Charles Kingsley The Water-Babies:
a Fairy Tale for a Land-Baby
Edited with introduction and notes by Brian Alderson
World’s Classics, Oxford University Press 1995 (1863)
The Water-Babies first appeared in book form in 1863, exactly a century-and-a-half ago this summer. Though I was probably aware of it when younger, I must have read it for myself pretty much a half-century ago in one of those cheap Dent’s children’s classics editions. A decade later I was re-reading it and taking notes, spurred on by the challenge Kingsley issues in his dedication:
Come read me my riddle, each good little man:
If you cannot read it, no grown-up folk can.
Of course, The Water-Babies was written for his youngest son, Grenville Arthur, who was just five when the last chapter was serialised in Macmillan’s Magazine, but I felt that I was included amongst the ‘all other good little boys’ of the dedication. But being from a hundred and more years later I could hardly be expected to get all the references, and so began decades of intermittent desultory research. This 1995 issue with Brian Alderson’s introduction, extensive notes, select bibliography and chronology of Kingsley’s life both confirmed and hugely expanded my understanding of the novel; but to be honest I still feel I’ve barely scratched the surface of this fascinating if flawed masterpiece. This review, therefore, can only hint at the solution to Kingsley’s sly riddle.
Its serialisation in eight monthly instalments works in favour of The Water-Babies‘ structure. The first chapter is mostly set in Harthover Place, which we must now imagine as a grand pile somewhere in North Yorkshire (though its principal model is Bramshill House in Hampshire, currently on the market for £25 million). Kingsley’s own contradictory character is aptly matched by the Place’s topsy-turvy architecture where the most ancient parts are the attics and wings and the core of the building the most recent. On a midsummer morning Tom the climbing boy – whose name and nature is derived from a multitude of sources, from Mesopotamian god Thammuz to William Blake’s ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ – gets lost in its maze of chimneys and emerges into the bedroom of Miss Ellie, the young sleeping beauty of Harthover. The resulting hue-and-cry after the presumed thief through woods and moors and up to Lewthwaite Crag (a thinly-disguised Malham Cove) is wonderfully narrated, and gives rein to Kingsley’s impassioned evocation of nature.
Chapter II takes Tom down into Vendale, a fictional river valley – later purloined by novelist William Mayne in, for example, The Twelve Dancers. Tom comes into contact with the first of many mysterious feminine archetypes who guide his way through to maturity, a mysterious Irishwoman, and then an older woman who runs a Dame School; this theme must reflect Kingsley’s experience, typical of the age, of a loving mother and a distant or aloof father. What then happens to the unfortunate Tom breaks the heart, based as it must be on the distressing experience Kingsley had when at boarding school in Devon. His younger brother Herbert foolishly stole a silver spoon to sell before running away from school and spending the night in the open. After being arrested Herbert became ill with rheumatic fever and died, to Charles’ great anguish. Though his death was attributed to a heart condition exacerbated by the fever, there is a Helston tradition that he drowned himself in Looe Pool. Whatever the truth of the matter, knowing that his younger brother died in a misadventure following a theft adds real poignancy to Kingsley’s tale. Before 1862 Charles was also to suffer the loss of a sister in infancy, another brother at sea and, most recently, his father.
But Tom’s accidental drowning in the Vendale stream is not the end of the matter. Here he is reborn as a water-baby less than four inches long, with a set of external gills to help him survive underwater. Now, you might think that as a clergyman Kingsley would expect innocents to go to heaven. However, Tom was not a Christian and had never been to church, so the author’s solution is to turn Tom into the aquatic version of a fairy or elf, with a chance of redemption through intentions and actions. Here begins Kingsley’s morphing of the fairy tale for a land-baby into something much more complex, a transformation which can leave modern readers cold as they are subjected to his many digressions on social and scientific issues, his references to contemporary events and people, his moralising and his prejudices. Without the homework that could help enlighten Kingsley’s obscurities The Water-Babies is a tough climb, and here Brian Alderson is a top-notch guide.
