Charles Kingsley

The 12th June 2019 is the 200th anniversary of Charles Kingsley’s birth.  To mark the occasion, Dr. Gareth Atkins, Fellow of Queens’ College Cambridge, has written an article for Magdalene College Libraries’ blog.


Charles Kingsley’s Face

Gareth Atkins


Charles Kingsley
by John & Charles Watkins, published by Mason & Co (Robert Hindry Mason)
albumen carte-de-visite, 1860s
NPG x11876
© National Portrait Gallery, London, distributed by Creative Commons license

It was a face that people remembered. Notwithstanding his lifelong labours as a priest, his novels, his social commentary and the fame and favour that came to cushion him, those who met Charles Kingsley, born two hundred years ago today, were struck almost unfailingly by his physiognomy. A.C. Benson came to Magdalene in 1904, more than a quarter of a century after Kingsley’s death, and more than sixty years after Kingsley graduated, but he vividly recalled childhood visits from Marlborough College, where his father was headmaster, to Kingsley’s parish at nearby Eversley. The young Benson was entranced by ‘a strong, spare, active figure, with very marked features, a big nose, a great, mobile, compressed mouth, eyes deeply set, but with a flashing light in them that told you he was no ordinary man’. ‘His face was deeply worn and marked,’ Benson added, ‘showing that he had not found life an easy business.’[1] Another contemporary, less charitably, decided that Kingsley was the ugliest man he had ever met. His ‘continual motion of mind and body’, opined the biographer and litterateur Margaret Farrand Thorp, made caricatures of him better likenesses than formal portraiture: her example was Adriano Cecioni’s ‘violent’ and none-too-complimentary Vanity Fair caricature of March 1872.[2]


The Cariacature of Charles Kingsley from Vanity Fair Magazine, 1872.

Benson’s reflections were prompted by an 1887 portrait of Kingsley lecturing as Regius Professor of History (1860-9), painted by the latter’s friend and fellow Christian Socialist, Lowes Cato Dickinson. That portrait has recently been reinstalled, appropriately enough, in Benson Hall, but for many years it was paired across the dining tables in Hall with Samuel Pepys. Benson relished the comparison and the contrast. Could there be two men so alike in their zesty appetite for the joys of living, he asked, and yet so different? ‘Pepys so excited by the light on the surface of life, so entirely satisfied with movement and pleasure … Kingsley for ever straining his eyes for the light that shines through life … so full of splendid rage against everything mean and brutal and stupid, so compassionate and generous – lover and poet, pilgrim and warrior, all in one!’[3]


Charles Kingsley
Oil on Canvas by Cato Lowes Dickinson, 1887
Magdalene College Portrait no. 67.

Such comments were undoubtedly of their time. Although Kingsley continues to attract attention from scholars of Victorian literature, science, religion and masculinity, among twenty-first century audiences his star has waned. While generations of schoolchildren were familiar until fairly recently with his rollicking, breezily xenophobic Westward Ho! (1855) and his moralistic pro-evolution tract The Water-Babies, a Fairy Tale for a Land Baby (1863), discomfort with his casual racial prejudice and with his unabashed celebration of turbocharged alpha manliness (‘muscular Christianity’) have helped to push him from the pedestal he once occupied.


Old Library M.4.39, Cover illustration from the first edition of Charles Kingsley’s ‘The Water Babies’, London: Macmillan, 1863.

Nor, aside from his portrait, is there much for Magdalene to remember him by. A brass plaque marks his student set, First Court C8, whence he used to sneak out over the wall of Second Court on early morning expeditions to the fens to go boating, fishing, skating and duck-shooting. The College Order Book records his admission to a scholarship in 1839, while the Old Library and Archives contain a fine first edition of The Water-Babies and some manuscript sermons. There are also evocations of the Magdalene of his student days, not least the (in)famous 1842 Bumps Supper in 1842 when 54 diners consumed ’52 bottles of champagne, 12 bottles of port, 9 bottles of sherry, 8 bottles of hock, 3 bottles of brandy, and about 20 bowls of punch’.[4] Although Kingsley probably did not attend it, the tally gives some idea of the company he kept. He later came to despise his younger self and the institution that shaped it, even if, as Ged Martin has recently suggested, the rackety rowdiness of Victorian Magdalene has been exaggerated.[5] In any case, Kingsley left in 1842: despite a good enough degree to awaken hopes of a fellowship, this never materialized. He opted instead for marriage and a Hampshire parish. When he returned to Cambridge as Regius Professor, married men could not yet become fellows, so he lodged at the other end of town, above G. Peck and Son, the chemist’s shop opposite the Fitzwilliam Museum. In his college, Kingsley still lends his name to one of the two annual Bye-Fellowships, but the Kingsley Club, Magdalene’s erudite, eccentric version of the Apostles, has long since fizzled out. Amid an already full programme of talks and exhibitions on other subjects, there is no grand celebration of his bicentenary.[6]


