The Water-Babies by Charles Kingsley

Reviewed by Harriet Devine

Water BabiesI think I must have been about seven or eight when I was given this book for Christmas. I doubt if it can have been the 1863 edition, but I do remember it as a rather beautiful hardback with lots of lovely illustrations, many of which are reproduced in this new OUP reprint. I was curious, when I started reading this new edition, to see how much of the story I would remember. Well, the first part of the story came back to me vividly. Of course the first person we meet is little Tom, the chimney sweep, who

could not read or write, and did not care to do either; and he never washed himself, for there was no water up in the court where he lived. He had never heard of God, or of Christ, except in words which you have never heard, and which it would be well if he had never heard. He cried half his time and laughed the other half. He cried when he had to climb the dark flues, rubbing his poor arms and elbows raw; and when the soot got into his eyes, which it did every day in the week; and when his master beat him, which he did every day in the week; and when he had not enough to eat, which happened every day in the week likewise.

I well remembered his cruel master Mr Grimes, Tom getting lost up the chimey and ending up in the bedroom of ‘the most beautiful little girl that Tom had ever seen’, his subsequent escape and his ending up in the river where he turned into a water baby. Wonderful stuff.

But as I read on, I realised something – this was a book I had stopped enjoying, though I clearly had somehow got to the end of it. And I could well see why. Tom’s adventures under water just didn’t really grab me, though possibly they might have grabbed some children. There are many such adventures, mostly involving meetings with all manner of sea creatures, with whom he has various interesting conversations, and slowly learns the many lessons that are essential to his growing up. Miss Ellie, the beautiful little girl, reappears from time to time, but Tom loses her through his own fault and has to continue for a very long time until he finally finds her again. In the meantime he encounters more sea beasts, and fairies including the wonderfully named Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby and Mrs Bedonebyasyoudid. These two, more than anyone else, are what might be called the instruments of his karma (though Kingsley wouldn’t have put it that way) – if he learns their sometimes harsh lessons he will go on to have a happy life, but Tom is a slow learner, though he comes right in the end, redeeming himself finally through redeeming Grimes who he helps to find repentence.

Another reason why my seven or eight year old self might not have enjoyed the book is what I now see as one of its most entertaining aspects.  This is, of course, the many interjections by the author. Kingsley, as well as being a clergyman of the ‘muscular Christian’ variety, and a keen fisherman, was also an amateur naturalist and a supporter of Darwin’s ideas of the origin of species.  This combination, added to the fact that he had ideas of aiding social improvement, and that he was clearly a man of great wit as well as great intelligence, produced a book that the intoduction to the present edition describes it as

A jerkily episodic narrative, crammed with topical satire and linguistic oddities, in which fact repeatedly rubs up against myth, and science and religion keep swapping places.

Written expressly for Kingsley’s youngest son, Greville Arthur, the narrative is peppered with addresses to the boy, personal anecdotes, and warnings of what happens to little boys who step out of line. But it’s also a feast for anyone who is interested in mid-Victorian science and religion, and in the way they are somehow made to blend together here despite their apparent dissimilarity. And now, having grown up enough to appreciate the jokes and the serious message that lies behind them, I found the whole thing an absolute joy.

This new OUP edition has splendid notes, which should guide you through the abstruse references if you want them too (though I’d recommend just throwing yourself in the deep end and enjoying the fun). There’s also a learned introduction for those who like a bit of background information. This book will, indeed, be of great use to anyone interested in the religious or scientific knowledge of the Victorian era, or in Kingsley himself, who was obviously a most interesting, if rather extraordinary man. But the general reader (whoever they may be) will also find it highly entertaining, though whether this holds true if they happen to be seven or eight years old I’m not so sure. However, it is a truly magical story – as Kingsley says,

This is all a fairy tale…and therefore you are not to believe a word of it, even if it is true.

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Harriet Devine is one of the editors of Shiny New Books, and wishes she still had that old illustrated edition of The Water-Babies.

Charles Kingsley, The Water-Babies: A Fairy Tale for a Land Baby (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2014). 9780199685455, 235 pp., paperback

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