Tom’s rehabilitation starts in the trout stream, where he learns a live-and-let-live existence with his fellow creatures, has a fright involving his former master Grimes and then catches his first sight of other water-babies like himself. By Chapter IV he has moved down to the sea where, as luck will have had it, he has a close encounter with Miss Ellie and her pedantic tutor. Kingsley’s love of lists in the manner of Rabelais comes to the fore here, a distraction from the tragedy-in-waiting which will profoundly affect Tom’s future. In Chapter V Tom finally meets and mingles with other water-babies before encountering two more feminine archetypes, Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby and her sister fairy Mrs Bedonebyasyoudid, personifications of the Golden Rule from the Sermon on the Mount, Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. He has more life lessons to learn if he is to achieve his desire, especially that those who want to go to a better place “must go first where they do not like, and do what they do not like, and help somebody they do not like.” And thus he embarks on his journey to the Other-end-of-Nowhere, a kaleidoscopic quest that takes up most of the remainder of the book.
Kingsley was such a complex character, full of contradictions. Modern sensibilities are quite rightly uncomfortable with comments he makes on Jews, the Irish, Catholics, Americans and Africans, and it’s no real defence to say that these attitudes were commonplace in his day. And yet we know, for example, that he happily entertained the Queen of the Sandwich Islands in his rectory, and that he regarded the treatment of blacks in the Confederate States during the American Civil War as inhumane. He was a chaplain to Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales’ tutor at Cambridge, and yet as a Christian Socialist he was ever mindful of and sympathetic to the needs of ordinary people, such as city-dwellers succumbing to avoidable disease, and the gypsies of his parish. As an Anglican clergyman he was deeply religious and yet he fully agreed with the evolutionary principles in Darwin’s Origin of Species published in 1859. He combined a bookishness (sermons, novels, lectures, poems, reviews and scientific papers poured from his pen) with a love of athleticism and the outdoors – he loved cold baths in streams – so much so that his approach gave rise to the popular term ‘muscular Christianity’.
So it’s not surprising that The Water-Babies – with its ramblings, enthusiasms, sensibilities, love of nature, empathy, wide reading, poetry and humour – reflects the man. Kingsley’s novel antedated the first Alice book by a couple of years and anticipated many of the features that are normally associated with Lewis Carroll’s two children’s classics, as many a commentator has noted before now. References to a lobster, Cheshire cat and March hare occur in both, for example, but the Cheshire Cat wasn’t in Carroll’s original 1862-3 draft for Alice Liddell. There is little room here to note other parallels in detail – both authors were called Charles, were clergymen (though Carroll was only a deacon), suffered from stammers, were passable artists and were feted by royalty, for instance – but as only one of these classics has remained in the popular consciousness one has to assume that Kingsley’s moralising asides haven’t gone down well with subsequent generations. Compared with the handsome Victorian line illustrations of Linley Sambourne (above) the later sentimental illustrations of Mabel Lucie Attwell and her ilk have not served the story well either.
It’s a shame as for all his contradictions Kingsley comes across in this novel as both a sympathetic figure and a very modern writer. The last chapter includes a critique of Victorian examination-led schooling which is sadly applicable to contemporary fears of a cramming culture in UK state education. Much of his prose hymn to Nature in The Water-Babies has a Green tinge not out of place in debates about biodiversity and climate change. And his dispassionate description of the conditions climbing boys suffered led directly to a law banning the practice, a parallel to present-day concerns about child abuse and moves towards more effective child protection.
It’s impossible to do justice to this captivating fairy tale in a short review. But 150 years after its publication The Water-Babies is surely due a reassessment and a new appreciation of its messages and beauties. Maybe I need to dig out and update those old notes of mine and attempt a proper answer to Kingsley’s riddle.
Life after death? Yes! | Climbing-boy now water-babe, | somehow born-again.