Critical Evaluation

Charles Kingsley, the son of a clergyman of the Church of England, studied at Cambridge University and was the parish priest for the Anglican parish in Eversley, Hampshire, from 1842 until his death. Interested especially in historical subjects, his wide reading brought him the appointment of Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University. He was known as a Christian Socialist because of his pamphlets in support of improving the social and economic life of the working classes. He also wrote poetry and novels.

Kingsley was perhaps best known for espousing what came to be called Muscular Christianity. He believed that Christianity involved the warfare of the forces of good against the forces of evil and held up as role models figures such as Joshua and David from the Old Testament and Alfred the Great and Sir Philip Sidney from English history. He believed that the proper Christian life was one of action rather than of contemplation, of physical exertion rather than of mental exertion, of moral certitude rather than of ambiguity, and of bluster rather than of meekness.

Kingsley wrote three other novels before Westward Ho! Two of them, Yeast (1848) and Alton Locke (1850), were problem novels that dealt with the political and social conditions of the Victorian working classes; the third, Hypatia (1853), was a historical romance set in the fifth century, which attacked indirectly the spread of rationalism and Catholicism in the nineteenth century. Alton Locke was moderately successful, with sales stimulated by the book’s reputation for socialism. The other two did not sell well. Always short of money, Kingsley wanted a story that would both be a good vehicle for his ideas and bring in some income. In February, 1854, just as Britain became involved in the Crimean War, a conflict to prevent Russian expansion in the eastern Mediterranean, he began thinking of a historical romance set during the days of the Elizabethan sea dogs. Kingsley paused to write a patriotic pamphlet, Brave Words for Brave Soldiers, which exhorted the British to believe that they were God’s army fighting for God’s cause, and then returned to his novel.

Westward Ho! reflects Kingsley’s deep opposition to the growth of Catholicism in British society, a growth that took the forms of an invigorated Roman Catholic Church and the appearance of a movement that emphasized a more Catholic style of worship in the Church of England, the Oxford Movement. A staunch...

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