Places: Hypatia

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1853

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Historical

Time of work: Fifth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Alexandria

*Alexandria. HypatiaEgyptian port city founded by the Greeks some three hundred years before the Christian era and named after the great leader and conqueror Alexander. The Greek foundation still survives in Kingsley’s fifth century city in its language, basic town-plan, museum, and lecture halls, where a form of Greek philosophy known as neoplatonism, was expounded, particularly by Hypatia, a young goddesslike and charismatic philosopher. Alexandria also has Roman buildings, notably the Caesarium, now being used by Christians as their main church, and the port, which is crucial to Rome, for through it pass grain supplies and much of Africa’s exported wealth. A Roman military garrison occupies the city, which is governed by a prefect appointed by Rome. The Roman games, or circus, are still used by the prefect to keep the mob on his side.

Two other cultures also compete for influence. Traditionally, Alexandria also had an influential Jewish population, academic and financial by nature. Kingsley shows the devious nature of this influence, and the destabilizing effect when its financial basis is largely destroyed by the mob. The “mob” is, in effect, a Christian one, comprising some two thirds of the city’s population. They are led by Christian monks and church officers under the authority of Archbishop Cyril, the metropolitan of Egypt and third-most powerful figure in fifth century Christendom. The mob also destroys Hypatia and the last remnants of the high culture of neoplatonic philosophy.

A final culture in this restless and violent city is that of the pagan Goths, nomads from northern Europe who still worship their Germanic gods. As nomads, however, their influence in Alexandria is peripheral, unlike elsewhere in the Mediterranean.


Museum. Place where Hypatia lectures. More a library than a museum in the modern sense, this building includes picture galleries and a series of lecture halls, much like what is termed a university. The museum is the local center of Greek culture, especially its late Platonic forms, which still vie intellectually with newer Christian theologies. It also has a garden. In Museum Street is located the modest house of Hypatia and her father.

Archbishop’s house

Archbishop’s house. Home of the metropolitan of the Orthodox Church; located near the Serapeium and the center of the real power in the city. From here, Kingsley shows, comes good and evil: good in the way that only the church is seen to be dealing with the poverty and disorder in the city; evil, in the way fanatic hatred of “the heathen” is fanned into riots, civil disturbances, and murder. The novel’s cool debates over the merits of Christianity versus Platonism take place in other locations and in contrast to these irreconcilable opposites.


Cyrene (si-REE-nee). North Africa town in what is now Libya that is the seat of Bishop Synesius, who, by contrast to Cyril, is shown to be a cultured and balanced churchman. Cyrene is also the power base of Heraclian, its governor, the count of Africa, whence he launches an ill-fated revolt against Rome. The resulting military weakness allows devastation by the Moorish inhabitants of the hinterland.

BibliographyChapman, Raymond. Faith and Revolt: Studies in the Literary Influence of the Oxford Movement. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1970. This book explores the traces that the Oxford Movement left on nineteenth century literature. Three chapters compare and contrast Kings-ley’s and John Henry Newman’s religious views.Martin, Robert Bernard. The Dust of Combat: A Life of Charles Kingsley. New York: W. W. Norton, 1960. The best biography of the man. A chapter is devoted to Kingsley’s relationship with his publishers, the genesis of Hypatia, and his efforts to publish it in serial and book forms.Sanders, Andrew. The Victorian Historical Novel, 1840-1880. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1979. A critical examination of a select group of novels written under the influence of Sir Walter Scott, focusing on works by the great midcentury writers. A chapter discusses Hypatia and the rejoinders to it, Fabiola and Callista.Vance, Norman. The Sinews of the Spirit: The Ideal of Christian Manliness in Victorian Literature and Religious Thought. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1985. Covering the period from the early 1830’s to the late 1860’s, this is an important study of the ways that Victorians attempted to combine various meanings of “Christian” and “manliness.” A chapter compares the attitudes toward celibacy of Kingsley and Newman.Wolff, Robert Lee. Gains and Losses: Novels of Faith and Doubt in Victorian England. New York: Garland, 1977. This is a comprehensive critical discussion of several hundred novels with religious themes. It has an extensive analysis of Hypatia, and it explores the relationships between that novel and the earlier works by Elizabeth Harris and John Henry Newman.
Categories: Places