The book is a classic example of a Victorian historical novel. Kingsley regularly refers to his sources, including in footnotes, which adds verisimilitude to his narrative but at the same time he hams it up with thees and thous and turns the story into a melodrama. There are fun boys' own adventure style bits and there is an interesting moral aspect (Hereward in later life forsakes his wife and child for a younger woman) but fundamentally this is a celebration of the manly virtues. Hereward is a larger-than-life hero who slaughters many but we can't sympathise with them because they are either weaklings or foreigners or both. There is no sense of irony when we are told "The two women went into the church at Matins and prayed long and fervently. And at early daybreak, the party went back laden with good things and hearty blessings and caught one of Ivo Taillebois' men by the way, and slew him, and got off him a new suit of clothes in which the poor fellow was going courting; and so they got home safe into the Bruneswald." (C 36). It would seem that the piety at the start of the paragraph is more than enough justification for violent and murderous highway robbery by the end of the paragraph. It is little surprise that he supported Edward Eyre, a Governor of Jamaica who had brutally suppressed a peasant rebellion.
Kingsley also, typically for his time, favoured those of good birth. The aforementioned Ivo Taillebois is one of the villains and is repeatedly scorned because his grandfather was a woodcutter. The illegitimate birth of William the Conqueror is also mentioned several times. Hereward, on the other hand, has a noble pedigree.
He was also a social Darwinist: "In the savage struggle for life, none but the strongest, healthiest, cunningest, have a chance of living, prospering, and propagating their race. In the civilised state, on the contrary, the weakest, and the silliest, protected by law, religion, and humanity, have their chance likewise, and transmit to their offspring their own weakness or silliness." (Prelude)
One of its attractions for me was that it was about the area where I lived for more than thirty years; indeed, Hereward was imprisoned in Bedford Castle.I also remember the BBC TV adaptation from 1965 (although wikipedia tells me that no trace of that is left).
- "The lowlands of the world, being the richest spots, have been generally the soonest conquered, the soonest civilised, and therefore the soonest taken out of the sphere of romance and adventure, into that of order and law, hard work and common sense, as well as - too often - into the sphere of slavery, cowardice, luxury, and ignoble greed." (Prelude)
- "My lands are the breadth of my boot sole." (C 3)
- "Atheism and superstition go too often hand-in-hand." (C 10)
- "Schoolcraft and honesty never went yet together." (C 15)
- "The devil, as usual, was a bad paymaster." (C 30)
- "The neglect of new roads, the destruction of the old ones, was a natural evil consequence of local self-government." (C 38)
- "Life, to most, is very hard work." (C 41)
This is a novel very much of its time. Its time is not March 2020; 570 pages