The Reverend Charles Kingsley, writer of poetry; novels; historical works; sermons; religious tracts; scientific treatises; and political, social, and literary criticism, was one of the Victorian age's most prolific authors. His was by no means the stereotypical writer's ivory-tower existence, however, as his extensive practical activities in the public arena reveal. A parish priest for much of his life, Kingsley was also a prominent social reformer, political activist, and practical scientist, as well as the Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, chaplain to Queen Victoria, the private tutor to the future Edward VII, and the canon of Westminster. Clearly, he led a varied and interesting life and was well known among his contemporaries, though few commentators would consider him in the front ranks of eminent Victorians. Kingsley's condition-of-England novels, Alton Locke, Tailor and Poet (1850) and Yeast; a Problem (1851), still find a small readership as do his novels for children The Water-Babies; A Fairy Tale for a Land-Baby (1863), and to a lesser extent Westward Ho! (1855). Moreover, scholars still study his involvement with Christian Socialism and "muscular Christianity," as well as Kingsley's great controversy with Cardinal Newman.
Charles Kingsley was born on 12 June 1819 at Holne Vicarage near Dartmoor, Devonshire. His father, Charles, though reared to be a country gentleman, had taken Holy Orders because of the financial mismanagement of his inheritance. Kingsley's mother, Mary, more worldly and practical than his father, was born in the West Indies and came from a line of Barbadian sugar-plantation owners. After a short stay at a small preparatory school in Clifton, Kingsley was sent to Helston Grammar School in Cornwall, where the Reverend Derwent Coleridge, Samuel Taylor Coleridge's son, was headmaster. Kingsley was not academically outstanding, though he displayed great interest in art and natural science, especially botany and geology, and wrote much poetry. After the family moved to London in 1836 Kingsley entered King'sCollege as a day student. He did well and in the autumn of 1838 went to Magdalene College, Cambridge, where he graduated with a first class in classics and a second in mathematics.
After taking holy orders Kingsley in July 1842 became curate in Eversley, Hampshire. At about this time, influenced by F. D. Maurice's Kingdom of Christ (1838), he became convinced that true religion could not remain distinct from social and political issues or the temporal needs of mankind. Accordingly, in addition to performing religious services, Kingsley worked feverishly to improve the appalling physical, social, and educational conditions of his Eversley parishioners. In January 1844 he married Fanny Grenfell, the daughter of a prosperous family and several years his senior. In May his extensive work as curate at Eversley was rewarded by his appointment as rector. In November 1844 Kingsley's first child, Rose, was born. His eldest son, Maurice, was born in 1847, and his third child, Mary St. Leger, who later wrote novels under the name of Lucas Malet, was born in 1852.
The year 1848 was extremely busy for Kingsley. He published the blank verse drama The Saint's Tragedy, a life of Saint Elizabeth, a married medieval saint. F. D. Maurice secured for him the professorship of English literature and composition at the then-recently established Queen's College, London, a post he was obliged to resign one year later due to pressure of work. Influenced by the political events in Europe that year, Kingsley attended the Chartist demonstration in London, at which he displayed a political poster signed "a Working Parson." Soon, together with Maurice and the barristers John Malcolm Ludlow and Thomas Hughes, author of Tom Brown's Schooldays (1856), Kingsley was fully committed to the Christian Socialist movement. He was never particularly radical, however, and as he grew older he increasingly became an establishment figure.
In 1848 Kingsley's long story Yeast; a Problem, concerned with the deplorable living conditions of England's agricultural laboring families, began appearing in Fraser's Magazine. It was published in book form in 1851. Kingsley's political activities became more widely known, and adverse reaction by the establishment was probably responsible for his rejection for a professorship at King's College. Moreover, his hectic activity throughout 1848, combined with domestic financial worries, undoubtedly contributed to the severe breakdown in health that occurred in the autumn.
In 1849 a cholera epidemic started in Jacob's Island in London's Bermondsey district. Kingsley and his friends, manifesting the practical stress of the Christian Socialist movement, worked incessantly in the district to arrest the outbreak. Indeed, he later became so well known for his work in sanitary reform that he was asked in the spring of 1854 to speak before the House of Commons on the unhygienic conditions prevalent in urban areas and the low remuneration of parish medical officers. The following year he led a deputation on the issue of sanitary reform to the prime minister.
