Eye of the Tiger? Reconciling the Muscular Christian and the “Mummy’s Boy”


Rereading the second monthly part this afternoon, I was immediately struck (pardon the pun) by the opening scene of the Reverend Septimus Crisparkle ‘assisting his circulation by boxing at a looking-glass with great science and prowess’. The first time I read the novel, many moons ago, I can be forgiven for not catching this reference as I hadn’t at that point known that there had ever been such a thing as Muscular Christianity – I’m not sure why it didn’t hit me (again with the pun) at the beginning of the month when I read it again, perhaps because I was too distracted by Mr Grewgious’s hair. But in this opening scene, Septimus Crisparkle is clearly being portrayed as the embodiment of the muscular Christian hero, a prime specimen of healthy English manliness:

“The Reverend Septimus Crisparkle (Septimus, because six little brother Crisparkles before him went out, one by one, as they were born, like six weak little rushlights, as they were lighted), having broken the thin morning ice near Cloisterham Weir with his amiable head, much to the invigoration of his frame, was now assisting his circulation by boxing at a looking-glass with great science and prowess.  A fresh and healthy portrait the looking-glass presented of the Reverend Septimus, feinting and dodging with the utmost artfulness, and hitting out from the shoulder with the utmost straightness, while his radiant features teemed with innocence, and soft-hearted benevolence beamed from his boxing-gloves”.

A quick google search tells me that I am not the only one to spot this and that David Faulkner has written an excellent piece on manliness, imperialism and muscular Christianity in Drood with a focus on Crisparkle. Fitting in with Pete’s discussion of race in the novel a couple of weeks ago, Faulker compares and contrasts the different models of manliness portrayed in the novel, and the manner in which Crisparkle’s ‘Anglo-Saxon vigour and virtue’ are set against, for example, the ‘Oriental’ taint of Jasper, or even in the ambiguous racial heritage of Neville Landless with this ‘tigerish blood’.

What Faulker doesn’t really discuss, however, is that this same exemplar of Christian manhood is at the same time a dedicated mummy’s boy:

“It was scarcely breakfast-time yet, for Mrs. Crisparkle—mother, not wife of the Reverend Septimus—was only just down, and waiting for the urn.  Indeed, the Reverend Septimus left off at this very moment to take the pretty old lady’s entering face between his boxing-gloves and kiss it.  Having done so with tenderness, the Reverend Septimus turned to again, countering with his left, and putting in his right, in a tremendous manner”.

These two traits seem to sit together rather incongruously and yet as we see here are very much united in Dickens’s vision. Can we class the Reverend Septimus therefore with Joe Gargery in Great Expectations as the model of the muscular yet gentle Christian man, in which Dickens is not simply incorporating but rewriting this popular ideal of manliness to include a heavy emphasis on tenderness? Or are we meant to laugh at the muscular man kissing his mother (not his wife) between his boxing gloves? How exactly are we meant to feel about this muscular mummy’s boy, and does this feed into the question of race and empire? As Eve Kosofksy Sedgwick points out manliness and the line between acceptable male love and excessive love is a contentious one in the novel, and this is as much the case with the benevolent Crisparkle as it is with the slightly more sinister Jasper.

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  1. I’ve not read enough by or of Dickens to know what his opinion of Charles Kingsley was, neither have I come across any reference to Dickens by that archetypal Muscular Christian (cold stream baths, long walks) Kingsley.

    So I posit, is this perchance a sly portrait of the Water-Babies author and clergyman? Is the lack of mention on either’s part (as far as I can tell) a sign of mutual antipathy?

    1. Apologies for the delay, but I’ve been canvassing opinions for further insight on this intriguing suggestion, and have received the following reply from Timothy Stunt:

