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  • Online publication date: December 2014

5 - ‘Drowned Lands’: Charles Kingsley's Hereward the Wake and the Masculation of the English Fens


Imagine a vast sheet of paper on which straight Lines, Triangles, Squares, Pentagons, Hexagons, and other figures, instead of remaining fixed in their places, move freely about, on or in the surface, but without the power of rising above or sinking below it, very much like shadows – only hard and with luminous edges – and you will then have a pretty correct notion of my country and countrymen. Alas, a few years ago, I should have said ‘my universe’: but now my mind has been opened to higher views of things.

E. A. Abbot, Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions

In 1866, Charles Kingsley published Hereward the Wake: Last of the English, a quasi-historical novel based on the life of an eleventh-century Anglo-Danish outlaw and his last stand against William the Conqueror's Norman incursion into England. Described by Graham Swift as a ‘fenland fabulist’, Kingsley opens his text with a prelude dedicated to the novel's setting, the lowlands of East Anglia. Read as a defence of the Fens against the domination of highland spaces within romantic and historical literature, Kingsley's preface usefully represents the bifurcation of British rurality, a division based on gradient. But his championing of East Anglia is partial. While the nineteenth-century flatlands were drained, cultivated and effectively tamed by engineers and agriculturists – a process initiated formally in the seventeenth century – Kingsley's medieval fens are a morass of marshlands and Dark Age superstition.