(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Henry Kingsley 1830-1876

English novelist and short story writer.

Generally considered a minor novelist, Kingsley is chiefly remembered for his early works, The Recollections of Geoffry Hamlyn (1859) and Ravenshoe (1861), the former viewed as the first truly important Australian novel and the latter typically regarded as his finest work. The principal theme of Kingsley's fiction is based upon his belief in a robust Christianity and the essential nobility of the human soul, as well as his conviction in the power of unassailable friendships. Many of his novels depict narratives of aristocratic families in decline, yet display an optimistic moralism as virtue is rewarded and evil punished. While uneven quality, careless and hurried writing, and absurdity of plot mar much of his fiction, Kingsley's works are nonetheless recognized for their compelling stories, memorable characterization, and rich evocation of the Australian landscape.

Biographical Information

Kingsley was born in the Northamptonshire village of Barnack, the son of a clergyman, Charles Kingsley, Sr. In 1832 the family moved to Devonshire and later to Chelsea, where Kingsley was raised. While his elder brothers became prominent Victorian intellectuals—Charles, a renowned novelist, and George, a scientist—Kingsley was generally considered the failure of the family. He was educated at King's School, London and attended Worcester College in Oxford for three years. At Worcester Kingsley focused his attention more on athletics and camaraderie than academics. He left the institution without a degree in 1853 and promptly traveled to Australia, looking for adventure and the prospects of gold digging. Throughout Kingsley's expeditions through the Australian countryside, he painted small watercolors of the landscape, but found lasting success elusive. After struggling for several years without communication to his family, Kingsley returned to Chelsea and began to write a novel based upon his recent experiences. The Recollections of Geoffry Hamlyn was published in 1859 and proved to be a notable achievement. He followed with his second novel, Ravenshoe, which first appeared serially in Macmillan's Magazine from 1861 to 1862 and solidified his reputation as a popular writer. In 1864, he married Sarah Haselwood, his second cousin, and later settled in Wargrave, near the riverside town of Henley. He continued his literary career with numerous novels, including The Hillyars and the Burtons: A Story of Two Families (1865), a modest success. While the pace of his writing quickened, the quality of his novels declined, as did critical and popular regard. Despite contributing occasional articles and reviews to periodicals, by the end of the decade Kingsley found himself in great financial distress. With hopes of renewing his popularity as a novelist nearly evaporated by 1869, Kingsley moved to Edinburgh after taking a position as editor of the Daily Review. Day to day journalism did not suit him, and Kingsley departed Britain the following year to cover the Franco-Prussian war. The conflict provided source material for his Valentin: A French Boy's Story of Sedan (1872), but little income. After returning, he wrote several more novels, most of which were poorly received by audiences and almost universally denigrated by critics. Having contracted cancer of the throat, Kingsley died in May 1876.

Major Works

Written with the slight pretext of recounting actual events through the words of its aging, bachelor narrator, The Recollections of Geoffry Hamlyn presents Kingsley's imaginative transformation of his experiences in Australia into an episodic and generally optimistic family chronicle. Focusing on Sam Buckley, an Englishman born in Australia to aristocratic parents, the work details the intertwined histories of three families, the Thorntons, the Brentwoods, and the Buckleys, and culminates in Sam's heroic ride to save his love, Alice. Like Geoffry Hamlyn, Kingsley's second novel, Ravenshoe, is a blend of romance and realism. The story describes the life of a charming but fallible gentleman, Charles Ravenshoe, who must prove himself worthy to recover his lost family rank and claim his inheritance. Austin Elliot (1863) follows its eponymous hero to prison for his part in a duel, but ends in Austin's felicitous marriage. A family narrative set in Chelsea and Australia, The Hillyars and the Burtons presents the connected fates of the aristocratic Hillyars and middle-class Burtons. Examining contrasting social groups in a colonial setting, the novel depicts the rise of the proud and once prosperous Burton family to wealth and notoriety after leaving England. Unlike the panoramic narrative of The Hillyars and the Burtons, Kingsley's fifth novel, Leighton Court: A Country House Story (1866), focuses on character, featuring a pair of love triangles, a reckless heroine, and a melancholy villain. Mademoiselle Mathilde (1868) portrays the actions of the D'Isigny family during the French Revolution, concentrating on Mathilde D'Isigny's climactic sacrifice of her own life in exchange for her sister's. A blend of fantasy, allegory, and jumbled satire, The Boy in Grey (1871) follows a young prince in pursuit of a grey-clad peasant boy through a fairyland and around the world, until he finally catches up to him in Australia. Representative of some of the more glaring deficiencies of Kingsley's later novels, the largely incoherent Oakshott Castle: Being the Memoir of an Eccentric Nobleman (1873) offers an absurd amalgamation of murders, suicides, and exotic intrigues.

Critical Reception

Critics have almost unanimously scorned Kingsley's novels of the late 1860s, among them Silcote of Silcotes (1867) and Stretton (1869), for their generally careless writing, and improbable and unmotivated action. Most commentators have also dismissed Kingsley's final works of fiction, including Old Margaret (1871), The Harveys (1872), and others, novels that are said to suffer innumerable flaws and frequently wallow in tedium. In contrast, critical estimation of Kingsley's works has principally concentrated on his first several novels. Though marred by some futile digressions and dubious plotting, Ravenshoe was a popular success upon its publication and has since been appreciated by critics as Kingsley's masterpiece for its originality, humor, descriptive power, and characterization. Likewise Geoffry Hamlyn has been noted as the most influential novel in nineteenth-century Australian fiction. Additionally, a number of critics have studied the colonial implications of Geoffry Hamlyn and Kingsley's other Australian novels, probing the ways in which these stories reflect and interpret the values and indigenous culture of Australia from the point of view of an English outsider. In general, critics have hastened to point out that Kingsley is not a major novelist, but that instead many of his books, especially the Australian novels, do exhibit a charm and originality that has endeared them to readers willing to overlook their frequent flaws of confused narrative, irrelevant digression, multiple climaxes, and melodrama.