Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1035

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...

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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 Protestant, Kingsley criticized Catholic practices in his earlier novels. The novel also reflects his belief that Britain’s imperial expansion was God’s way of spreading Protestantism throughout the world; he thus chose to dedicate Westward Ho! to Sir James Brooke, an adventurer who carved out of the island of Borneo a territory that he ruled as “white rajah,” and George Augustus Selwyn, Anglican missionary bishop of New Zealand. These men, he wrote in his dedication, exhibited the same “manful and godly, practical and enthusiastic, prudent and self-sacrificing” English virtues that characterized the Elizabethan sea dogs. Finally, Westward Ho! is an example of war propaganda; reviewers and readers at the time knew that the novel’s Spaniards stood for the Russians with whom their country was locked in combat.

The themes of Westward Ho! include patriotism to Great Britain, anti-Catholicism, violence, and Muscular Christianity. Patriotism and anti-Catholicism are linked in Kingsley’s mind because he shared the common beliefs that Protestantism is the basis of the British constitution, that Protestant Britain is God’s chosen country, and that Catholicism leads to despotism. Thus, British institutions are superior to those of other countries because they are godly; they are godly because they are Protestant; and they are Protestant because they are British. Kingsley contrasts British manliness, good humor, simple Christian piety, and devotion to duty with Spanish effeminacy, deceit, semipagan worship of idols, and greed. The most clear-cut contrast is that between two female figures: the Virgin Queen Elizabeth I of England and the Spanish vision of the Virgin Mary. The English Virgin Queen possesses all the English virtues, while the Spaniards endow the Virgin Mary with all their vices. Kingsley was strongly influenced in these views by the nationalist historian J. A. Froude.

Violence and Muscular Christianity are also linked in the novel. Kingsley presents violence as the appropriate response to dilemmas. Because one’s enemies are evil, violence is the best, perhaps the only, godly response, whether it be Israelites smiting Canaanites and Philistines or Englishmen smiting Spaniards and Russians. On the personal level, Kingsley also sees violence as an appropriate way of solving problems. In the novel’s opening, Amyas Leigh, tired of being intimidated by the priest-schoolmaster John Brimblecombe, breaks his slate over the bumbling man’s head. Muscular Christians thus deal and receive blows in the service of good against evil. The Elizabethan sea dog, who combines athletic and military prowess in the service of Protestant England, thus is the model Muscular Christian.

Kingsley allows some ambiguity in his depiction of the ungodly enemy, an ambiguity that reflects his own uncertainty at Britain’s incompetent conduct of the Crimean War. He remains certain, however, that the English are good and that their enemies are bad. Hence, although he gives virtues to a few Spanish characters, such as Don Guzman, he makes them virtuous in spite of their religion and nationality. At the end of the book, Kingsley writes a powerful scene in which Don Guzman and his ship sink into the waves, denying Amyas his revenge; disappointed, Amyas hurls his sword into the sea and criticizes God for having cheated him of vengeance. A bolt of lightning strikes him blind. Kingsley’s message is that Amyas’s error lies in letting his revenge become personal rather than national and religious; it is for this he is punished, not for seeking vengeance itself.

Westward Ho! was Kingsley’s most successful novel. It sold well throughout the English-speaking world, securing the finances of the newly established Macmillan publishers. The book remained in print for more than a century and entered the canon of boys’ literature. Its greatest cultural influence was on the generations of British and American boys who imbibed the novel’s messages of ultra-nationalism, religious crusading, and lighthearted violence.

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