Henry Kingsley Essay - Critical Essays

Kingsley, Henry


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.

Principal Works

The Recollections of Geoffry Hamlyn (novel) 1859

Ravenshoe (novel) 1861

Austin Elliot (novel) 1863

The Hillyars and the Burtons: A Story of Two Families (novel) 1865

Leighton Court: A Country House Story (novel) 1866

Silcote of Silcotes (novel) 1867

Mademoiselle Mathilde (novel) 1868

Stretton (novel) 1869

Tales of Old Travel Re-narrated (short stories) 1869

The Boy in Grey (novel) 1871

Hetty and Other Stories (novel and short stories) 1871

The Lost Child (novel) 1871

Old Margaret (novel) 1871

The Harveys (novel) 1872

Hornby Mills and Other Stories (short stories) 1872

Valentin: A French Boy's Story of Sedan (novel) 1872

Oakshott Castle: Being the Memoir of an Eccentric Nobleman [as Granby Dixon] (novel) 1873

Reginald Hetherege (novel) 1874

Number Seventeen (novel) 1875

Fireside Studies (short stories) 1876

The Grange Garden: A Romance (novel) 1876

The Mystery of the Island (novel) 1877

The Works of Henry Kingsley 6 vols. (novels and short stories) 1894-95


The Saturday Review (essay date 1859)

SOURCE: “Big Brothers,” in The Saturday Review, Vol. 62, No. 794, August, 1859, pp. 446-48.

[In the following excerpted anonymous review, the critic connects Henry Kingsley's writing to that of his older brother Charles, sarcastically commenting on the virtues of familial similarities of mind.]

Mr. Kingsley has a brother, and this brother has just published a novel. Of its literary merits, its plot, characters, and general worth, we intend to speak elsewhere. At present we merely notice it as a curious specimen of the way in which the big brother's influence tells in a family, and how cordially and completely the smaller brothers fit themselves into his groove....

(The entire section is 1498 words.)

North American Review (essay date 1865)

SOURCE: “Review of ‘The Hillyars and Burtons’,” in North American Review, Vol. 101, July, 1865, pp. 293–99.

[In the following anonymous review, the critic denounces The Hillyars and Burtons as illogical.]

“The old question between love and duty,” says the author in his Preface, “I have in this story used all my best art in putting before the reader.” A bad best, we are constrained to say, Mr. Kingsley's best art seems to be.

It is true that, like most other problems given us to solve in this world, the problem of love and duty is so difficult, and so overlaid by confusing circumstances, that we go wrong oftener than right, and...

(The entire section is 2741 words.)

The Critic (essay date 1895)

SOURCE: “Henry Kingsley's Novels,” in The Critic, Vol. 26, March, 1895, p. 176.

[In the following anonymous review, the critic applauds a reprinting of Kingsley's novels and responds to negative criticism published in The Saturday Review.]

We heartily welcome this tasteful reprint of the best of Henry Kingsley's novels, which are certainly not inferior to those by his more famous brother, if, indeed, as some excellent critics have maintained, they be not superior to them. He might have been the more famous of the two if he had happened to come before the public first; but Charles, being the elder by eleven years, had the start in authorship by about that period. In...

(The entire section is 512 words.)

Michael Sadleir (essay date 1924)

SOURCE: “Henry Kingsley: A Portrait,” in Edinburgh Review, Vol. CCXL, October, 1924, pp. 330-48.

[In the following essay, Sadleir offers a brief overview of Kingsley's life and explores reactions to his writing, linking Kingsley's personal struggles with his disappointing literary career.]


Henry Kingsley's life-story—at once vivid and melancholy—is just such a one as would have appealed to his own romantic imagination. No writer of the mid-Victorian age had so delicate a sympathy for splendour in decay, so sensitive an admiration for the forlorn present of a noble past. He is the prose laureate of wasted beauty and his name persists,...

(The entire section is 7359 words.)

William H. Scheuerle (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: “Editor's Introduction,” in Ravenshoe, by Henry Kingsley, edited by William H. Scheuerle, University of Nebraska Press, 1967, pp. vii-xxv.

[In the following introduction to Ravenshoe, Scheuerle recounts Kingsley's life and writings, and gives a generally positive assessment of the novel.]

One evening in the summer of 1961, my wife and I were enjoying dinner in a small restaurant in Bloomsbury, when an elderly lady at the next table said to her companion: “Do you remember Sam Buckley's ride on that wonderful horse Widderin?” As one who had just spent many days in the Bodleian Library reading nineteenth-century reviews of Henry Kingsley's novels, I...

(The entire section is 5213 words.)

N. G. Wellings (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: “Henry Kingsley: Ravenshoe,” in Australian Literary Studies, Vol. 4, No. 2, October, 1969, pp. 115-29.

[In the following essay, Wellings studies critical reaction to Kingsley's novels, and responds to charges that the novel Ravenshoe is characterized by careless writing and lack of structure.]