Kingsley's horror at the frequently atrocious sanitary conditions in Victorian cities accounts for some of the most striking episodes and passages in his novel Alton Locke (1859). This work, purporting to be the autobiography of a working-class Chartist poet, had as a principal aim the exposure of the dreadful working conditions, especially the shocking lack of hygiene, of tailors in London's West End. In 1853 Kingsley published his first historical novel, Hypatia: or, New Foes with an Old Face, in two volumes; it had earlier appeared serially in Fraser's Magazine. Set in fifth-century Alexandria, Hypatia is the story of various conflicts of Greeks, Jews, Romans, Egyptians, and Goths, particularly the rival claims of Christianity, Judaism, and Neoplatonic thought, against the background of the collapsing Roman Empire.
In 1855 Kingsley published Glaucus; or, The Wonders of the Shore (1855), an introduction to natural history and one of the first books of its kind to be written specifically for children. Manifest in Glaucus is the author's firm belief in evolution. Kingsley, uncommon among clerics battling with the religious and moral problems introduced by Darwinian theories, saw no conflict between the teachings of science and the teachings of religion. Indeed, he consistently emphasized that by studying science one was in effect studying the work of God and getting to know him better. Kingsley's knowledge of science was such that he became a fellow of both the Linnaean and Geological Societies and was even cited by Charles Darwin in The Descent of Man (1871).
In the summer of 1854 the Kingsleys moved to Bideford on the north coast of Devon, where Kingsley wrote his historical romance Westward Ho!. It has probably been the most widely read of all his novels, with the notable exception of The Water-Babies. In 18?? appeared The Heroes; or Greek Fairy Tales, for My Children, a book of three Greek legends, intended specifically for children. Another novel for adults, Two Years Ago (1857), greatly helped the economy of the Kingsley household. Set in the contemporary age, it exhibits Kingsley's views on such topics as the role of the artist in society, the great need for sanitation, the importance of science, and the abolition of slavery.
Two Years Ago was also responsible for Kingsley's association in the public mind with the cult of "muscular Christianity," a phrase he detested. Weary of the controversies of the Oxford Movement and theological debates on what he considered to be mere niceties, Kingsley was indeed a muscular Christian, entering into social movements and helping the poor in a practical sense. He also consistently stressed the importance of strength, energy, and physical behavior in pleasing God -- one's physical activity must complement one's spirituality, a muscular Christian duality that Kingsley himself perfectly manifested.
The year 1859 was important for Kingsley's career and ascendance on the social ladder. On Palm Sunday he was invited to preach before Queen Victoria and Prince Albert at Buckingham Palace. Soon afterward Kingsley was appointed chaplain to the queen. In the autumn of 1859 he had the further honor of preaching before the court at Windsor Castle. The following year royal favor was responsible for the offer of the Regius Chair of Modern History at Cambridge, a post Kingsley held until his resignation in 1869. In 1861 Kingsley was appointed as private tutor to the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII.
In 1863 Kingsley's best-known work for children, The Water-Babies, came out in book form having earlier appeared serially in Macmillan's Magazine. This novel, a marvelous compendium of diverse material, tells the story of little Tom, the poor child chimney sweep who, reborn as a water-baby, experiences wonderful adventures in the company of real and imaginary creatures. Though it is an uneven novel, it is clearly Kingsley's masterpiece. In 1864 Kingsley, manifesting his anti-Catholic sentiments, made an unfortunate mistake by provoking an altercation in print with John Henry Newman, later cardinal. Kingsley was vanquished by a far more subtle and intellectual opponent, though posterity gained Newman's Apologia Pro Vita Sua (1864) as a result of the debate. The controversy undoubtedly contributed to one of Kingsley's periodic health crises, a breakdown that endured for about a year. He recovered sufficiently to write his last novel, Hereward the Wake, "Last of the English" (1866), which appeared serially in 1865 in Good News.
Shortly after resigning from his Cambridge chair in 1869 Kingsley accepted the canonry of Chester. Before assuming his new duties at Chester, Kingsley and his daughter Rose visited the West Indies, a trip that resulted in At Last; A Christmas in the West Indies (1871). At Chester, though increasingly a prey to ill health, Kingsley remained active in teaching, preaching, sanitary reform, and botanical and geological research. Further advancement came in 1873, when Kingsley was appointed the canon of Westminster Abbey. In the following year he undertook a long lecture tour throughout the United States for financial reasons. In ill health on his return, he contracted pneumonia and died at Eversley on 23 January 1875.