January 10, 1891. His Life.
Alexander William Kinglake was born in 1812, the son of a country gentleman–Mr. W. Kinglake, of Wilton House, Taunton–and received a country gentleman’s education at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge. From college he went to Lincoln’s Inn, and in 1837 was called to the Chancery Bar, where he practised with fair but not eminent success. In 1844 he published Eothen, and having startled the town, quietly resumed his legal work and seemed willing to forget the achievement. Ten years later he accompanied his friend, Lord Raglan, to the Crimea. He retired from the Bar in 1856, and entered Parliament next year as member for Bridgwater. Re-elected in 1868, he was unseated on petition in 1869, and thenceforward gave himself up to the work of his life. He had consented, after Lord Raglan’s death, to write a history of the Invasion of the Crimea. The two first volumes appeared in 1863; the last was published but two years before he succumbed, in the first days of 1891, to a slow incurable disease. In all, the task had occupied thirty years. Long before these years ran out, the world had learnt to regard the Crimean struggle in something like its true perspective; but over Kinglake’s mind it continued to loom in all its original proportions. To adapt a phrase of M. Jules Lema�tre’s, “le monde a changé en trente ans: lui ne bouge; il ne lève plus de dessus son papier à copie sa face congestionné.” And yet Kinglake was no cloistered scribe. Before his last illness he dined out frequently, and was placed by many among the first half-a-dozen talkers in London. His conversation, though delicate and finished, brimmed full of interest in life and affairs: but let him enter his study, and its walls became a hedge. Without, the world was moving: within, it was always 1854, until by slow toiling it turned into 1855.
His style is hard, elaborate, polished to brilliance. Its difficult labor recalls Thucydides. In effect it charms at first by its accuracy and vividness: but with continuous perusal it begins to weigh upon the reader, who feels the strain, the unsparing effort that this glittering fabric must have cost the builder, and at length ceases to sympathize with the story and begins to sympathize with the author. Kinglake started by disclaiming “composition.” “My narrative,” he says, in the famous preface to Eothen, “conveys not those impressions which ought to have been produced upon any well-constituted mind, but those which were really and truly received, at the time of his rambles, by a headstrong and not very amiable traveller…. As I have felt, so I have written.”
For all this, page after page of Eothen gives evidence of deliberate calculation of effect. That book is at once curiously like and curiously unlike Borrows’ Bible in Spain. The two belong to the same period and, in a sense, to the same fashion. Each combines a tantalizing personal charm with a strong, almost fierce, coloring of circumstance. The central figure in each is unmistakably an Englishman, and quite as unmistakably a singular Englishman. Each bears witness to a fine eye for theatrical arrangement. But whereas Borrow stood for ever fortified by his wayward nature and atrocious English against the temptation of writing as he ought, Kinglake commenced author with a respect for “composition,” ingrained perhaps by his Public School and University training. Borrow arrays his page by instinct, Kinglake by study. His irony (as in the interview with the Pasha) is almost too elaborate; his artistic judgment (as in the Plague chapter) almost too sure; the whole book almost too clever. The performance was wonderful; the promise a trifle dangerous.
“Composition” indeed proved the curse of the Invasion of the Crimea: for Kinglake was a slow writer, and composed with his eye on the page, the paragraph, the phrase, rather than on the whole work. Force and accuracy of expression are but parts of a good prose style; indeed are, strictly speaking, inseparable from perspective, balance, logical connection, rise and fall of emotion. It is but an indifferent landscape that contains no pedestrian levels: and his desire for the immediate success of each paragraph as it came helped Kinglake to miss the broad effect. He must always be vivid; and when the strain told, he exaggerated and sounded–as Matthew Arnold accused him of sounding–the note of provinciality. There were other causes. He was, as we have seen, an English country gentleman–avant tout je suis gentilhomme anglais, as the Duke of Wellington wrote to Louis XVIII. His admiration of the respectable class to which he belonged is revealed by a thousand touches in his narrative–we can find half a score in the description of Codrington’s assault on the Great Redoubt in the battle of the Alma; nor, when some high heroic action is in progress, do we often miss an illustration, or at least a metaphor, from the hunting-field. Undoubtedly he had the distinction of his class; but its narrowness was his as surely. Also the partisanship of the eight volumes grows into a weariness. The longevity of the English Bench is notorious; but it comes of hearing both sides of every question.
After all, he was a splendid artist. He tamed that beautiful and dangerous beast, the English sentence, with difficulty indeed, but having tamed, worked it to high achievements. The great occasion always found him capable, and his treatment of it is not of the sort to be forgotten: witness the picture of the Prince President cowering in an inner chamber during the bloodshed of the Coup d’État, the short speech of Sir Colin Campbell to his Highlanders before the Great Redoubt (given in the exact manner of Thucydides), or the narrative of the Heavy Brigade’s charge at Balaclava, culminating thus–
“The difference that there was in the temperaments of the two comrade regiments showed itself in the last moments of the onset. The Scots Greys gave no utterance except to a low, eager, fierce moan of rapture–the moan of outbursting desire. The Inniskillings went in with a cheer. With a rolling prolongation of clangour which resulted from the bends of a line now deformed by its speed, the ‘three hundred’ crashed in upon the front of the column.”