Henry Kingsley is badly served by literary studies of the twentieth century. Mention, let alone critical recognition, is scarce. The Concise Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature gives Henry Kingsley four entries, one of which is a mistaken date of publication for Ravenshoe.1Introductions to English Literature Vol. IV...

(The entire section is 6312 words.)

John Barnes (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: Henry Kingsley and Colonial Fiction, Oxford University Press, 1971, 48p.

[In the following excerpt, Barnes presents an introductory overview of Kingsley's life and fiction, followed by a largely thematic examination of his major Australian novels, particularly Geoffry Hamlyn.]

When Henry James wrote in 1865 that ‘Mr Henry Kingsley may be fairly described as a reduced copy of his brother’,1 few, if any, of his American and English readers are likely to have disagreed with him. Charles Kingsley was widely known as a clergyman and a man of letters when Henry's first novel, Geoffry Hamlyn, was published in 1859. Inevitably, comparisons were...

(The entire section is 13903 words.)

William H. Scheuerle (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: “The Wargrave Novels,” in The Neglected Brother: A Study of Henry Kingsley, Florida State University Press, 1971, pp. 100-27.

[In the following essay, Scheuerle focuses on Kingsley's novels of the mid to late 1860s, arguing that these works exhibit a general decline into literary absurdity and carelessness, but occasionally demonstrate artistic merit, as in Leighton Court and The Hillyars and the Burtons.]

The Hillyars and the Burtons, Kingsley's fourth novel which had been partly written before his marriage, is a much tighter, more closely knit work than either of his two earlier major ones and could have been his best novel. Subtitled “A...

(The entire section is 11315 words.)

G. A. Wilkes (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: “Kingsley's Geoffry Hamlyn: A Study in Literary Survival,” in Southerly, Vol. 32, No. 4, December, 1972, pp. 243-54.

[In the following essay, Wilkes observes that the enduring quality of Geoffry Hamlyn lies in Kingsley's mythic treatment of the Australian landscape in the novel.]

Of all the Australian novels that have achieved a reputation, Henry Kingsley's The Recollections of Geoffry Hamlyn is among the least demanding. “He has his brother's power of describing”, Alexander Macmillan wrote in 1858, giving his impressions of the manuscript, “but he does not write in the same style at all; it is wonderfully quiet and yet...

(The entire section is 4625 words.)

Julian Croft (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: “Is Geoffry Hamlyn a Creole Novel?”, in Australian Literary Studies, Vol. 6, No. 3, May, 1974, pp. 269-76.

[In the following essay, Croft perceives Geoffry Hamlyn as a study of English outsiders in Australia who, rather than adapting to their new environment, exert their own culture upon it.]

When Henry Kingsley wrote Geoffry Hamlyn1 he expressed in it a view of Australian society which was still valid until the Second World War. That view was of a society divided culturally between those who followed in speech, behaviour, and ideology the values of traditional English society, and those who had adopted the differing manners...

(The entire section is 3769 words.)

Robert Dixon (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: “Kingsley's Geoffry Hamlyn and the Art of Landscape,” in Southerly, Vol. 37, No. 3, September, 1977, pp. 274-99.

[In the following essay, Dixon interprets Geoffry Hamlyn within the symbolic and aesthetic contexts of landscape art, describing the work as a historical novel and a “sympathetic social document.”]

When writing on “Geoffry Hamlyn and its Australian Setting” in 1963, J. C. Horner was interested in explaining the quality of Kingsley's descriptions of the Australian landscape with reference to the demands of the novel's genre.1 He wished to correct the “surviving attitude” to the book as a “conventional...

(The entire section is 11172 words.)

Christopher Lee (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: “Representing Failure: Gender and Madness in Henry Kingsley's The Hillyars and the Burtons,” in AUMLA: Journal of the Australasian Universities Language and Literature, Vol. 82, November, 1994, pp. 35-48.

[In the following essay, Lee analyzes the gendered discourse of insanity in The Hillyars and the Burtons.]

Henry Kingsley's status in Australian literary history rests primarily upon the formal success of his first Australian novel The Recollections of Geoffry Hamlyn (1859).1 The critical acclaim for his second Australian novel The Hillyars and the Burtons (1865)2 is scant. The attention which this latter...

(The entire section is 6208 words.)

Further Reading


Ellis, S. M. Henry Kingsley 1830-1876: Towards a Vindication. London: Grant Richards, 1931, 285p.

Apologetic biography of Kingsley.

Kingsley, Maurice. “Personal Traits of Henry Kingsley.” In Leighton Court: A Country House Story, by Henry Kingsley, pp. vii-xiii. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1895.

Remembrance of Kingsley by his nephew.

Mellick, J. S. D. “Henry Kingsley in Australia.” Australian Literary Studies 6, No. 1 (May 1973): 91-94.

Explores biographical references to Kingsley as they provide information about his activities in...

(The entire section is 333 words.)