he regarded as unmanly in men. In a letter written in 1852 he remarked that: "In [Newman] and all that school there is an element of foppery — even in dress and manner; a fastidious, maundering, die-away effeminacy, which is mistaken for purity and refinement; and I confess myself unable to cope with it." Perhaps it is not out of context here to note that Satan, appearing as a serpent in The Saint's Tragedy, "lisped the name of Jesus." (My italics.)

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Those who fancy me a "sentimentalist" and a "fanatic" little know how thoroughly my own bent is for physical science; how I have been trained in it from earliest boyhood; how I am happier now in classifying a new polyope, or solving a geognostic problem of strata … than in writing all the novels in the world … [I] do believe more and more utterly, that the peculiar doctrines of Christianity (as they are in the Bible, not as some preachers represent them from the pulpit), coincide with the loftiest and severest science.

Thus Kingsley, writing to an acquaintance in 1850. Kingsley's scientific passions were for biology and geology. He was especially fascinated by aquatic life, and wrote a pop-science book, Glaucus, or the Wonders of the Shore, dealing with the creatures that live in rock-pools and seawater shallows.

This was all part of the temper of the age. Perhaps there never was such a nation of amateur botanists and zoologists as the early Victorian English. Anyone who has browsed much in the antiquarian bookstores of England has had the experience of picking up a dusty Victorian volume and seeing it fall open to a page in which is pressed some dried flower or leaf.

The most sensational product of all this naturalizing was of course Darwin's On the Origin of Species, published in 1859. Historians of science always make much of the fact that ideas about the evolution of living creatures had been "in the air" for decades. Not sufficiently noted is the wide general interest in these topics among lay people. Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology, which struck a mortal blow at Biblical literalism about the creation of the Earth, had appeared in 1830-33. Robert Chambers's Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation came out in 1844, the year of Kingsley's marriage and appointment to the Eversley living. Vestiges became a best-seller, read by everyone from Queen Victoria on down.

Five years later, Charles Kingsley published his novel Alton Locke. The hero, a poet revolutionary, as a result of some explorations among the poorest of London, suffers a bout of brain fever, in which he has a most peculiar dream:

I was at the lowest point of created life; a madrepore rooted to the rock, fathoms below the tide-mark … I was a soft crab, under a stone on the sea-shore … I was an ostrich, flying madly before the simoon wind … I was a mylodon among South American forests … When I awoke again, I was a baby-ape in Bornean forests, perched among fragrant trailers and fantastic orchis flowers …

It is not very surprising that Kingsley readily embraced Darwinism, as he already had embraced Lyell's conclusions about the age of the earth. As well as putting him at odds with the majority of clergymen, this lost Kingsley a friend: the naturalist Philip Gosse (father of Edmund), who responded to On the Origin of Species with a book of his own justifying Biblical creationism. Kingsley could barely contain his scorn, writing Gosse to say that he could not give up "the painful and slow conclusion of five and twenty years' study of geology, and believe that God had written on the rocks one enormous and superfluous lie."

Three years later came The Water-Babies, in which Kingsley seasoned his lifelong interest in aquatic life with a dash of Darwinism and a mighty quantity of heavy-handed moralizing to produce a book that remained a children's classic for 100 years.

I had better confess at this point that I never liked The Water-Babies, and, though I know I read the thing in childhood, have preserved no recollection of it beyond the first two chapters.

In very brief: Tom is a little boy employed by the cruel chimney-sweep Mr. Grimes, who makes him climb up inside chimneys to clean them. (A common practice up to the 1860s.) Coming down the wrong chimney of a large house, Tom finds himself in the bedroom of a beautiful little girl, who wakes and gives the alarm. Tom runs away, and after a long chase, falls into a river and is turned into a water-baby. He then travels down the river to the sea, learning various moral lessons along the way, and making the acquaintance of different kinds of aquatic life-forms.

The book ends with Tom, filled now with moral force, rescuing Mr. Grimes from a Dante-esque punishment. Tom is then re-acquainted with the beautiful little girl, whose name is Ellie, and grows up to embody heroic materialism:

Tom went home with Ellie on Sundays, and sometimes on week-days, too; and he is now a great man of science, and can plan railroads, and steam-engines, and electric telegraphs, and rifled guns, and so forth; and knows everything about everything … And all this from what he learnt when he was a water-baby, underneath the sea.

The full text of The Water-Babies — it is on Gutenberg.org — is, I think, rarely published, and even more rarely read. My own childhood version, illustrated by Mabel Lucie Attwell, is about half the length of the full version, though yet broken into twice as many chapters. I recall thinking it insufferably preachy; but I see, looking at the full version, that the publishers of my version had in fact tried to cut out as much of the moralizing as they could.

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Kingsley is tagged in all brief biographies as a "Christian Socialist," but this gives a misleading impression to the modern mind. Certainly he was a reformer, and in sympathy with the radical Chartist movement of 1837-48; Alton Locke was a Chartist novel, the only one of any distinction. Kingsley's ideal, however — shared, as A.N. Wilson points out, by many of the Chartists — was the old Tory ideal of ordered liberty. What he objected to in the society around him was the dirt, ignorance, impiety, and indignity in which the lower classes dwelt. He evinces no desire, in anything of his that I have read, to cast down the mighty from their thrones and lift up the lowly. He was happy that the lowly should remain lowly; but he wanted them cleaner, better housed, better instructed, and better treated.

