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Henry Kingsley
by [?]

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.