Brass plate for Charles Kingsley in Magdalene College Chapel.

With so little to work on at Magdalene, it makes sense, then, to turn, with Benson, to Kingsley’s likeness and to explore a little further why his contemporaries found it so compelling. The Victorians, it should be remembered, valorized ‘character’ – self-restraint, selflessness, discipline, honesty, and so on – above almost all else. To it – or to its lack – they ascribed the rise and fall of individuals and nations alike. ‘We are spinning our own fates, good or evil, and never to be undone,’ warned one nineteenth-century sage. ‘Every smallest stroke of virtue or of vice leaves its never-so-little scar.’[7] Character was learned through example. And while for believers and unbelievers alike the ultimate exemplar was and remained the figure of Jesus Christ, the Victorians surrounded themselves with pantheons of Great Men, Great Women, statesmen, scholars, educators, artists and innumerable others: a communion of saints in all but name, evoked in print, sculpture, painting and stained glass. Madame Tussaud’s (1831), the National Portrait Gallery (1859) and the massive expansion of the monuments in Westminster Abbey were all reflexes of this urge. Crucially for us, their aim was as much didactic as commemorative: the face was an open book from which the virtues that made the individual might be read and, it was hoped, absorbed.


Postcard of Canon Kingsley’s Grave, from, distributed under Creative Commons license.

This was certainly true of Kingsley, or so his friends thought. ‘Never shall I forget the moment when for the last time I gazed upon the manly features of Charles Kingsley, features which Death had rendered calm, grand, sublime,’ mused the German-born Oxford Professor of Comparative Philology, Friedrich Max Müller. The metaphor Müller used to describe the deceased was telling: already he saw him in quasi-carved likeness, as on a sculpted memorial. ‘As one looked on that marble statue which only some weeks ago had so warmly pressed one’s hand, his whole life flashed through one’s thoughts.’[8]

One remembered the young curate and the Saint’s Tragedy; the chartist parson and Alton Locke; the happy poet and the Sands of Dee; the brilliant novel-writer and Hypatia and Westward-Ho; the Rector of Eversley and his Village Sermons; the beloved professor at Cambridge, the busy canon at Chester, the powerful preacher in Westminster Abbey. One thought of him by the Berkshire chalk-streams and on the Devonshire coast, watching the beauty and wisdom of Nature, reading her solemn lessons, chuckling too over her inimitable fun. One saw him in town-alleys, preaching the Gospel of godliness and cleanliness, while smoking his pipe with soldiers and navvies.[9]

But as Müller gazed further at his friend, his public achievements and activity seemed to pale into insignificance. Greater than the poet, the professor, the divine was the man himself: his warm heart, his honesty, his friendship, his energy, chivalry and humanity. This was the epitaph that future generations ought to read and heed.

The constant struggle that in life seemed to allow no rest to his expression, the spirit, like a caged lion, shaking the bars of his prison, the mind striving for utterance, the soul wearying for loving response,– all that was over. There remained only the satisfied expression of triumph and peace, as of a soldier who had fought a good fight, and who, while sinking into the stillness of the slumber of death, listens to the distant sounds of music and to the shouts of victory. One saw the ideal man, as Nature had meant him to be, and one felt that there is no greater sculptor than Death.[10]

