14 August 2015

The Reverend Charles Kingsley, Victorian Sexter

I've been spending the last couple weeks learning about the Reverend Charles Kingsley, a mid-Victorian author of mid-level repute. He's a pretty interesting fellow, more than I'd given him credit for before beginning these investigations. (I'm writing about his "scientist novel" Two Years Ago in my dissertation, and I'm trying to do some intellectual contextualization.)

The Reader of the Sacred Books
Kingsley is perhaps most famous these days for his children's novel The Water-Babies: A Fairy Tale for a Land-Baby (1863), about the adventures of a dead chimney sweep who transforms into a water sprite. (Doctor Who fans will know it as one of the three Sacred Books of the Earth culture of the year 2,000,000, along with Moby-Dick and U.K. Habitats of the Canadian Goose by H. M. Stationery Office.) The Water-Babies is an odd book to modern sensibilities, but it's noteworthy for being heavily involved in the evolutionary discoveries of its time; there are jokes about the the Hippocampus Controversy (in the form of "the great hippopotamus test"), and the scientist character Professor Ptthmllnsprts (Put Them All in Spirits, not Pull Them All Apart, as I used to somehow believe) is based on both creepy old Richard Owen and young firebrand Thomas Henry Huxley.

But, as the first half of my title indicates, Kingsley was a reverend, and a very devout man, too. He was the big instigator of what came to be called "muscular Christianity": the belief that a pious man ought to be healthy, muscular, and rugged. Don't just sit around reading about the world, get out in it and explore! Conquer the Crimea, defeat cholera epidemics, and catalog the wonders of the shore! (Eventually his ideas spread to America, where they led to the existence of the YMCA, so without Kingsley I may have never learned how to swim.)

Science is cool, kids--
it has volcanoes!
In an era we often stereotype as being all about science-vs.-religion, Kingsley had a much more sophisticated position. Darwin actually sent him a copy of the Origin upon publication, and Kingsley was an enthusiastic reader of it (Darwin actually quoted Kingsley's praise in the second edition). He wrote a number of science books, mostly for children, such as Madam How and Lady Why (1868-69), whose preface suggests that all good Christians are men of science, and all good men of science are Christians: "God’s Book, which is the Universe, and the reading of God’s Book, which is Science, can do you nothing but good, and teach you nothing but truth and wisdom. God did not put this wondrous world about your young souls to tempt or to mislead them" (xii). You can detect in that passage, I think, a little bit of disdain about the ideas of Philip Henry Gosse, the fellow who supposedly-but-not-quite-actually said that God put fossils of ancient organisms on the Earth to test our faith.

Kingsley actually wrote to Darwin to suggest that fauns, satyrs, elves, and dwarves were probably the missing links between man and animal: "That they should have died out, by simple natural selection, before the superior white race, you & I can easily understand." (Darwin's response is of the uh-huh-how-very-interesting variety, though he can't avoid being racist in a typical Victorian fashion: "In 500 years how the Anglo-saxon race will have spread & exterminated whole nations; & in consequence how much the Human race, viewed as a unit, will have risen in rank.")

In addition to all his religious and scientific writing, however, Kingsley was also the Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University from 1860 to 1869, where he was very popular with undergraduates but very unpopular with other faculty. I have the sense that Kingsley's historical credentials were dubious at best; he was slated for not doing very much original research, and he was also really into the "Great Man" version of history. But he seems to have been an excellent storyteller, so put him up at a podium and get him to lecture about Roman Britain, and you get something really quite enjoyable.

Not that kind of "positive," Grumpy Cat
courtesy Leigh Ann's Blog
Kingsley viewed his history professorship as part of his religious mission; he was afraid of the increasing influence of Auguste Comte's positivism (a sort of scientific study of history) in English universities, which he feared would lead historians to neglect the human in favor of inflexible and not altogether accurate scientific laws. Indeed, his inaugural lecture, "The Limits of Exact Science as Applied to History," was on this very important topic: "For young sciences, like young men, have their time of wonder, hope, imagination, and of passion too, and haste, and bigotry. Dazzled, and that pardonably, by the beauty of the few laws they may have discovered, they are too apt to erect them into gods, and to explain by them all matters in heaven and earth" (315). He was blasted for his lack of understanding of Comte, which eventually led to him reading twelve volumes of Comte in preparation for his final 1869 lecture, about how Carlyle was way more awesome than Comte. This is no small feat-- even fans of Comte thought that he was a terrible writer!

For all the unpopularity this approach yielded amongst Cambridge's other faculty (William Whewell was kind of a dick to him, apparently), it did what Kingsley wanted it to do: there's a letter from a student to Kingsley that says, "Your whole series last term, and especially the grand concluding one on Comte, have made an expression just at the moment it was needed […and] put into the minds of many young men the same living belief in a living God" (qtd. in Klaver 602). And such was his reputation that during his time at Cambridge, Kingsley was also engaged as private history tutor to the Prince of Wales-- later King Edward VII.

Kingsley was also really into sanitary reform, but let me tell you, that is not easy to be interested in, or to say much interesting about.

get a look at those sex maniacs
(within the bounds of marriage)
courtesy Charles Kingsley:
The 20th Century Heritage
My favorite thing I've learned about Kingsley, however, to finally come to the second half of my title, is that he was really into dirty letters! He wrote his wife Fanny sexy letters, complete with smutty illustrations! It doesn't exactly fit your stereotype of a clergyman, especially a Victorian one, but hey, having sexy times within marriage is in fact your Christian duty-- perhaps even moreso if you're a muscular Christian! It's nice to know the Victorians were people too, you know, and not the uptight prudes it's easy to stereotype them as.

Chitty, Susan. The Beast and the Monk: A Life of Charles Kingsley. New York: Mason/Charter, 1975.
Kingsley, Charles. "The Limits of Exact Science as Applied to History." 1860. The Roman and the Teuton: A Series of Lectures Delivered before the University of Cambridge. London: Macmillan, 1891. 307-43.
---. Preface. Madam How and Lady Why, or First Lessons in Earth Lore for Children. 1870. New York: Macmillan, 1893. vii-xv.
Klaver, J. M. I. The Apostle of the Flesh: A Critical Life of Charles Kingsley. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2006.
Wright, C. J. "'My darling baby': Charles Kingsley's Letters to His Wife." British Library Journal 1984: 147-57.

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