Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 997

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...

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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 delinquent who enjoys violence, but later, after his exile, the character matures into a chivalric Christian knight who protects the weak and fights for justice. Chivalry, which Kingsley defined as struggle in the service of justice, is the difference between the merely muscular and the muscular Christian.

The theme of the conflict between Germanic and Latin cultures is at the forefront in all three of Kingsley’s historical novels. In Hypatia the conflict takes the form of the contrast between vigorous Goths and decadent Egyptians. In Westward Ho! the conflict is between English sea dogs and Spaniards. Kingsley believed that Latin culture was decadent and effeminate, whereas Germanic culture, once Christianized, was redemptive and manly. He argued that divine Providence, the guiding hand for human history, had set up the conflict and had called forth the Germans to lay the groundwork for the Protestant Reformation, English liberties, and the spread of Germanic civilization throughout the world by means of the British Empire.

Having developed his ideas in his earlier novels, Kingsley gave utterance to them in a series of lectures at Cambridge that were published under the title The Roman and the Teuton (1864); these remain the most systematic exposition of his historical interpretation. In Hereward the Wake, the conflict is rather less clear-cut. The Saxons are Germanic, but, as the descendants of Scandinavians, so are their enemies the Normans. The novel suggests that the Normans’ Germanness has been contaminated or weakened by French influences. This is especially the case with respect to religion. Kingsley sees the Saxon church as more Germanic and therefore purer than the continental church. He has the Normans import the worst sort of scheming, malevolent, ascetic monks into England, while the Saxon monks are honest, forthright, and truly devout.

As befits a muscular Christian, Kingsley never displays in his novels particularly clear or systematic thinking, but in Hereward the Wake his thinking is especially muddled. He wants his readers to be on the side of Hereward and of William the Conqueror, for both men are examples of Christian heroes, and so he has to turn elsewhere for a villain. While William is praised for his chivalric Christian knighthood, the minor character Ivo Taillebois, one of William’s ambitious and unscrupulous henchmen, fills the role of villain. This is not artistically satisfactory, for Hereward is left without an enemy worthy of his efforts. Another example of Kingsley’s muddled thinking is his attitude toward the Normans. He stresses repeatedly that the Normans, descendants of Viking Germanic heroes, are to be admired despite their French culture. Moreover, because Kingsley believed that God guides history, and because as a muscular Christian he did not like losers, he approved of the Norman Conquest. Hence, although he tells the story of a patriotic guerrilla struggle for national independence, he is unable to write convincingly about Hereward’s goals and achievements.

Kingsley’s descriptive passages vividly evoke the marshy Fenland region around Cambridge, where most of the novel’s action takes place. An enthusiastic walker, Kingsley had observed the countryside and depicted well what he had seen. His descriptions of siege and battle scenes, most notably the defense of Ely and the defeat of William’s invading troops, are controlled and effective. Kingsley was unable, however, to write effectively about the interior lives of his characters. This failure is especially marked in his attempt to capture Hereward’s interior motivations for his love for Torfrida and for his submission to William. In the final analysis, Kingsley was reluctant to explore his muscular Christian hero’s psychological flaws, for to admit that such a hero could be flawed undercut Kingsley’s idea of heroism.

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