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Reminiscence of Charles Kingsley by Ellis Yarnall

The heat of London in the midsummer of 1857, even to my American apprehension, was intense. The noise of the streets oppressed me, and perhaps the sight now and again of freshly-watered flowers which beautify so many of the window-ledges, and which seem to flourish and bloom whatever the weather, filled me the more with a desire for the quiet of green fields and the refreshing shade of trees. I had just returned from Switzerland, and the friends with whom I had been journeying in that land of all perfections had gone back to their home among the wealds and woods of Essex. I began to feel that sense of solitude which weighs heavily on a stranger in the throng of a great city; so that it was with keen pleasure I looked forward to a visit to Mr. Kingsley. A most kind invitation had come from him, offering me "a bed and all hospitality in their plain country fashion."

At four in the afternoon of a hot July day I started for Winchfield, which is the station on the London and Southampton Railway nearest to Eversley—a journey of an hour and a half. I took a fly at Winchfield for Eversley, a distance of six miles. My way lay over wide silent moors: now and then a quiet farmstead came in view—moated granges they might have been—but these were few and far between, this part of Hampshire being owned in large tracts. It was a little after six when I drew near to the church and antique brick dwelling-house adjoining it which were the church and rectory of Eversley. There were no other houses near, so that it was evidently a wide and scattered parish. Old trees shaded the venerable irregularly-shaped parsonage, ivy and creeping plants covered the walls, and roses peeped out here and there. Mr. Kingsley himself met me at the open hall-door, and there was something in his clear and cheerful tone that gave a peculiar sense of welcome to his greeting. "Very glad to see you," said he. Then taking my bag from the fly, "Let me show you your room at once, that you may make yourself comfortable." So, leading the way, he conducted me up stairs and along a somewhat intricate passage to a room in the oldest part of the house. It was a quaint apartment, with leaden casements, a low ceiling, an uneven floor—a room four hundred years old, as Mr. Kingsley told me, but having withal a very habitable look. "I hope you'll be comfortable here," said my host as he turned to go—"as comfortable as one can be in a cottage. Have you everything you want? There will be a tea-dinner or a dinner-tea in about half an hour." Then, as he lingered, he asked, "When did you see Forster last?"

"Six weeks ago," I said—"in London. He had just received news of the vacancy at Leeds, and at once determined to offer himself as the Liberal candidate. He went to Leeds for this purpose, but subsequently withdrew his name. I gather from his speech at the banquet his supporters gave him afterward that this was a mistake, and that if he had stood he would have been elected."

"Ah," said Kingsley, "I should like to see Forster in Parliament. He is not the man, however, to make head against the tracasseries of an election contest."

Some other talk we had, and then he left me, coming back before long to conduct me to the drawing-room. Two gentlemen were there—one a visitor who soon took leave; the other, the tutor to Mr. Kingsley's son. Mrs. Kingsley came in now and shook hands with me cordially, and I had very soon the sense of being at one with them all. Our having mutual friends did much toward this good understanding, but it was partly that we seemed at once to have so much to talk of on the events of the day, and on English matters in which I took keen interest.

India was naturally our first subject, and the great and absorbing question of the mutiny. I told what the London news was in regard to it, and how serious was the look of things. Kingsley said there must be great blame somewhere—that as to the British rule in India, no man could doubt that it had been a great blessing to the country, but the individual Englishman had come very far short of his duty in his dealings with the subject race: a reckoning was sure to come. Oakfield was mentioned—a story by William Arnold of which the scene was laid in India, and which contained evidence of this ill-treatment of the Hindoos by their white masters. Kingsley spoke highly of this book. I said I thought it had hardly been appreciated in England. Kingsley thought the reason was it was too didactic—there was too much moralizing. Only the few could appreciate this: the many did not care for it in a novel.