      ‘I make no claim to being an expert on Kingsley but he is of great interest to me.  I have the two volume Letters and memories edited by his widow and a copy of Susan Chitty’s slightly more sensational The Beast and the Monk(1975).  In Letters and Memories I see no references to Dickens (but it has no index!). In Chitty’s book there is a solitary mention of an encounter between them in 1855.  “Dickens was at dinner and he and I fraternised.  He is a really genial and loveable man, with an eye like a hawk.  Not high bred but excellent company, and very sensible.” This is immediately followed by: “But Mrs Dickens! Oh the fat vulgar vacancy”. (p. 174) The difficulty with the Crisparkle identification is that Crisparkle is (as I recall) a mother’s boy bachelor, whereas Kingsley was a highly sexed married man, as Chitty very clearly demonstrates.Curiously, at the end of her introduction Chitty wonders whether perhaps one day Kingsley’s commemorative bust in Westminster Abbey will be moved to Poets’ Corner to be in the company of Thackeray, Dickens and Tennyson, “who were his friends during life”.  It is clear from her book that Tennyson and Thackeray were friends… Whether there was more than an acquaintance with Dickens is less apparent.’

      Food for thought!

      1. Food for thought indeed! Thank you both for chasing this up.

        I only have the one volume Letters & Memories which does in fact have an index, but nothing about Dickens, indeed nothing between Devonshire and Disappointments. That quote that Chitty gives is interesting, and especially the catty remark about D’s missus! No wonder his eye went roving.

  2. I sense a slightly twinkly, satirical edge to Dickens’s depiction of Crisparkle, reminiscent of his gentle, good-humoured mockery of Mr Pickwick. Dickens shared the muscular Christian loathing of Anglo-Catholicism, with its emphasis on celibacy and single-sex communities, but I don’t think he was a paid-up muscular Christian, per se. His unadorned belief in an idealised, human Christ, and his distrust of religious authority and creeds, was radical well beyond the liberal Anglicanism of Kingsley and his ilk. It’s interesting that muscular Christians emphasised heterosexual marriage and reproduction, but Dickens’s only example of the ‘type’ is a bachelor. However, the Nun’s House and the previous references to monks and nuns in Cloisterham perhaps suggest that Dickens is exploring the divide between Catholic celibacy and monasticism and Protestant matrimony and domesticity. The extent of Kingsley’s uxorious eroticism wasn’t revealed until after his death, I think, but Kingsley was famous at this time for his 1863 spat with John Henry Newman, which resulted in Newman’s famous autobiography in 1864 and his elevation to eminent Victorian – at Kingsley’s expense. I don’t know if we know anything about Dickens’s take on all this, although I’m sure he would have sided with Kingsley against a Roman Catholic.

    I love Hazel’s comparison with Joe in Great Expectations – definitely a thread here of the strong but gentle and loving man. There is something innocent and boyish about Crisparkle, rather like Joe.

    1. Quite how we’re supposed to respond to Crisparkle is a mystery in itself. There is certainly an edge of satire in Dickens’s description, and the devotion to his mother is nice rather than admirable. And yet, as I’ve mentioned before, I do feel that Crisparkle and Jasper are positioned as opposites to one another, as two extremes of optimisim and pessimism. What is interesting then is how Dickens defies expectations by not portraying the ever-cheerful and peppy Crisparkle as entirely agreeable to the reader, whilst also encouraging interest in the dark and brooding Jasper.

  3. Just catching up – I’ve also been wondering about the connections between Dickens and Kingsley, and how far their visions of muscular Christianity overlapped. Apparently Kingsley was also on the Governor Eyre Defence Committee of 1866 (Kingsley, Dickens, Tennyson, Carlyle and others strongly supported Eyre’s brutal suppression of a rebellion against British rule in Jamaica). Michael Slater points out in his biography that this event was in Dickens’s mind during the writing of Drood, suggesting that Honeythunder may well be a intended as “a recognisable caricature of the prominent Quaker MP John Bright, one of the leaders of the campaign to bring Eyre before a court of law.” It’s quite possible then that Kingsley might have similarly been on Dickens’s mind as at least a partial model for the anthesis that Crisparkle offers to Honeythunder. All rather politically and ideologically troubling! At the moment I’m looking at parallels between Dickens’s and Kingsley’s promotion of the muscular Christian soldier during the Crimean War, and their efforts to counter concerns that the Christian soldier was an oxymoron. As Crisparkle isn’t seen in violent action here, he offers a less conflicted figure of physically robust protestantism. Both Dickens and Kingsley, I think, found it easier to illustrate the muscular Christian in civil – minister, doctor, man of domestic benevolence – rather than martial contexts. Though jolly, robust, morally upright sailors might complicate this . . . tbc.

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