Charles Kingsley
Estuary of Torridge & Taw Rivers, near Bideford, North Devon
Medieval Bridge, Bideford, North Devon
Clovelly Harbour, North Devon
Down-Along, Clovelly, North Devon

Kingsley Memorial Window, Church of St. Mary, Holne, Dartmoor, Devon“All who have traveled through the delicious scenery of North Devon must needs know the little white town of Bideford, which slopes upwards from its broad tide-river paved with yellow sands, and many-arched old bridge where salmon wait . . .” 11). Thus begins Westward Ho! (1855), the novel by which Charles Kingsley remade the North Devon landscape both figuratively and literally.  Self-consciously epic in scope, Westward Ho! is an unabashed exercise in myth-building, as Kingsley places Bideford at the center of various military and colonial excursions that define the Age of Elizabeth: “it furnished seven ships to fight the Armada [and]. . . ‘sent more vessels to the northern trade than any port in England, saving (strange juxtaposition!) London and Topsham’” (12).   In turn, the novel’s popularity inspired Victorian railway entrepreneurs to transform an empty stretch of dunes and scrubland to the west of the Torridge/Taw estuary into a seaside resort called, inevitably, Westward Ho!  Small wonder the town fathers of Bideford have seen fit to erect a statue to the Reverend Kingsley on the quay in the town center. 

 

A ripping adventure yarn intended to supply a model of Elizabethan heroism for an England newly embarked on a war in the Crimea (Trezise 85), Westward Ho! chronicles the voyages  of one Amyas Leigh, who shares a broad Devon accent and a number of adventures with Sir Richard Grenville, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Sir Francis Drake, all of whom play roles in Kingsley’s epic.  It is replete with such “splendid set pieces” (Chitty 171) as the quest to rescue the lovely Rose of Torridge from dastardly Don Guzman, privateering on the Spanish main, night rides across the moors, and that legendary moment of English aplomb—Drake receiving the news that the Armada has been sighted and calmly finishing his game of bowls before he sails off to meet the enemy. 

 

Born in Holne on Dartmoor where his father was a vicar, Kingsley spent much of his childhood in the remote fishing village of Clovelly on the north coast, a place to which he returned for long stretches of his adult life including the period during which he wrote Westward Ho!  and the children’s fantasy The Water Babies (1863). Kingsley Cottage and a small Kingsley Museum, halfway down the narrow cobbled lane of “Down-Along” in present-day Clovelly, mark his time there.  A Chartist and founder of the Christian Socialist movement, Kingsley brought his particular quest for social justice to the West Country in Two Years Ago (1857).  Even here, in a novel concerned with rural poverty, Kingsley’s loving attention to local detail is evident, as in this description of Clovelly’s breakwall:  “Thirty feet of grey and brown boulders, spotted aloft with bright yellow lichens and black drops of tar polished lower down by the surge of centuries, and toward the foot of the wall roughened with crusts of barnacles, and mussel-nests in every crack and cranny . . . ” (qtd in Trezise 101).  As critic Simon Trezise has observed, “Kingsley was one of the pioneers of the West Country as a source both of artistic inspiration and of social comment” (104). His brother, Henry Kingsley (1830-1876), was similarly inspired by the Devon landscape, most significantly in his Exmoor novel Ravenshoe (1861).

 

Chitty, Susan.  The Beast and the Monk:  A Life of Charles Kingsley.  London:  Hodder and Stoughton, 1974.

Kingsley, Charles.  Westward Ho!  Or the Voyages and Adventures of Sir Amyas Leigh Knight of Burrough in the County of Devon in the Reign of her Most Glorious Majesty Queen Elizabeth.  London:  George G. Harrap and Co, Ltd., (1855), 1927.

Trezise, Simon.  “Charles Kingsley’s Territory:  Self-Righteousness and Self-Doubt.”  The West Country as a Literary Invention:  Putting Fiction in its Place.  Exeter: U of Exeter P 2000:79-105.

 

 

 

© Copyright Kim McMullen 2007