Our tea-dinner was announced: it was served in the hall. Mrs. Kingsley spoke laughingly of their being obliged to make this their dining-room. The talk at the table fell on American affairs. Sumner's name was mentioned. I said he was in London, and that I had had a long conversation with him a few days before. Would I give them his address? they asked: they must have a visit from him. I said he would be glad to visit them, I was sure, for when I told him I was coming here he said he envied me. He was at present engaged in a round of dinners—expected to go to France in August to stay with De Tocqueville, but would be again in England in the autumn. Kingsley spoke of Brooks's death—of the suddenness of it seeming almost a judgment. I said Brooks, as I happened to know, was thought a good fellow before the assault—that he really had good qualities, and was liked even by Northern men. "So we have heard from others," said Kingsley, "and one can well believe it. The man who suffers for a bad system is often the best man—one with attractive qualities." Charles I. and Louis XVI. were instances he gave to illustrate this. A recent article in the Edinburgh Review on slavery was spoken of. I said it had attracted a good deal of attention with us, because we saw immediately it could only have been written by an American. Of slavery Mr. Kingsley spoke in calm and moderate words. I told him his introductory chapter to Two Years Ago showed that he appreciated the difficulties with which the question was encumbered. He said it would be strange if he did not see these difficulties, considering that he was of West Indian descent (his grandfather had married a West Indian heiress). He admitted that the result of emancipation in the West Indies was not encouraging as it regarded the material condition of the islands, especially of Jamaica, and he was quite able to understand how powerfully this fact would weigh on our Southern planters, and how it tended to close their ears to all anti-slavery argument. They could hardly be expected to look beyond this test of sugar-production to the moral progress of the black race which freedom alone could ensure.

Our pleasant meal being over, we strolled out on the lawn and sat down under one of the fine old trees, where we continued our talk about slavery. Mr. Kingsley said he could quite believe any story he might hear of cruelty practiced upon slaves. He knew too well his own nature, and felt that under the influence of sudden anger he would be capable of deeds as violent as any of which we read. This, of course, was putting out of view the restraints which religion would impose; but it was safe for no man to have the absolute control of others.

He left us to go into the house, and Mrs. Kingsley then spoke of his parochial labors. She wished I could spend a Sunday with them—"I should so like you to see the congregation he has. The common farm-laborers come morning and afternoon: the reason is, he preaches so that they can understand him. I wish you could have been with us last Sunday, we had such an interesting person here—Max Müller, the great linguist and Orientalist. But we can't have pleasant meets here: we have only one spare room."

"How old is Max Müller?" I asked.

"Twenty-eight, and he scarcely looks to be twenty-two."

"How long has Mr. Kingsley been here?" I asked.

"Fifteen years—two years as curate, and then the living becoming vacant, it was given to him."

She told me a funeral was to take place directly—that of a poor woman who had been a great sufferer. "Ah, here it comes," she said.

There was the bier borne on men's shoulders and a little company of mourners, the peasantry of the neighborhood, the men wearing smock-frocks. They were awaiting the clergyman at the lichgate. Mr. Kingsley appeared at the moment in his surplice, and the procession entered the churchyard, he saying as he walked in front the solemn sentences with which the service begins. It was the scene which I had witnessed in another part of Hampshire some years before, when the author of The Christian Year was the officiating clergyman. Mrs. Kingsley and I joined the procession and entered the church. It was a small, oddly-arranged interior—brick pavements, high-backed pews, the clerk's desk adjoining the reading-desk, but a little lower. Mr. Kingsley read the service in a measured tone, which enabled him to overcome the defect in his utterance noticeable in conversation. At the grave the rest of the office was said, and here the grief of the poor mourners overcame them. The family group consisted of the husband of the deceased, a grown-up daughter and a son, a boy of fifteen. All were much moved, but the boy the most. He cried bitterly—a long wail, as if he could not be comforted. Mr. Kingsley tried to console him, putting his arm over his shoulders. He said words of sympathy to the others also. They went their way over the heath to their desolate home. Mr. and Mrs. Kingsley spoke of the life of toil which had thus ended, and of the patience with which long-continued bodily pain had been borne. It was clear that the popular author was first of all a parish priest.

