PHAETHON; or Loose thoughts for Loose thinkers
PHAETHON; or Loose thoughts for Loose thinkers PHAETHON; or Loose thoughts for Loose thinkers

Cambridge: Macmillan and Co.. 1852.

First edition. 8vo (198x125mm). pp. [iv], 100. Red half morocco with red morocco-grain cloth boards. Spine lettered in gilt: Kingsley's Phaethon. M.S. Notes by G.B. Marbled endpapers. Rubbing to joints and spine, especially to head and foot, and to corners. Internally a very good copy with the text block in excellent condition. ffep has ownership inscription of "A. Macmillan". This is Alexander Macmillan who, with his brother Daniel founded the publishing house that bore their name. Forty five of the pages are annotated, many in great detail, in very small handwriting in light blue ink. The notes are by George Brimley who was librarian of Trinity College, Cambridge from 1845 to his death at the age of 37 in 1857. Brimley, Kingsley and Macmillan were all friends and shared the same intellectual interests. Brimley's sister Caroline married Macmillan in 1851. This attractive little book thus embodies a series of touching personal links between author, publisher and annotator. Brimley was viewed as one of the finest critics of his age and although his output was small due to his constant ill health, his work was sufficiently well regarded that his collected essays, which includes a piece on Kingsley's Westward Ho!, were published (by Macmillan) the year after his death. A review of this collection described Brimley as possessing "an acumen and a comprehensiveness which enabled him to seize a question in its breadth and depth".

Kingsley’s Phaethon is a curious work. The central section is in the form of a Socratic Dialogue in which the figure of Socrates presents a defence of religious tradition and authority against the sophistry of subjective opinions. This argument reflected Kingsley’s own beliefs in a strong orthodox Christianity, popularly called “Muscular Christianity”, a term he disliked. Kingsley’s main target in Phaethon was the American transcendentalist writer and thinker Ralph Waldo Emerson (thinly disguised as “Professor Windrush”) whom Kingsley regarded as preaching a moral relativism and individualism that would undermine society. However, there are also digs at Catholics and High Anglicanism.

George Brimley’s extensive marginalia demonstrate the subtlety of his critical thinking. His notes are beautifully balanced between sympathy for Kingsley’s general argument and exasperation at his unreasoning bombast. In one note, Brimley explodes: “This is simply shocking as a representation of Emerson’s theory of man” but elsewhere he writes of “The exquisite beauty of the last five pages of the dialogue”. Brimley’s astute summation of Kingsley’s style describes how, “once his point is gained, and he has to illuminate and vivify propositions no longer disputed, all the grace and richness of his poetic faculty and his generous heart come out”.