Henry Kingsley

Henry Kingsley (1830-1876), the younger brother of famed novelist Charles Kingsley, showed signs of brilliance in his early works, but the majority of the twenty novels he published were either panned or simply ignored. The Recollections of Geoffrey Hamlyn (1859) received considerable attention in Australia, and critics concur that his best work is Ravenshoe (1862). Following a brief period of marginal fame in the early 1860s, the remainder of Kingsley's life was marked by literary failure and poverty.

Fun and Folly

Henry Kingsley was born on January 2, 1830, at Barnack in the Northamptonshire countryside of England. The youngest child, he was the fifth son born to Reverend Charles and Mary (Lucas) Kingsley. Two of his brothers achieved significant fame during their life times, Charles as a novelist and George as a traveler and scientist. Soon after Kingsley's birth, before his first birthday, the family moved to Clovelly, Devonshire. When Kingsley was six years old, his father became the rector at St. Luke's Church in Chelsea. Both Devonshire and Chelsea later figured prominently into Kingsley's novels. Most of his childhood was spent in London, where he investigated his literary interests in his father's well-stocked library and local bookstalls.

Kingsley's formal education began in 1844 at King's College School. Six years later, in 1850, he matriculated at Worcester College, Oxford. Kingsley's time at Oxford was marked by a near total disregard for his studies and a clear commitment to folly and fun. Kingsley's taste for pleasure and athletic prowess made him considerably popular among his peers. He once won a wager with friend Sir Edwin Arnold by running a mile, rowing a mile, and trotting a mile within fifteen minutes. Yet like his interest in strenuous sports, Kingsley's behavior often verged on overindulgence, including smoking and drinking. He and Arnold also formed a short-lived secret society, called the Fez Club, which was based on misogyny (hatred of women) and a commitment to celibacy.


After three wasted years Kingsley suddenly, and much to his parents' disappointment, left Oxford without obtaining a degree to pursue adventure and fortune in Australia, which was at the peak of its gold rush. Having accrued significant debt due to his lavish spending, Kingsley was surprised by an unexpected inheritance of three hundred pounds from a great aunt. This money allowed him to settle his accounts and purchase passage to Australia. Whatever Kingsley expected or hoped to find in the wild outback, any visions of wealth or glory were quickly replaced by a harsh reality of uncertainty and deprivation. The naïve twenty-three-year-old Kingsley soon discovered that the glowing letters of introduction he had brought along were absolutely without value. For the next five years, with no contact with his family, he moved from job to job.

After laboring fruitlessly in the gold mines, Kingsley was employed by the Sydney Mounted Police for a time. He then moved on to work briefly as a farmer worker and stock driver. After another stint in the gold mines, Kingsley found himself panhandling for food and lodging to sustain his merger existence. Then, as suddenly as he left his family, he returned to them in 1958. Fearing that his parents may have died without his knowledge, Kingsley was pleased to find his mother and father living in Eversley, Hampshire, where his brother Charles was serving as the curate. His parents, overjoyed to see their prodigal son, welcomed him back into the family. Encouraged by Charles, who had in his younger brother's absence established himself as a well-known novelist, Kingsley decided to make a serious attempt at writing.

Early Success

Kingsley's first attempt as a fiction writer produced one of his best works. The Recollections of Geoffrey Hamlyn, published in 1859 by Alexander Macmillan upon George's recommendation, became something of a literary and popular success. The three-volume novel starts the reader off in England, but in volume two moves to the landscape of Australia. Drawing on his personal experiences, Kingsley painted a splendidly romance picture of the rugged, heroic life of Australian settlers. Although critics remarked that his plot was marked by unnecessary and annoying digressions, Kingsley displayed his ability to create a sensational, dramatic scene, offering readers the adventures of an Australian brushfire, a kangaroo hunt, a child lost in the brush, and encounters with aborigines. Well received in England, Geoffrey Hamlyn became a national phenomenon in Australia, even being called the greatest Australian novel of all time.

Kingsley followed the success of Geoffrey Hamlyn with the publication in 1862 of his second novel, Ravenshoe, considered by literary critics to be his best work. The complex plot of the novel revolves around the life of Charles Ravenshoe. In line to inherit the family estate, Charles meets an incredible list of obstacles that force him from boyhood into manhood. The plot is set in motion when Densil Ravenshoe agrees to allow his wife to raise George in the Protestant faith. In turn, the Roman Catholic family priest, fearing a loss of influence and position, attempts to disavow George's claim as rightful heir. "Not only is the plot complex," noted William H. Scheuerle in his introduction to Ravenshoe, "but it is melodramatic and a little silly, turning around a duality of Kingsley's favorite devices: infants switched at birth, and children falsely declared to be illegitimate until a secret marriage certificate establishes their legitimacy. Disappearances and minor but related mysteries compound the complications, and overhanging and influencing all is a religious turbulence that initiates much subterfuge."