We now went into his study, where he lighted a long pipe, and we then returned to a part of the lawn which he called his quarter-deck, and where we walked up and down for near an hour. What an English summer evening it was!—dewy and still. Now and then a slight breeze stirred in the leaves and brought with it wafts of delicate odors from the flowers somewhere hidden in the deep shadows, though as yet it was not night and the sweet twilight lay about us like a charm. He asked if I knew Maurice. I did slightly—had breakfasted with him six weeks before, and had seen enough of him to understand the strong personal influence he exerted. "I owe all that I am to Maurice," said Kingsley, "I aim only to teach to others what I get from him. Whatever facility of expression I have is God's gift, but the views I endeavor to enforce are those which I learn from Maurice. I live to interpret him to the people of England."

A talk about the influence of the Oxford writers came next: on this subject I knew we should not agree, though of course it was interesting to me to hear Mr. Kingsley's opinion. He spoke with some asperity of one or two of the leaders, though his chief objection was to certain young men who had put themselves forward as champions of the movement. Of Mr. Keble he spoke very kindly. He said he had at one time been much under the influence of these writings. I mentioned Alexander Knox as being perhaps the forerunner of the Oxford men. "Ah," he said, "I owe my knowledge of that good man to Mrs. Kingsley: you must talk with her about him." We joined the party in the drawing-room, and there was some further conversation on this subject.

At about ten o'clock the bell was rung, the servants came in, prayers were said, and the ladies (Mrs. Kingsley and their daughter's governess) bid us good-night. Then to Mr. Kingsley's study, where the rest of the evening was spent—from half-past ten to half-past twelve—the pipe went on, and the talk—a continuous flow. Quakerism was a subject. George Fox, Kingsley said, was his admiration: he read his Journal constantly—thought him one of the most remarkable men that age produced. He liked his hostility to Calvinism. "How little that fellow Macaulay," he said, "could understand Quakerism! A man needs to have been in Inferno himself to know what the Quakers meant in what they said and did." He referred me to an article of his on Jacob Boehme and the mystic writers, in which he had given his views in regard to Fox.

We talked about his parish work: he found it, he said, a great help to him, adding emphatically that his other labor was secondary to this. He had trained himself not to be annoyed by his people calling on him when he was writing. If he was to be their priest, he must see them when it suited them to come; and he had become able if called off from his writing to go on again the moment he was alone. I asked him when he wrote. He said in the morning almost always: sometimes, when much pushed, he had written for an hour in the evening, but he always had to correct largely the next morning work thus done. Daily exercise, riding, hunting, together with parish work, were necessary to keep him in a condition for writing: he aimed to keep himself in rude health. I asked whether Alton Locke had been written in that room. "Yes," he said—"from four to eight in the mornings; and a young man was staying with me at the time with whom every day I used to ride, or perhaps hunt, when my task of writing was done."

A fine copy of St. Augustine attracted my attention on his shelves—five volumes folio bound in vellum. "Ah," he said, "that is a treasure I must show you;" and taking down a volume he turned to the fly-leaf, where were the words "Charles Kingsley from Thomas Carlyle," and above them "Thomas Carlyle from John Sterling." One could understand that Carlyle had thus handed on the book, notwithstanding its sacred associations, knowing that to Kingsley it would have a threefold value. My eye caught also a relic of curious interest—a fragment from one of the vessels of the Spanish Armada. It lay on the mantelpiece: I could well understand Kingsley's pleasure in possessing it.

At the breakfast-table the next morning we had much talk in regard to American writers. Kingsley admitted Emerson's high merit, but thought him too fragmentary a writer and thinker to have enduring fame. He had meant that this should be implied as his opinion in the title he gave to Phaethon—"Loose Thoughts for Loose Thinkers"—a book he had written in direct opposition to what he understood to be the general teaching of Emerson. I remarked upon the great beauty of some of Emerson's later writings and the marvelous clearness of insight which was shown in his English Traits. Kingsley acquiesced in this, but referred to some American poetry, so called, which Emerson had lately edited, and in his preface had out-Heroded Herod. Kingsley said the poems were the production of a coarse, sensual mind. His reference, of course, was to Walt Whitman, and I had no defence to make. Of Lowell, Mr. Kingsley spoke very highly: his Fable for Critics was worthy of Rabelais. Mr. Froude, who is Kingsley's brother-in-law, had first made him acquainted with Lowell's poetry. Hawthorne's style he thought was exquisite: there was scarcely any modern writing equal to it. Of all his books he preferred the Blithedale Romance.

