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Henry Kingsley (1830–1876)

by A. A. Phillips

This article was published:

Henry Kingsley (1830-1876), novelist, was born on 2 January 1830 at Barnack, Northamptonshire, England, son of Rev. Charles Kingsley and his wife Mary, née Lucas; his older brothers were Charles (1819-1875), clergyman and novelist, Gerald (d.1844), naval officer, and George (1826-1892), a doctor and travel writer. Henry's early years were mainly spent in Devon and Chelsea, settings which he used in his novels. Sensitive about his puny and ugly appearance, he was inclined to adulate more personable contemporaries, especially his brother Charles. He attended King's College School and in 1850 matriculated to Worcester College, Oxford, where he achieved considerable success as an athlete but none as a scholar. A legacy of £500 helped to pay his debts and he left Oxford without taking a degree in 1853.

He decided to migrate and arrived at Melbourne in the Gauntlet in December 1853. Little is securely known of his Australian years. He tried gold-mining on such fields as the Caledonia, Ararat and Omeo without success and there is fairly good evidence that he was briefly a police-trooper. A friendly squatter gave him house-room at Langi Willi station near Skipton before he returned to England in 1857.

Kingsley's first novel, The Recollections of Geoffry Hamlyn, was published in mid-1859 and was immediately successful. On this book continuing interest in his work is mainly based. It traces the adventures of the Buckles and Brentwoods, Devonshire county families whose dwindling incomes could not sustain their position, leading them to seek better fortune in Australia. According to W. K. Hancock, Kingsley probably saw Tubbutt station near Delegate for it strongly resembles the setting in which Major Buckley made his elegant home. Bushfires, bushrangers and cattle-branding scenes provide drama, and the more sympathetic characters marry beautiful and wealthy brides.

After his father died in 1860 Kingsley lived with his mother at Eversley. Ravenshoe, generally considered his best novel, ran as a serial in Macmillan's Magazine from January 1861 to July 1862 and was then published as a book. On 5 December 1862 Kingsley was admitted as a student to the Inner Temple, but he soon abandoned study. In The Hillyars and the Burtons, which was serialized in Macmillan's from November 1863 to April 1865 and then issued as a book, much of the action again takes place in Australia. A sub-plot is concerned with political life in 'Cookstown', an imaginary colony; for this purpose Kingsley used the issues and involvements of Victorian politics of the mid-1850s, introducing characters somewhat suggestive of (Sir) William Stawell, (Sir) John O'Shanassy and (Sir) Charles Gavan Duffy.

On 19 July 1864 he had married Sarah Maria Haselwood. They settled at Wargrave on the Thames but Sarah's health and their debts soon brought anxieties. Despite increasing difficulties Kingsley managed to produce another sixteen novels, most of them mediocre and written under stress. Of these later novels only Reginald Hetherage (1874) used Australia as part of its setting. He also wrote essays which included discussions of the explorations of Sturt and Edward John Eyre and 'Travelling in Australia'. In 1869, harassed by debt, he accepted the editorship of the Daily Review at Edinburgh. In August 1870 he was in France as the Review's correspondent in the Franco-Prussian war and resumed his work as editor in October. He resigned early in 1871 and returned to London. Late in 1874 he moved with his wife to Cuckfield, Sussex, where, writing to the end, he died from cancer of the tongue on 24 May 1876.

Kingsley was a better-than-average Victorian romancer of conventional type. The general texture of his work is naturalistic, but spiced with melodramatic incidents and with emotional-moralistic characterizations of Dickensian type. He had no pretensions to depth of view or to imaginative largeness, but he had an easy liveliness and a beguiling geniality of tone. In picturing the new country Kingsley is most successful in treating the landscape and animal life. All the Kingsley brothers had a strong feeling for nature: Henry wrote of the bush with vividness, accuracy and a touch of lyrical delight. His treatment of the human conditions is often informing but limited by the prejudices natural to a man of his background. He assumes the superiority of upper-class Englishmen. Although he has given an admirably observed sketch of a station-hand (Geoffry Hamlyn, pp. 313-14), the nature of his prejudices may be judged by his comment on the lower-class migrants: 'A lazy independent class, with exaggerated ideas of their own importance in this new phase of their life, but without the worse vices of the convicts' (op. cit., p. 194).

Nevertheless Kingsley recorded his delight in the egalitarian good-fellowship of life on the diggings and gave a more favourable view of lower-class migrants in the following passage, despite its interesting proviso: 'A better set of fellows than the honest emigrants generally don't exist; but their superstitious respect for an old convict is almost pathetic' (The Hillyars and the Burtons, p. 61).

In general Kingsley gave an attractive migrant-encouraging picture of Australia. He depicted it as the land of easy opportunity, despite his own failure to make a living there. The squatter pioneers of Geoffry Hamlyn make their way to fortune almost without hardship. One of them says, 'Money has come to me by mere accumulation; I have taken more pains to spend it than to make it' (Geoffry Hamlyn, p. 173).

One of Kingsley's indirect services to Australian letters came through his upper-class prejudices. His assumption that the English gentry could take the practical leadership of the Australian-born in conditions with which the latter were far more familiar so irritated Joseph Furphy that he wrote a rebuttal, one of his most vigorous passages of invective (Such is Life, p. 39). Kingsley might have been even more roughly treated if Miles Franklin had expressed her opinion of Gerty Hillyar, an Australian girl of great beauty, Victorian docility and exceptional silliness. Nevertheless Gerty is in many respects an interesting and probably accurately observed portrait of a squatter's daughter of the time, which has one notable value. Kingsley has endowed her with a mastery of the Australian argot of the period, and through her he has recorded some flavorsome samples of it for the benefit of posterity.

Select Bibliography

  • S. M. Ellis, Henry Kingsley, 1830-1876. Towards a Vindication (Lond, 1931)
  • J. Oldham and A. Stirling, Victorian, a Visitors Book (Melb, 1934)
  • P. L. Brown (ed), Clyde Company Papers, vol 6 (Lond, 1963)
  • J. Barnes, Henry Kingsley and Colonial Fiction (Melb, 1971)
  • W. K. Hancock, Discovering Monaro (Cambridge, 1972)
  • B. Sutherland, ‘Henry Kingsley and Australia’, Australian Quarterly, vol 17, June 1945, pp 98-104.

Citation details

A. A. Phillips, 'Kingsley, Henry (1830–1876)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 21 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (Melbourne University Press), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


2 January, 1830
Barnack, Northamptonshire, England


24 May, 1876 (aged 46)
Cuckfield, Sussex, England

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