26 July 2018

Review: Glaucus by Charles Kingsley

Hardcover, 245 pages
Published 1899 (originally 1855)
Acquired and read June 2017
Glaucus; or, The Wonders of the Shore
by Charles Kingsley
When a few more years are past, Buckland and Sedgwick [...] and the group of brave men who accompanied and followed them, will be looked back to as moral benefactors of their race; and almost as martyrs, also, when it is remembered how much misunderstanding, obloquy, and plausible folly they had to endure from well-meaning fanatics [...] who tried (as is the fashion in such cases) to make a hollow compromise between fact and the Bible, by twisting facts just enough to make them fit the fancied meaning of the Bible, and the Bible just enough to make it fit the fancied meaning of the facts. But there were a few who would have no compromise; who laboured on with a noble recklessness, determined to speak the thing which they had seen, and neither more nor less, sure that God could take better care than they of His own everlasting truth. (13-4)
Glaucus is in theory a natural history text, detailing the amazing life-forms to be found on the English coast, complete with illustrations in both color and black and white. What I found more interesting, though, was Kingsley's discourse about the moral benefits of natural history itself, which probably takes up a third of the book. Kingsley's novel Two Years Ago (1857: vol. i and ii), which was published just two years after this, is pretty clearly a fictionalized version of the line of thinking he began in this book. For Kingsley, the vision of the naturalist is morally superior: it gives him more beauty to see in the world, it lets him glimpse the work of God, it gets him out of the home and saves him from indolence. (It was a review of Two Years Ago where, of course, the term "muscular Christianity" debuted.) According to Kingsley, "A frightful majority of our middle-class young men are growing up effeminate, empty of all knowledge but what tends directly to the making of a fortune" (50), and "What is wanted in these cases is a methodic and scientific habit of mind; and a class of objects on which to exercise that habit" (51).

Even just a small snapshot of the virtues Kingsley ascribes to the naturalist is somewhat ridiculous: he is gentle, courteous, brave, patient, reverent, full of wonder, scrupulous, not hasty, not lazy, not melancholy, not proud and much much more. (To be honest, this sounds like the Scout Law, which makes sense, as I'd bet you could draw a line from muscular Christianity in the mid-Victorian period to Scouting for Boys in the early twentieth century.) Partially these virtues come from the way of seeing you must cultivate in order to perceive the natural world accurately in its minute glories, and partially they come from the physical activities you will have to undertake in your explorations. Recurrent throughout the text-- as indicated in my epigraph above-- is the idea that the true naturalist is a man of God, and a true man of God is a naturalist.

Kingsley is a lively and engaging writer, and his descriptions of natural historical work make me want to become a "muscular Christian" myself. I did sort of zone out whenever he started describing crustaceans or whatever, but his take on the moral virtues of natural history is compelling and fascinating, and will definitely inform my next read of Two Years Ago.

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