Kingsley’s funeral on 28 January 1875 was, likewise, a measure of the man. Around his grave gathered the local gypsies alongside a representative of the Prince of Wales, labourers and their families, clergymen, peers, MPs, colonial governors and military officers. ‘Every one knew that he had lost a friend who had been, in some peculiar sense, his own.’[11]


Bust of Charles Kingsley by Thomas Woolner
plaster cast of bust, 1875
NPG 1666
© National Portrait Gallery, London, distributed by Creative Commons license

Eighteen months later, on 23 September 1876, a bust of Kingsley was unveiled in Westminster Abbey. Although simple and dignified, as a likeness it is a bit of a let-down, chiefly because the sculptor, Thomas Woolner, held that either beards or clean-shaven faces were the only appropriate artistic modes: ‘the whisker is a temporary fashion of no sculptural value’.[12] Thus shorn to an unnatural smoothness, Kingsley took his place in what was becoming a ‘Little Poet’s Corner’, alongside William Wordsworth, John Keble, F.D. Maurice and the Arnolds, Thomas and Matthew, the assemblage being overlooked by new stained glass windows of George Herbert and William Cowper. Pantheons, however, are seldom stable for long, and like many a Victorian creation, ‘Little Poet’s Corner’ barely outlasted the First World War. Quite aside from the fact that twentieth-century critics sneered at the poetry of those remembered there, the desire to memorialize the military spirit trumped other considerations. Kingsley’s bust now stood in the Warrior Chapel: perhaps he would have approved. More recently, in 2014 he was displaced by a horribly Victorian bronze memorial to Henry and – probably more relevantly given recent women’s suffrage anniversaries – Millicent Garrett Fawcett. Kingsley now stands in Poet’s Corner proper, on the window sill near Chaucer’s monument.


Charles Kingsley
by Unknown photographer
albumen print, early 1860s
NPG x11880
© National Portrait Gallery, London, distributed by Creative Commons license

While it would be possible to end the story there, the last word should more appropriately go to Benson. Part of his purpose in penning The Leaves of the Tree (1911) was to argue that flawless hagiographical presentations were not just foolish but ‘harmless and noxious’. ‘The figures whom one really loves and worships, in history and fiction, are the people with great virtues and great faults, not the stainless, unruffled, icy saints who picked their way daintily through the mire.’ Such, Benson thought, was Kingsley. His arguments could be weak and his conclusions intellectually ramshackle, but he was inspiring nonetheless. If his sermons were unlikely to stand the test of time, it was because they needed ‘the deeply lined face, the noble gesture, the burning eye, the thrilling voice, to send them home to the heart’.[13] Hence Benson’s reverent affection for him; and hence also those who thronged to Eversley to visit his grave, to see the house where the books they loved had been written, and the church where Kingsley had ministered. ‘As a rule, when one visits a shrine which one regards as sacred, one desires to be alone;’ Benson reflected, ‘but I welcomed those pilgrims there, and was glad at their coming. It was natural, beautiful, and right. There was not a tree or stone in the place that did not seem somehow penetrated with the man’s great and tender spirit.’[14]


[1] Arthur Christopher Benson, The Leaves of the Tree: Studies in Biography (London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1911), p. 245.

[2] Margaret Farrand Thorp, Charles Kingsley, 1819-1875 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1937), p. 168.

[3] Benson, Leaves, p. 231.

[4] Peter Cunich et al., A History of Magdalene College, Cambridge, 1428-1988 (Cambridge: Magdalene College Publications), p. 198.

[5] Ged Martin, ‘Magdalene College Cambridge in Mid-Victorian Times’, at, last accessed 11 June 2019.

[6] For more on Kingsley’s university life, see Owen Chadwick, ‘Charles Kingsley at Cambridge’, Historical Journal, 18 (1975), 303-25.

[7] William James, The Principles of Psychology, 2 vols (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1890), I: p. 127.

[8] F. Max Müller, ‘Preface’, in Charles Kingsley, The Roman and the Teuton (London: Macmillan and Co., 1875), pp. v-vi.

[9] Ibid., p. vi.

[10] Ibid., p. v.

[11] Ibid., p. vii.

[12] Illustrated London News, 30 Sep. 1876, p. 330.

[13] Benson, Leaves, p. 244.

[14] Ibid., p. 259.


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