Charles Kingsley Speaking in Public: Empowered or at Risk?

By Rose, Caroline | Nineteenth-Century Prose, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Charles Kingsley Speaking in Public: Empowered or at Risk?


Rose, Caroline, Nineteenth-Century Prose


This article juxtaposes an article by Roland Barthes with accounts of Charles Kingsley speaking in public, to argue that the platform is potentially a site of risk as well as power. This article suggests that Kingsley was engaged in fashioning himself as a mediator in the pulpit and at the lectern. At times, this mediatory role seemed useful and "manly" (such as when he lectured on the dangers of degeneration), but at other times it caused public humiliation and emasculation. This article considers the social practice of rhetoric, the different spaces in which Kingsley spoke, and the active role of the audience in an attempt to recuperate something of the dynamics of the spoken word in nineteenth-century culture.

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In the realm of speech there is no innocence, no safety.

Roland Barthes "Writers, Intellectuals, Teachers"(1977)

He is a lecture in himself.

Anonymous member of Kingsley's audience (1857) (1)

Speaking in public can be a precarious business. In Trinidad, Charles Kingsley (1819-1875) preached in a pulpit that resembled "a sort of pill-box on a long stalk" which swayed and nodded under his weight. "I had to assume an attitude of most dignified repose, and to beware of "beating the drum ecclesiastic." or "danging the Bible to shreds," for fear of toppling into the pews," Kingsley wrote in At Last: A Christmas in the West Indies (225-26). This anecdote, with its parodic references to the bodily gestures of the overly-enthusiastic preacher, foregrounds the element of performance in establishing authority and "dignified repose" before an audience. Kingsley's "fear of toppling" as the very ground on which he stands shifts, provides a suggestive and humorous symbol of Kingsley struggling to keep "all under rule": to establish and maintain mastery. (2) An outward appearance of dignity is contrasted to an inner sense of vulnerability. This anecdote, then, is a reminder that authority may be tenuous (Kingsley could quite literally be overthrown) and that any performance is potentially at risk of becoming a spectacle.

This article begins with a discussion of Roland Barthes' essay, "Writers, Intellectuals, Teachers," and then focuses on issues such as Kingsley's relationship with his audience, his reception and his rhetorical strategies of self-legitimation. I continue by arguing that the lecture may function as a form of mediation (in particular, mediation may be a helpful way of describing some of the myriad and complex processes of communication that are signified by the umbrella term, the "popularization" of science). If Kingsley performed an important mediatory role across and within a wide range of discursive communities--literary, religious, social, political and scientific--then I believe it is imperative to analyze his rhetoric and its effects, not least because the very boundaries of these discursive fields were shifting, open, and contested. Here, I speculate that Kingsley's sense of identity is heavily invested in the role of intermediary, both in terms of attempting to reconcile parties in dispute (religious and scientific bodies, for instance) and in a belief that he was mediating between God and humanity. A mediator, of course, may also be a messenger; I argue that Kingsley became increasingly empowered as a public speaker by appropriating and disseminating ideas and images of degeneration, and that he was a significant figure in the promulgation of degeneration beliefs, before the fin de siecle (1880-1914), the period with which it is more frequently associated. Kingsley's place in popularizing and mediating ideas and images of degeneration has not yet been fully examined, and I believe such an analysis can contribute to a greater understanding of a genealogy of degeneration in England.

The figure of Charles Kingsley tends to evoke a range of varied responses. He has been described as "a howling idiot"; "unreadable"; "a portentous specimen of audacity" venting "pompous smoke"; "his mind [as] a glory-hole for the most extraordinary rubbish," and his manner as "a great deal more like Nervous Christianity than Muscular Christianity. …

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