When reviewing a novel about the Crimean War for the Saturday Review in February 1857 T.C. Sanders insisted that the author of the work, Two Years After, preached a gospel of ‘muscular Christianity’. It was a slur that resonated throughout society enough to coin the phrase that marked the ideology of the said author, Charles Kingsley.
One of Victorian England’s high-profile social reformers, Kingsley preferred his own term, ‘Christian Masculinity’- a doctrine that permeated his literary work, not least of all his 1866 historical novel, Hereward the Wake. The result of this marriage between Kingsley, his ideology and the historical Hereward created a folklore figure to rival Robin Hood and King Arthur, turning a medieval footnote into a national icon.
Muscular Christianity was the doctrine of a popular movement led by Kingsley and Thomas Hughes, author of Tom Brown’s Schooldays. Emerging from the dying embers of the Christian Socialist movement, it was built on the concepts of character and well-being, postulating that physical and mental fitness would build good strong Englishmen of mind and body. Promoting sports while preaching the Bible, it was the template of instruction for the righteous and moral path of public schoolboys to adhere to for the future good of the Imperialist civilising mission – and was at the heart of issues of gender, class and national identity in the Victorian age and beyond. According to the likes of J.G. Cotton-Minchin, writing ‘Our Public Schools’ (‘Their influence on British history’) in 1901, this self-image propogated by proponents of muscular Christianity of ‘Englishmen going through the world with rifle in one hand and the Bible in the other’, in spirit as well as practice, 'built the Empire'.
The popularity of Kingsley’s novel upon release in 1866, the 800th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, catapulted the historical Hereward into popular consciousness. Here he became idealised as a national hero, a prototype Englishman upon whose defiant spirit the Empire was born, the ‘English Patriot’ - while the book became a youth development guide for the future English gentlemen of Eton, Harrow and Rugby. Kingsley’s employment of Hereward as a literary tool to indoctrinate muscular Christianity into the nation’s youth is evident throughout, consequently representations made and images of Hereward are at odds with modern interpretations.
An example of this is the vivid depiction of class tensions, both in the physical and textual body of Hereward. Coming from the Fenlands of eastern England Hereward ‘has little or nothing around him to refine or lift up his soul; and unless he meet with a religion, and with a civilisation, which can deliver him, he may sink into that deep brutality which is too common among the lowest classes’.
Here Kingsley underpins the quest in his ‘coming of age’ novel, wherein Hereward develops and evolves throughout the text. He eventually ‘meets religion’ by being taught how to pray by his wife Torfrida, and rejoins ‘civilisation’ by coming to terms with King William. That Kingsley depicts Hereward as a nobleman who had fallen from grace was sounding out a warning to the well-off public schoolboy about his own need for personal development and the precariousness of the ‘topsy-turvy times’ of a mid-Victorian England embroiled in workers unrest and social deprivation.
Kingsley’s instruction on personal development reaches out to the lower-classes of Victorian society in the chapter where Hereward and his men have vanished into the Greenwood. Gradually law and order arose among the outlaws, thank's to; ‘that instinct of discipline and self-government, side by side with that of personal independence, which is the peculiar mark, and peculiar strength, of the English character.’
Redemption, it seems, was possible. The lower-classes could, like Hereward, be tamed, but perhaps only because they were English. As Donald E. Hall states ‘ it is important to remember that a secure sense of the national ‘self was inevitably and inextricably tied to a well regulated class system, and policing that system remained a primary function of the muscular Christian novel.’
Utilising a historical figure to inform and instruct a contemporary client, Kingsley unites the two in a paragraph of spectacular instruction that was still being reproduced in the Boys Own Paper in 1938, suggesting that Muscular Christianity as a doctrine and Hereward the Wake as an icon were as relevant in society on the eve of the Second World War, as they had been in the aftermath of the Crimean War some eighty years earlier, it reads; 'Hard knocks in good humour, strict rules, fair play, and equal justice for high and low; this was the old outlaw spirit, which has descended to their inlawed descendants; and makes, to this day, the life and marrow of an English public school.’
The English children on entering public school were entering a 'jungle', yet under the doctrine of the likes of Kingsley and with forebears such as Hereward the Wake as role models, they would emerge as healthy English gentlemen equipped for the duties of England and Empire. By association the historical Hereward became linked to nineteenth century imperialism, patriotism and nationalism, ideologies that no longer hold sway in today’s society.
David AC Maile.