The early 1860s were probably the happiest time in Kingsley's life. He was living with his mother after his father's death in 1862 and enjoying mostly positive reviews of his writing. In 1863, he published his third novel, Austin Elliott, which follows the life of its title character in the aftermath of a duel. On July 19, 1864, Kingsley married his second cousin, Sarah Maria Kingsley Haselwood, a twenty-two-year-old penniless ex-governess who also brought the responsibility of her mother's welfare to the marriage. The couple moved into a charming cottage, called Hillside House, in Wargrave, Berkshire, and at first led a pleasant life, frequently entertaining literary guests, such as famed authors Adolph Huxley, George Meredith, and Lewis Carroll. However, no longer under his mother's financial umbrella, Kingsley soon found himself in financial trouble. His wife's ongoing health problems, including multiple miscarriages, added to his burden. Before long, Kingsley was complaining to family and friends that he had no money at all.

Financial Hardships

Under pressure to produce royalty moneys, Kingsley began a speedy pace of writing. First appearing in monthly installments in MacMillan's Magazine from November 1863 to April 1865, and later published in 1865 as a three-volume set, Kingsley's The Hillyars and the Burtons received barely a passing glance from critics and the public alike. Although the novel is set in Australia, it failed to garner the hearts of Australian readers as Geoffrey Hamlyn had. Whereas Geoffrey Hamlyn was the tale of aristocratic British settlers attempting to reap rewards from the land, The Hillyars and the Burtons follows the lives of hardworking immigrants who pursue success in Australia through thriftiness and hard work.

The novel suffered from a confused plot, a fault in Kingsley's writing that would come to denote the decline of his literary works. Yet, as a writer of romance, Kingsley showed glances of talent in the midst of his disintegrating story line. "One boy-dream he found had faded away," Kingsley wrote near the end of his novel, "in the rude daylight of frost, hunger and failure; the dream of Emma Burton. She is but as a figure in a dream to him now. The man Erne thinks of the love which the child Erne had to her, as a boy's fancy, beautiful enough, but childish, romantic, and purged him from him in those horrible trenches. Do you like the Child Erne or Man Erne the best? It is not for me to decide, but I think I will choose the child."

Writing out of financial necessity seldom brings forth fountains of literary brilliance, and in Kingsley's case, seemed to have caused what imperfect talent he had to begin with to disintegrate completely. Over the next four years he published four more works: Leighton Court (1866), Silcote of Silcotes (1867), Mademoiselle Mathilde (1868), and Stretton (1869). Each received poor reviews and was wholly ignored by the reading public. Desperate to relieve himself of his financial difficulties and beaten down by the successive failures of his writing, Kingsley moved to Edinburgh in 1869 to become the editor of the Daily Review, a newspaper run by the Free Church Party, a coalition that seceded from the Church of Scotland over political and civil, rather than religious, grounds. By all accounts, Kingsley was a poor fit for his new post. Along with his predisposition to support the Church of England, his life as a novelist hardly equipped him with the skills to meet constant deadlines, attend to details, and oversee administrative functions.

War Correspondent

In August 1870, with the onset of the Franco-Prussian War, Kingsley abandoned his editor's desk to become a reporter in the battlefields. He was present at the battle of Sedan, which took place on September 1, 1870, and marked the defeat of the French army and the surrender of Napoleon. The brutality and inhumanity of the war scenes that spread before him captured Kingsley's creative spirit again, and he wrote with distinction of the horrors he encountered. Scheuerle offered an example of Kingsley's war correspondence: "The night was profoundly dark, but there were innumerable stars over head as I sat down to look over the battlefield of that morning towards Metz. … There was no movement of any kind; now and then some wandering wind, coming from the battlefield, would whisper in the rye-grass about my head, like the whispers of the dead men who lay heaped below. Knowing what had happened below that morning, the matter became somewhat too solemn, and so I rose and left the night winds to whistle round that desolate down by themselves."

Literary Decline

After two months, Kingsley, recovering from malaria, returned to his editorship in Edinburgh. However, before the end of 1870 he stepped down from the job at the request of the owners who were dissatisfied with his level of service. Kingsley and his wife moved to London, and Kingsley renewed his writing career by rapidly producing several more works. By the end of 1872, he had published three novels, an allegory, and a story for boys—each with the same lack of success. In 1872 he attempted to regain his place in the literary world with Oakshott Castle, Being the Memoirs of an Eccentric Nobleman, but the three-volume work was so disjointed that critics were too confused to offer much specific criticism, except to conclude that it was one of the worst novels ever published. Oakshott Castle is so stunningly disorganized and incoherent that it has made literary historians wonder at the cause of Kingsley's seemingly complete loss of literary conception. Alcoholism, mental imbalance, and poor health have been theorized, but remain pure conjecture.

Kingsley, who had been reduced to pleading for funds from his famous brother Charles, finally found a respite from poverty in 1873 when he received an inheritance upon his mother's death. With the money, Kingsley and his wife moved to Kentish Town, an outlying area of London. The following year, upon receiving the news that he was dying from cancer of the tongue and throat, caused by excessive smoking, Kingsley moved to Cuckfield, a quaint country village in Sussex. In the two years before his death, Kingsley continued to write, producing four more novels, along with a series of literary essays. He died on May 24, 1876, having never regained a modicum of his early success.


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