The Water-Babies

0330238329

The Water-Babies

by Charles Kingsley

originally published in 1863

144 pp.

Age: 6+ (read to)

Interests: fairies, magic, animals, nature, religion, bad behaviour

Next: other Victorian fairy stories – The Magic Fishbone (Dickens), The Princess and the Goblin, The Cuckoo Clock, Alice in Wonderland

A poor and godless but plucky chimney sweep named Tom accidentally drowns, in the process transforming into a Water Baby. Through many underwater adventures and misadventures he learns to give up his selfish ways under the wise tutelage of fairies. He eventually wins redemption and love by trying to help the lost soul of his former tormentor, the drunken and violent Grimes.

Charles Kingsley

Charles Kingsley

Charles Kingsley was a minister in the Church of England, a professor, historian, and Christian Socialist, interested in bettering the plight of the poor but without the need for revolution or social upheaval.

This book, which found great and lasting popularity with the British public, was originally written as a magazine serial, and today’s reader should take this into account; it’s rambling, preachy, and generally weird to modern eyes. The Water-Babies may not be a great and lasting work, but it is quirky, sometimes funny, often quite charming, and fascinating for historical reasons.

In the early days of children’s literature the prevailing attitudes toward childhood, religion, and morality were the main shapers of the earliest storylines. The only reason to read to children at all was to convince them to behave themselves and love God. Entertainment was NOT a motive for the earliest children’s authors. When taken in historical context, this volume is surprisingly imaginative and interesting, and the religious lessons are relatively muted. Kingsley was one of a handful of early children’s writers (Kipling, Wilde, Thackeray, MacDonald) whose work “tasted more of honey than of medicine and, more significantly, were touched with literary art”.¹

illustration by Jessie Willcox Smith, 1916

illustration by Jessie Willcox Smith, 1916

Kingsley was keenly interested in natural history and science, and was a supporter of Darwin’s theories of evolution, which were then brand-spanking new and extremely controversial. This brings an unusual flavour to a Christian tale of sin and redemption. There are several tangents about the lives of various sea creatures, and one sequence in which a kind of reverse evolution is described: humans who live for pleasure (the Doasyoulikes), slowly lose the power of speech and devolve into gorillas. In another chapter little Tom encounters strange onion-like children who have become malformed because they are not allowed to play but only to study their lessons until they can’t remember anything at all. Writers like Charles Kingsley and George MacDonald (The Princess and the Goblin) are particularly intriguing because they bundle a conservative religious/moralistic impulse inside a rather imaginative, science-influenced, forward-thinking package. (In general MacDonald is the more successful writer. His style is much more poetic than Kingsley’s, the latter resorting too often to directly addressing the reader with a rather condescending, schoolmasterish tone.)

illustration by Jessie Willcox Smith, 1916

illustration by Jessie Willcox Smith, 1916

All that aside, would I read this book to a child? There are other, better books from this era, ones that have aged better and are less wordy. If I did read it I would definitely choose an abridged version. The original text includes several unfortunate artifacts of Victorian thought, namely prejudice against Jews, Irishmen, Africans, Catholics, Americans, etc. At the height of the British Empire the term ‘savages’ was bandied about far too easily. The edition I read had deleted most of these mentions, which I only learned about in the Wikipedia article about this book: Click here for Wikipedia article. Elsewhere I have read that all editions currently in print are abridged in some way or another, so if you really wanted to read the original text, you should look for online editions dating back to 1898 or so.

The story itself is quite enchanting, moralistic but inventive, and if you can find an edition with lovely illustrations young listeners should find it entrancing. The illustrations in the edition I read (by Mabel Lucie Attwell – see cover at top of post) I found a little too cutesy, but kids may like them. (See above and below for the work of other illustrators.) If your listeners believe in fairies and other little people, tiny babies frolicking in the ocean may be just their cup of tea. And if you want to read them something out of the ordinary, this would certainly fit the bill!

_________________

¹ Demers, Patricia & Moyles, Gordon, eds. From Instruction to Delight: An Anthology of Children’s Literature to 1850 (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 221.

P.S. An animated film version was made in 1978 but I have not seen it – The Water Babies, 1978, starring James Mason. The story seems to have been altered significantly: “This story is about a 12-year-old boy who discovers a complex underwater world where young children are held prisoner by an evil shark and an eel.” I can’t say that I’m in any great hurry to locate this one…

(book available for purchase at amazon.com)

(available as downloadable ebook or to read online for free at project gutenberg)

illustration by Warwick Goble

illustration by Warwick Goble

illustration by Cora Paterson

illustration by Cora Paterson

illustration by A.E. Jackson

illustration by A.E. Jackson

68932

illustration by Jessie Willcox Smith

illustration by Jessie Willcox Smith

illustration by Jessie Willcox Smith

illustration by Jessie Willcox Smith

illustration by Jessie Willcox Smith

illustration by Jessie Willcox Smith

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s

All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.
%d bloggers like this: