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.