We talked of Mr. Froude, whom Kingsley spoke of as his dearest friend: he thought Froude sincerely regretted ever having written the Nemesis of Faith. Mr. Helps, author of Friends in Council, he spoke of as his near neighbor there in Hampshire, and his intimate friend. Mr. Charles Reade he knew, and I think he said he was also a neighbor: his Christie Johnston he thought showed high original power. Mrs. Gaskell we talked of, whose Life of Charlotte Bronté had just then been published: Mr. Kingsley thought it extremely interesting and "slightly slanderous." He told me of the author of Tom Brown's School-days, a copy of which, fresh from the publishers, was lying on his table. Mr. Hughes is now so well known to us I need only mention that Mr. Kingsley spoke of him as an old pupil of Arnold's and a spiritual child of Maurice. He spoke most warmly of him, and offered me a letter of introduction to him. I could not avail myself of this, having so little time to remain in London.

I must mention, as showing further Mr. Kingsley's state of mind toward Maurice, that he had named his son after him. He spoke of the boy as being intended for the army: the family, he said, had been soldiers for generations. "That is the profession England will need for the next five-and-twenty years." Of Forster he said, "What a pity he had not been put in the army at the age of eighteen!—he would have been a general now. England has need of such men." I note this as showing the curious apprehension of war which he, an Englishman, felt eighteen years ago, and which he expressed to me, an American. How little either of us thought of the struggle which men of English blood were to engage in in three years from that time! How little I could dream that one of the decisive battles of the world was so soon to be fought in my own State, Pennsylvania!

Our morning was spent in all this varied talk, walking partly on the lawn, partly in the study. His pipe was still his companion. He seemed to need to walk incessantly, such was his nervous activity of temperament. He asked me if it annoyed me for him to walk so much up and down his study. The slight impediment in his speech one forgot as one listened to the flow of his discourse. He talked a volume while I was with him, and what he said often rose to eloquence. There was humor too in it, of which I can give no example, for it was fine and delicate. But what most impressed me was his perfect simplicity of character. He talked of his wife with the strongest affection—wished I could remain longer with them, if only to know her better. Nothing could be more tender than his manner toward her. He went for her when we were in the study, and the last half hour of my stay she sat with us. She is one of five sisters who are all married to eminent men.

It occurs to me to note, as among my last recollections of our talk, that I spoke of Spurgeon, whom I had heard in London a short time before, and was very favorably impressed with. I could not but commend his simple, strong Saxon speech, the charm of his rich full voice, and above all the earnest aim which I thought was manifest in all he uttered. Mr. Kingsley said he was glad to hear this, for he had been told of occasional irreverences of Spurgeon's, and of his giving way now and then to a disposition to make a joke of things. Not that he objected altogether to humor in sermons: he had his own temptations in this way. "One must either weep at the follies of men or laugh at them," he added. I told him Mr. Maurice had spoken to me of Mr. Spurgeon as no doubt an important influence for good in the land, and he said this was on the whole his own opinion. He told me, however, of teaching of quite another character, addressed to people of cultivation mainly, and to him peculiarly acceptable. His reference was to Robertson's Sermons: he showed me the volume—the first series —just then published. The mention of this book perhaps led to a reference by Mr. Kingsley to the Unitarians of New England, of whom he spoke very kindly, adding, in effect, that their error was but a natural rebound from Calvinism, that dreary perversion of God's boundless love.

But I had now to say good-bye to these new friends, who had come to seem old friends, so full and cordial had been their hospitality, and so much had we found to talk of in the quickly-passing hours of my visit. Mr. Kingsley drove me three miles on my way to Winchfield. His talk with me was interspersed with cheery and friendly words to his horse, with whom he seemed to be on very intimate terms. "Come and see us again," he said as we parted: "the second visit, you know, is always the best."