In 1851 he wrote: "[W]hen you put workmen into human dwellings, and give them a Christian education, so far from wishing discontentedly to rise out of their class, or to level others to it, exactly the opposite takes place. They become sensible of the dignity of work, and they begin to see their labor as a true calling in God's church …" Here we are at no distance at all from the sentiment of a contemporary (1848) hymn:

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
He made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.

(Though these lines are omitted from the hymn in most modern hymnals.)

Even these mild sentiments were too much for the clerical establishment. Later in that same year, 1851, Kingsley was invited to preach a sermon to a congregation of working men at a London church. The church incumbent, who listened from the reading desk, was not pleased by the sermon, and rose to say so just as Kingsley was about to give the blessing. "It was a painful scene, which narrowly escaped ending in a riot," wrote Kingsley's friend John Martineau. Kingsley came home weary and depressed. It was during that night that he wrote "The Three Fishers." Three years later, Fanny could still note that: "[A]t this time, and for some years to come, the clergy of all parties in the Church stood aloof from him as a suspected person."

The general opinion is that Kingsley dropped his radical ideas when the royal countenance first shed its light on him in 1859. This is not entirely fair: he wrote an angry letter to The Times against the Manchester mill owners at the time of the Lancashire Cotton Famine of 1861-3. It should also be noted that public reaction to The Water-Babies was instrumental in the passing of the 1864 Act for the Regulation of Chimney Sweepers, which imposed a penalty of £10 on any sweep sending a child up a chimney. Kingsley did, though lapse into a more conventional kind of Toryism in later middle age, as many of us do, with or without the benefit of royal favor.

It goes without saying that Kingsley's racial attitudes would altogether exclude him from polite society in our own time. He was a great champion of empire-builder James Brooke, the "White Rajah" of Borneo, and pointedly dedicated Westward Ho! to him when Brooke was under investigation for having massacred some native Dyaks. In a letter to his friend John Malcolm Ludlow, Kingsley justified this support in quite blood-curdling terms: "The truest benevolence is occasional severity … One tribe exterminated, if need be, to save a continent. 'Sacrifice of human life'? Prove that it is human life. It is beast-life. These Dyaks have put on the image of the beast, and they must take the consequence …" Etc., etc.

He responded in similar style to the case of Edward John Eyre, Governor of Jamaica, who in 1865 put to death six hundred black Jamaicans in reprisal for a riot in which twenty Europeans had perished. Eyre was reprimanded for "unnecessary vigour." In London, a committee of humanitarians was then formed to demand that Eyre be tried for murder. Two months later, a counter-committee was formed in Eyre's defense. The affair caused much fuss and sundered many friendships, including two of Kingsley's. The aforementioned Ludlow was with the humanitarians, as was Thomas Hughes, author of Tom Brown's Schooldays, and a friend of Kingsley's since 1848. Kingsley, who thought blacks an inferior race, and had supported the South in the American Civil War, favored Eyre (who was disgraced at last, but not hanged).

As is often the case, Kingsley's contempt for the colored races was more theoretical than personal. Less than a year before joining the Governor Eyre Defence Committee (whose motto was: "Down with nigger philanthropists!" and which included Carlyle, Tennyson, and Ruskin) he and Fanny had entertained Queen Emma of Hawaii, widow of King Kamehameha IV, at the Eversley rectory. Though Polynesian, and only three-quarters Polynesian at that, Emma was black by contemporary English standards. Apparently the Kingsleys' instinctive monarchism over-rode their racial prejudices, and a thoroughly good time was had by all. In a letter to her sisters, Fanny rhapsodized over her royal guest, though not without a frisson of anthropophagephobia ("a Queen civilized and yet of savage, even cannibal, ancestry …")

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Eversley church and rectory are reached by a small side road leading off the A327 south out of Reading, just after crossing the border from Berkshire into Hampshire. (Jane Austen's house at Chawton is seventeen miles to the south.) The countryside around is quite unspoiled. The first thing you notice about the church is a huge Sequoia tree on the grounds in front. Kingsley had collected a sequoia cone on his 1874 American tour. After his death the following year, his elder daughter Rose planted a seed from the cone.

Visiting Eversley in 2005, I was unable to gain access to the rectory, but spent a happy hour pottering about the church. Some fragments of the structure are medieval (there has been a church on the site since Saxon times), but most dates from a rebuilding in 1724. There is a fine brass memorial plaque to Kingsley in the north aisle.

The adjoining church hall has one wall given over to a montage of the rector's life, with pretty water-color sketches of him in his various personae: "Christian Socialist," "Natural Historian," "Storyteller and Writer," and so on. A small cabinet nearby has some relics: a complete set of Kingsley's books, a drawer from his geological kit, the dish from which his vegetables were served, his tobacco jar. ("Given by Rose K. for the use of later rectors." I have forgotten to mention that Kingsley was a great smoker. He favored a workman's clay pipe, and is said to have kept several such hidden, ready-filled, around the parish, so that he need never be far from a smoke. The paean of praise to tobacco in Chapter Seven of Westward Ho! — it runs to two full pages — used to be well-known, though I suppose it is considered disgracefully improper nowadays.)

That is as much as remains, outside the rectory at least, of this passionate, civilized, and useful man. We should not hope for a Kingsley revival. His writings are too much of their time. Unless Disney comes to the rescue, even The Water-Babies, of all his books the one that lasted longest, will soon have vanished from our collective consciousness. Still, with the biological sciences edging their way to the fronts of our minds once again, and the strange new technologies that will flow from them being hotly discussed, it may be that Kingsley's intimate acquaintance with the natural world, and his understanding of it as an expression of divine love and divine order, may yet have something to say to us.