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The Most Typical Victorian of Them All?

Why Charles Kingsley still matters, 200 years on

Charles Kingsley: Quintessential Victorian?

As part of a collaboration between SCNCR, the University of Urbino Carlo Bo and the Charles Kingsley Society, Dr Jonathan Conlin organized a series of events to mark the bicentenary of Charles Kingsley: novelist and poet, Christian Socialist, evolutionary thinker and imperialist. Alongside an academic workshop and edited volume, the project produced teacher's packs for secondary schools, a U3A study day and a two-day arts festival in Kingsley's parish of Eversley, Hampshire.

The Mount
The Mount

Dr Conlin's interest in Kingsley dates back to 2007, when he secured a Leverhulme Early-Career Fellowship to investigate how Kingsley integrated new evolutionary and racial theories in his historical novels. Kingsley's 1860 appointment as Regius Professor of History at the University of Cambridge has sometimes been seen as a quixotic choice, further inviting exploration of how the discipline of history came to define itself as a "science" in the nineteenth century. Conlin subsequently included a chapter on Kingsley in his subsequent book on Evolution and the Victorians, and began developing plans for the upcoming bicentenary in 2019. The 1919 centenary celebrations held in Eversley, Hampshire, where Kingsley served as parish priest had drawn national as well as international attention. But a century on, who remembered Kingsley? How could new audiences be brought to consider this "quintessential Victorian"?

In anticipation of the bicentenary and in collaboration with Kingsley's biographer, Professor Ivo Klaver of the University of Urbino Carlo Bo, Conlin convened an international workshop at the Gladstone Library in Hawarden in 2017. Sponsored by Princeton University Library and the SCNCR, this event drew scholars from the US and Canada as well as Europe, and addressed Kingsley's role as imperialist, evolutionary thinker, Christian Socialist, historian and self-declared Chartist revolutionary. The resulting volume, co-edited by Conlin and Klaver, was published in 2021 by Routledge. It includes contributions from leading scholars of Victorian Studies, history of science and cognate disciplines: John Sutherland, Herbert F. Tucker, Norman Vance, Bernard Lightman, Simon Goldhill and others.

Considered together with Fellow SCNCR member Dr Justino Pizzo's research into the work of Kingsley's daughter, Lucas Malet, these scholarly initiatives have amply demonstrated the Kingsley clan's continued importance to anyone interested in tracing the shifting relationships between gender and sexuality, faith and science as well as between race and national identity in the long nineteenth century.

Peter Duncan as Charles Kingsley
Peter Duncan as Charles Kingsley

Conlin's expertise led to an invitation to join a group of residents from Kingsley's Hampshire village of Eversley interested in developing plans for the 2019 bicentenary. Together they established a new registered charity, the Charles Kingsley Society, and organized a festival, CK200, held in June 2019 on The Mount, a rolling hillside within sight of Kingsley's former home, also the site of the 1919 centenary celebrations.

Funded by grants from ACE, the Heritage Lottery Fund, Hampshire County Council and local businesses, the festival saw a series of talks, displays and performances held over two days in Kingsley's village of Eversley, Hampshire. In addition to leading an Odiham U3A study day and helping develop KS2 teaching packs for local schools (addressing child labour, one of the many social ills Kingsley campaigned against) Dr Conlin curated the Festival's "Tent Talks" strand: a "mini-Hay Festival" in which academics, politicians and pundits (including Jane Humphries and Giles Fraser) reflected on Kingsley's legacy. He also co-wrote a new play in which Kingsley returned to Eversley in 2020, on temporary leave from Heaven. Former Blue Peter presenter Peter Duncan played Kingsley in this play's premiere at CK200.

Alongside the festival Dr Pizzo convened a workshop dedicated to Lucas Malet, held in Malet's former home (also in Eversley) and hosted a public round-table to launch a new volume of essays dedicated to the author. Colleagues and students from the university's music department also contributed to the festivities, helping organize the associated performance of a cantata based on Kingsley's poem Andromeda. As well as the depth of its inter-disciplinary expertise in Victorian Studies, CK200 demonstrated SCNCR's commitment to public impact, bringing Kingsley to new audiences of all ages.

Andromeda with the dragon
Andromeda with the dragon

The Charles Kingsley Society aims to use the momentum created by CK200 to lobby for greater community recognition of Kingsley's links to Eversley and the county of Hampshire as a whole, currently identified on road signs as "Austen's County", despite Kingsley's equal claim to that honour. More importantly, it seeks to use Kingsley's energy, curiosity and charisma to inspire young people to challenge the conventions of our society, and work to imagine and realize a better future.

Dr Jonathan Conlin

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