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  • Voicing, De-voicing and Self-Silencing:Charles Kingsley's Stuttering Christian Manliness
  • Louise Lee (bio)

On the morning of the much-feared 'Monster' Chartist rally of 10 April 1848, London resembled a ghost town: two million protesters were expected to march on the capital; the Queen and Prince Albert had fled to the Isle of Wight; shops were closed; and an ageing Lord Wellington had barricaded London Bridge. All London gentlemen were made special constables in anticipation of a bloody fight. Yet while the city's gentry were busy dusting down their sabres and pistols and boarding up their doors and windows, Charles Kingsley, who had hurriedly caught the train to London that day, was calmly walking towards Kennington, site of the demonstration, with the intention of delivering a speech to the working men of England.1 As it turned out, the march was already dispersing as he and the young socialist journalist John Malcolm Ludlow approached, and a torrential deluge of rain was rather more effective in damping down the revolutionary fervour of the thousands of campaigners standing on the green that day than any words of support issuing from the mouth of the vicar of Eversley. Yet Kingsley's conduct is striking: it demonstrates a profound and unshakeable confidence that he could intervene between two warring sides and prevent what threatened to be one of the biggest bouts of blood-letting in modern British history. It is a sense of optimism that he carried to his early novel-writing life, but one that he realised, in his [End Page 1] own terms, with variable success. Some years later, in December 1855, shortly after the publication of his successful war novel Westward Ho!, Kingsley re-assessed his part in the dramatic events of the previous decade: it was a moment of painful self-revelation. In a doleful letter to Ludlow, he reproached himself for 'hitting as hard as I could and fancy[ing] blasphemously, as I think, that the word of God had come to me only [my emphasis] and went out from me only'.2

That last quote is telling. For at the heart of Kingsley's involvement in the Christian Socialist movement and his early writing career lay his profoundly held belief that words, or perhaps more specifically, his words could heal the bitter divisions of a feuding nation; that he could, in some way, superimpose his voice onto a wounded social body.3 In Alton Locke (1850), this belief is fictionalised in his decision to write the false autobiography, not biography, of a working class tailor and poet. The novel begins with the words: 'I am a Cockney among Cockneys . . . I have drunk of the cup of which they drink' (1–2).4 This is an audacious move. For a well-educated, well-fed, middle class cleric to attempt to internalise, as the cup-drinking metaphor implies, the life of poverty and physical hardship of a consumptive East London tailor might seem an unconscionable act of authorial chutzpah. Bodies, as Pierre Bourdieu suggests, are 'memory pads': they have their own histories, their own identities yet Kingsley's body had absorbed no such pasts and no such subjectivities.5 But it is perhaps easy to see why Kingsley of Kennington, fired up by the spirit of Christian identification and righteous conviction, might attempt such a task. Autobiography requires literacy and culture, both of which were logistically beyond reach of much of the working class. And despite Kingsley's overly harsh reading of himself as suffering from some kind of Messiah complex he was, as a hard-working parish priest (well-used to the sick-room of his parishioners), committed sanitary reformer and educator, more qualified than most of his class and generation to undertake such a writing mission.6Alton Locke can be seen as Kingsley's hopeful authorial amalgam, a chance linguistically to 'de-monster' the monster but also to educate the upper classes in the inequities of the capitalist system. Alton, as his form-changing name implies, occupies two worlds: as down-trodden Cockney seamster, representative of the potentially insurgent working class; and, as aspirant poet, mover in the middle-class world of writing...


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pp. 1-17
Launched on MUSE
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Archived 2009
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