Critical Evaluation

Charles Kingsley was an Anglican priest who spent his life in an English village. He was also one of the best-known public figures in England from 1850 until his death in 1875. He came to public attention as a writer of political tracts calling for social reform on behalf of the poor. His deep interest in history brought him appointments as chaplain to Queen Victoria, Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, and tutor to the Prince of Wales. These appointments required him to give public lectures and to preach sermons, all of which were published and reached a wide audience. It is as a novelist, however, and as an exponent of so-called muscular Christianity that he is remembered.

Kingsley’s first novels, Yeast (1848, serial; 1851, book) and Alton Locke: Tailor and Poet (1850), were social-problem novels set in contemporary England and addressing the economic and social conditions of the working classes. His interests then shifted to the historical novel and to primarily religious themes. Hypatia: Or, New Foes with an Old Face (1853) is set in the Roman Empire, Westward Ho! (1855) in the sixteenth century, and Hereward the Wake, his last novel, in the eleventh century. This shift represents Kingsley’s withdrawal from his previous democratic sentiment as a Christian socialist. The three historical novels dwell on the themes of muscular Christianity, the hero as servant of God, and the conflict between Germanic and Latin cultures. The two other novels that he wrote during this period, Two Years Ago (1857) and The Water-Babies (1863), also deal with religious themes.

Kingsley preached the virtues of what came to be called muscular Christianity. True Christianity, he argued, emphasizes masculine values rather than feminine ones. It stresses athleticism over the intellect and values aggressiveness, asserting that real men keep a stiff upper lip and march on despite adversity. The muscular Christian is the stuff of which heroes are made. Kingsley believed that the course of history is determined by the actions of a few great men of genius. As a Christian, Kingsley wanted the hero in his novel to be the servant of God and to take the Old Testament figures Joshua and David as his models. In Hereward the Wake the protagonist is a model of the muscular Christian hero. Kingsley draws the young man Hereward as at first little more than a loutish...

(The entire section is 997 words.)