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An essay by Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch

Henry Kingsley

Title:     Henry Kingsley
Author: Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch [More Titles by Quiller-Couch]

Feb. 9, 1895. Henry Kingsley.

Mr. Shorter begins his Memoir of the author of _Ravenshoe_ with this paragraph:--

"The story of Henry Kingsley's life may well be told in a few words, because that life was on the whole a failure. The world will not listen very tolerantly to a narrative of failure unaccompanied by the halo of remoteness. To write the life of Charles Kingsley would be a quite different task. Here was success, victorious success, sufficient indeed to gladden the heart even of Dr. Smiles--success in the way of Church preferment, success in the way of public veneration, success, above all, as a popular novelist, poet, and preacher. Canon Kingsley's life has been written in two substantial volumes containing abundant letters and no indiscretions. In this biography the name of Henry Kingsley is absolutely ignored. And yet it is not too much to say that, when time has softened his memory for us, as it has softened for us the memories of Marlowe and Burns and many another, the public interest in Henry Kingsley will be stronger than in his now more famous brother."[A]

A prejudice confessed.

I almost wish I could believe this. If one cannot get rid of a prejudice, the wisest course is to acknowledge it candidly: and therefore I confess myself as capable of jumping over the moon as of writing fair criticism on Charles or Henry Kingsley. As for Henry, I worshipped his books as a boy; to-day I find them full of faults--often preposterous, usually ill-constructed, at times unnatural beyond belief. John Gilpin never threw the Wash about on both sides of the way more like unto a trundling mop or a wild goose at play than did Henry Kingsley the decent flow of fiction when the mood was on him. His notion of constructing a novel was to take equal parts of wooden melodrama and low comedy and stick them boldly together in a paste of impertinent drollery and serious but entirely irrelevant moralizing. And yet each time I read _Ravenshoe_--and I must be close upon "double figures"--I like it better. Henry did my green unknowing youth engage, and I find it next to impossible to give him up, and quite impossible to choose the venerated Charles as a substitute in my riper age. For here crops up a prejudice I find quite ineradicable. To put it plainly, I cannot like Charles Kingsley. Those who have had opportunity to study the deportment of a certain class of Anglican divine at a foreign _table d'hôte_ may perhaps understand the antipathy. There was almost always a certain sleek offensiveness about Charles Kingsley when he sat down to write. He had a knack of using the most insolent language, and attributing the vilest motives to all poor foreigners and Roman Catholics and other extra-parochial folk, and would exhibit a pained and completely ludicrous surprise on finding that he had hurt the feelings of these unhappy inferiors--a kind of indignant wonder that Providence should have given them any feelings to hurt. At length, encouraged by popular applause, this very second-rate man attacked a very first-rate man. He attacked with every advantage and with utter unscrupulousness; and the first-rate man handled him; handled him gently, scrupulously, decisively; returned him to his parish; and left him there, a trifle dazed, feeling his muscles.

Charles and Henry.

Still, one may dislike the man and his books without thinking it probable that his brother Henry will supersede him in the public interest; nay, without thinking it right that he should. Dislike him as you will, you must acknowledge that Charles Kingsley had a lyrical gift that--to set all his novels aside--carries him well above Henry's literary level. It is sufficient to say that Charles wrote "The Pleasant Isle of Avès" and "When all the world is young, lad," and the first two stanzas of "The Sands of Dee." Neither in prose nor in verse could Henry come near such excellence. But we may go farther. Take the novels of each, and, novel for novel, you must acknowledge--I say it regretfully--that Charles carries the heavier guns. If you ask me whether I prefer _Westward Ho!_ or _Ravenshoe_, I answer without difficulty that I find _Ravenshoe_ almost wholly delightful, and _Westward Ho!_ as detestable in some parts as it is admirable in others; that I have read _Ravenshoe_ again and again merely for pleasure, and that I can never read a dozen pages of _Westward Ho!_ without wishing to put the book in the fire. But if you ask me which I consider the greater novel, I answer with equal readiness that _Westward Ho!_ is not only the greater, but much the greater. It is a truth too seldom recognized that in literary criticism, as in politics, one may detest a man's work while admitting his greatness. Even in his episodes it seems to me that Charles stands high above Henry. Sam Buckley's gallop on Widderin in _Geoffry Hamlyn_ is (I imagine) Henry Kingsley's finest achievement in vehement narrative: but if it can be compared for one moment with Amyas Leigh's quest of the Great Galleon then I am no judge of narrative. The one point--and it is an important one--in which Henry beats Charles as an artist is his sustained vivacity. Charles soars far higher at times; but Charles is often profoundly dull. Now, in all Henry's books I have not found a single dull page. He may be trivial, inconsequent, irrelevant, absurd; but he never wearies. It is a great merit: but it is not enough in itself to place a novelist even in the second rank. In a short sketch of Henry Kingsley, contributed by his nephew, Mr. Maurice Kingsley, to Messrs. Scribner's paper, _The Bookbuyer_, I find that the younger brother was considered at home "undoubtedly the novelist of the family; the elder being more of the poet, historian, and prophet." (Prophet!) "My father only wrote one novel pure and simple--viz. _Two Years Ago_--his other works being either historical novels or 'signs of the times.'" Now why an "historical novel" should not be a "novel pure and simple," and what kind of literary achievement a "sign of the times" may be, I leave the reader to guess. The whole passage seems to suggest a certain confusion in the Kingsley family with regard to the fundamental divisions of literature. And it seems clear that the Kingsley family considered novel-writing "pure and simple"--in so far as they differentiated this from other kinds of novel-writing--to be something not entirely respectable.

