Monday, February 22, 2016

prelude to Kingsley

Last summer, I had a visitor from the north, my old friend Richard, now a professor. One of the things we did was have a walk round Avebury. After a sufficiency of stones and speculations, we went to have lunch at a little cafe behind the exhibition centre, and next door there was an interesting book sale. Despite the interest (the books were old, unusual and almost free), despite my determination to buy something, I had trouble finding exactly what I wanted, and the upshot was that I came away with Charles Kingsley's Poems, one of those lovely small-format hardbacks that are so handy for stowing in a backpack.

That summer day and its flowers now seem a long time ago, ( I remember seeing among the stones a nice group of the stemmed variety of Dwarf Thistle;  and as usual my heart throbbed faster as I mistook this for the great Wiltshire rarity Tuberous Thistle ...) - but now it's the shabby little blue book that has taken stage-centre.

It so happens I had never read anything by Kingsley before.  And so far all I've read is a verse play The Saint's Tragedy ; the first significant thing he published, apparently (in 1847).

I learnt this from Roman Catholic Saints and Early Victorian Literature: Conservatism, Liberalism and the Emergence of Secular Culture , clearly an extremely interesting book by Devon Fisher published in 2012. Check it out on Google Books.

Kingsley was of course at one time an immensely popular author (besides being, eventually, chaplain to Queen Victoria), so his books (like Kipling's or Dickens') now form a deep geological layer in second-hand bookshops. Nevertheless I was rather surprised, visiting Laura Ashley in Bath yesterday, to find pages from an old biography of Kingsley being used as designer wallpaper. I picked up a few facts about The Saint's Tragedy there, too.

Browsing through clothes in Laura Ashley wasn't, of course, our only free Bath entertainment. We were also donating books to the Oxfam shop. One of my own donations was a large volume of Browning, which I opened in a valedictory way over lunch. It fell open at "The Heretic's Tragedy", a brilliant performance first published in Men and Women in 1855. I wondered if Browning remembered the name of Kingsley's play and if his poem obliquely comments on it: both works take a dim view of burning people at the stake, but that's not really a surprise. Kingsley's play is fiercely anti-Catholic; Browning shared the common sense of outrage that followed the re-establishment of the English Roman Catholic hierarchy (Universalis Ecclesiae, Sept 1850), but if "The Heretic's Tragedy" intends a glance at contemporary events it's artfully indirect.  (Kingsley in turn might have been influenced by the title of Browning's A Soul's Tragedy (April 1846) but that seems less likely.)

The stemmed variant of Cirsium acaule (Dwarf Thistle)

[Image source:,1, from John Crellin's excellent site. He took this photo not on the Mendips but at Charlton Mackrell in south Somerset.]

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