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

§ 8. Hypatia

When, in 1851, Kingsley began the publication, once more in Fraser’s Magazine, of Hypatia, or New Foes with an Old Face, which did not appear in book form till 1853, he may be said to have written, with full consciousness of his literary powers, the only novel from his hand which, he believed, might endure. In his case, this consciousness came at a time when the ardour of youth still urged him on from venture to venture. Thus, when he turned from the social to the historical novel, the transition was made with extraordinary self-confidence by means of a work dealing, as its sub-title indicates, with spiritual and intellectual questions which had stirred bygone ages as they were stirring his own, and intended to convey lessons to the living with the aid of the experience of the past. The period in the history of the world chosen by him to show how wisdom without faith is as salt which has lost its savour was one to which he was long attracted by the greatness of the issues determined in it—the period of the downfall of the western empire, of which Africa was claimed as part, and the transformation of the western world by Teutonic immigration. The only course of his Cambridge professorial lectures published by him deals with the main aspects of his general theme, and, in a short series of lectures which he delivered at Edinburgh in the year of the publication of Hypatia, he sought to trace the history of civilisation, thought and religion at Alexandria, the chief theatre of the action of his novel. Its special end is to depict the antagonism between an aggressive church and a decrepit empire, and, at the same time, to draw the lessons to be found in the struggles of a school of philosophy devoid of regenerative power. One of the new foes with an old face who reappear here is scepticism—an attitude of mind which Kingsley treated briefly, but with considerable skill as well as effect, in an essay, centring in a “Platonic” dialogue, published about this time (1852), under the title Phaethon, or Loose Thoughts for Loose Thinkers. It is one of the freshest and brightest of Kingsley’s lesser productions, and imbeds in the familiar surroundings of English country life and scenery a perfectly lucid and self-consistent argument against the complacent scepticism of a class of thinkers who were afterwards to form part of the large army of agnostics. In the novel, even the man of the world Raphael, saturated with intellectual experience, who forms a contrast to Philammon, the simple monk of the Laura, is led by the grace of divine love to a better mind.

The learning brought to bear upon the course of the narrative of which Hypatia, historical in the outline of the portrait, is the central figure, is ample enough to warrant the high praise bestowed upon “Kingsley’s masterpiece” by Bunsen, who had himself drunk deeply from the sources of the narrative. For the rest, Hypatia was, as Yeast had been before it, denounced as “immoral”; but, in the present case, the charge was, manifestly, the invention of sheer perversity. The book has its flaws: the noble self-reliance of Hypatia is belied by her blind submission to Orestes; and Bunsen was probably right in complaining of the Goths being presented too exclusively “in the drunken mood in which they appear as lawless and blood-sucking barbarians, and chronic berserkers.” But the brilliancy and glow of the whole picture, as it changes from quay and market to lecture-hall and amphitheatre, till, at last, it subsides into the solitude of the remote temple whence it took its start, is almost as notable as is the lifelike truth of the characters, taken from nearly every class and sect of the seething world-city.