The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

XI. The Political and Social Novel

§ 6. Yeast

The first of his novels to be planned and begun was Yeast, a Problem; so that, though Alton Locke was published a year sooner as a whole, Yeast has an undoubted right of precedence. Both works sprang—not, indeed, in full panoply, for the one was hardly more than half-finished, and the other bears many marks of haste—from a brain overwrought by the interests and labours which it had shared; both were contributions to the solution of England’s pressing social problems, in country and in town, by a writer to whom they came directly home, and who, while able to sympathise with those oppressed whether by material or by spiritual difficulties, could not, in either case, accept any answers irreconcilable with the religious convictions which formed the anchorage of his own mind.

Yeast began to appear in Fraser’s Magazine in the fateful year of revolutions, 1848; but the proprietors of that journal, though generous friends both to Kingsley and to his ideas, took fright, and, while they induced him to cut this novel short, declined to publish its successor. Moreover, Kingsley had overstrained his powers of work, and had been obliged to tak refuge in his beloved north Devon in the midst of the production of Yeast. It did not appear as a book till 1851, without the new conclusion which he seems, at one time, to have intended to supply in a second part, called “The Artists” and not absolutely alien in conception, perhaps, to the second part of Faust.As it stands, the story, if judged by literary canons, must be allowed to exhibit some glaring defects. One of these is the weakness of its plot, which not only, as in a novel of the twentieth century, leaves everything unsettled at the end, but really hinges on the pusillanimous laches of a quite secondary personage. Yeast is far less successful than Alton Locke in adjusting the intermixture of narrative and declamation, and does not even scorn a boisterous transition such as: “Perhaps, reader, you are getting tired of all this.… So we will have a bit of action again.” The opening “bit of action,” however—the run with the hounds—is so superlatively fresh and free that the reader may be excused for desiring more of the same kind. Yet, the centre of gravity of the book lies in the dialogues between Launcelot and the personages who exercise a varied influence upon his manly and noble, but roving and ungoverned, nature—the man of the world, Bracebridge, Launcelot’s proud love, Argemone, and, above all, the philosophically observant keeper, Tregarva; and it is through the last named that Launcelot is brought to take cognisance of the question of the relation of classes in England and to seek to understand the real wants of the labouring poor. The treatment of this theme naturally suggests a comparison, from this point of view, of Yeast with Disraeli’s Coningsby (published only four years before Kingsley’s story was begun) and its successors by the same hand. Although written from totally diverse standpoints, the earlier having an unconcealed party purpose to which the later was altogether a stranger, they came to much the same conclusion, well formulated by Leslie Stephen, as the acceptance of the same ideal of society: the few for the many, not the many for the few. Kingsley’s utilitarian millionaire is not a caricature, nor is his great remedy of sanitary reform a mere item in a party programme. Contrariwise, his high-church curate on the way to Rome stands almost alone among his types of clergymen in its blank ugliness. The background of the degenerate weakness of the rustic labouring class, its desperate acquiescence in its miserable lot and its dogged blindness to the necessity of self-help (“Why save the farmers’ rates?”) is painted with genuine power. As for Launcelot, the process by which he has to work out his own salvation ends, so far as the story goes, in a half-mystical, half-ironical prognostic of the destiny of its chief personages;but for Tregarva there remains a process of purification by faith as well as by love.