Their opinion of Henry Kingsley in particular is indicated in no uncertain manner. In Mrs. Charles Kingsley's life of her husband, Henry's existence is completely ignored. The briefest biographical note was furnished forth for Mr. Leslie Stephen's _Dictionary of National Biography_: and Mr. Stephen dismisses our author with a few curt lines. This disposition to treat Henry as an awful warning and nothing more, while sleek Charles is patted on the back for a saint, inclines one to take up arms on the other side and assert, with Mr. Shorter, that "when time has softened his memory for us, the public interest in Henry Kingsley will be stronger than in his now more famous brother." But can we look forward to this reversal of the public verdict? Can we consent with it if it ever comes? The most we can hope is that future generations will read Henry Kingsley, and will love him in spite of his faults.

Henry, the third son of the Rev. Charles Kingsley, was born in Northamptonshire on the 2nd of January, 1830, his brother Charles being then eleven years old. In 1836 his father became rector of St. Luke's Church, Chelsea--the church of which such effective use is made in _The Hillyars and the Burtons_--and his boyhood was passed in that famous old suburb. He was educated at King's College School and Worcester College, Oxford, where he became a famous oarsman, rowing bow of his College boat; also bow of a famous light-weight University "four," which swept everything before it in its time. He wound up his racing career by winning the Diamond Sculls at Henley. From 1853 to 1858 his life was passed in Australia, whence after some variegated experiences he returned to Chelsea in 1858, bringing back nothing but good "copy," which he worked into _Geoffry Hamlyn_, his first romance. _Ravenshoe_ was written in 1861; _Austin Elliot_ in 1863; _The Hillyars and the Burtons_ in 1865; _Silcote of Silcotes_ in 1867; _Mademoiselle Mathilde_ (admired by few, but a favorite of mine) in 1868. He was married in 1864, and settled at Wargrave-on-Thames. In 1869 he went north to edit the _Edinburgh Daily Review_, and made a mess of it; in 1870 he represented that journal as field-correspondent in the Franco-Prussian War, was present at Sedan, and claimed to have been the first Englishman to enter Metz. In 1872 he returned to London and wrote novels in which his powers appeared to deteriorate steadily. He removed to Cuckfield, in Sussex, and there died in May, 1876. Hardly a man of letters followed him to the grave, or spoke, in print, a word in his praise.

And yet, by all accounts, he was a wholly amiable ne'er-do-well--a wonderful flyfisher, an extremely clever amateur artist, a lover of horses and dogs and children (surely, if we except a chapter of Victor Hugo's, the children in _Ravenshoe_ are the most delightful in fiction), and a joyous companion.

"To us children," writes Mr. Maurice Kingsley, "Uncle Henry's settling in Eversley was a great event.... At times he fairly bubbled over with humour; while his knowledge of slang--Burschen, Bargee, Parisian, Irish, Cockney, and English provincialisms--was awful and wonderful. Nothing was better than to get our uncle on his 'genteel behaviour,' which, of course, meant exactly the opposite, and brought forth inimitable stories, scraps of old songs and impromptu conversations, the choicest of which were between children, Irishwomen, or cockneys. He was the only man, I believe, who ever knew by heart the famous _Irish Court Scenes_--naughtiest and most humorous of tales--unpublished, of course, but handed down from generation to generation of the faithful. Most delightful was an interview between his late Majesty George the Fourth and an itinerant showman, which ended up with, 'No, George the Fourth, you shall not have my Rumptifoozle!' What said animal was, or the authenticity of the story, he never would divulge."

I think it is to the conversational quality of their style--its ridiculous and good-humored impertinences and surprises--that his best books owe a great deal of their charm. The footnotes are a study in themselves, and range from the mineral strata of Australia to the best way of sliding down banisters. Of the three tales already republished in this pleasant edition, _Ravenshoe_ has always seemed to me the best in every respect; and in spite of its feeble plot and its impossible lay-figures--Erne, Sir George Hillyar, and the painfully inane Gerty--I should rank _The Hillyars and the Burtons_ above the more terrifically imagined and more neatly constructed _Geoffry Hamlyn_. But this is an opinion on which I lay no stress.


[A] _The Recollections of Geoffry Hamlyn_. By Henry Kingsley. New Edition, with a Memoir by Clement Shorter. London: Ward, Lock & Bowden.

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Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch's essay: Henry Kingsley