Kingsley’s riddle

Linley Sambourne
Linley Sambourne

The Water-Babies:
a Fairy Tale for a Land-Baby
by Charles Kingsley.
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, more than a century and a half ago. Though I was probably aware of it when younger, I must have read it for myself in the early 1960s 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.

Bramshill House
Bramshill House

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 was Bramshill House in Hampshire, currently (2013) 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’.

Mabel Lucie Attwell
Mabel Lucie Attwell

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 because 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 an ecological 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 and more 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.

Repost of a review first published for the 150th anniversary of the novel’s appearance in book form, 26th July 2013

39 thoughts on “Kingsley’s riddle

    1. Glad you found the comments eye-opening! I always had a soft spot for this over and above Alice. In retrospect I probably recognised those basic plots of Overcoming the Monster (Tom’s master Grimes), The Quest (to get to the Other-end-of-Nowhere), Voyage and Return, Rags to Riches and Rebirth (not just as a water-baby but also later as a great man of science, an engineer and a naturalist). And I liked the nonsense too, even if I didn’t understand it all!


  1. A fascinating review. Sad to say I’ve never heard of this one. I know the Alice stories but I am quite intrigued by the closeness in publication dates and other similarities. thanks for bringing this to my attention.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! Despite the superficial similarities the tone of The Water-Babies is really very different from that of the Alice books. Many modern readers feel the tone is patronising, but Kingsley did write it as though to his five-year-old son; so long as you read it not expecting Carroll’s voice I’m sure you will find it worth the effort!


  2. Up until a year ago I did not know this was a book. Oh sure, I have heard the phrase “water babies” but always assumed it was an old saying, one that had no meaning for me. Because of your wonderful review, I am going to put this on my summer reading list.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yay, another possible convert! This fantasy must be one of the great children’s classics that hardly anybody now has heard of. Perhaps this anniversary year will help its cause, though it’s getting a bit late. I see that Oxford University Press re-issued it in hardback in March (ISBN 9780199645602) with Brian Alderson’s notes and illustrations.


      1. Thank you for the link. I found a free Kindle edition this morning. I am hoping it has illustrations. If not, I will see if I can get a hold of this one. Turns out, this is not an easy book to find. Amazon has only two paperback editions for sale.
        I may end up having to buy it from Amazon UK. I buy a lot of my history books across the pond.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: “It’s only me” | Lizzie Ross

  4. What a superbly written, detailed piece – I’ll have to link to this when I post my Kinglsey piece on Interesting Literature next month. Didn’t know about Kingsley’s fondness for taking cold baths in streams, but it tallies with what else I know about the man!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your praise — much appreciated!

      Kingsley mentioned his fondness for cold baths in streams several times. In an 1858 lecture to the Mechanics Institute in Bristol, for example, he talks about That morning cold bath, which foreigners consider as Young England’s strangest superstition, [which] has done as much, believe me, to abolish drunkenness, as any other cause whatsoever. And in August 1842 he declared A woodland bath to me always brings thoughts of Paradise.

      The whole episode of Tom going into the stream on a midsummer’s morning hallucinating the sounds of church bells is also very symbolic: June 24th is the feast of John the Baptist (apparently also a traditional time for baptisms in the early church), so we’re invited to think of Tom being ‘baptised’ (not as a reborn Christian as he’s a heathen) but into his water-baby stage. In fact he’s mistaken for an eft, a stage in the life-cycle of a newt — egg, larva, eft maturing into a newt. But you probably know all this!


    1. Ah! The W-B‘s probably wasted on the youth of today! Or at least all those not born in the 19th century. I can see why it was, if not bowdlerised, at least condensed for 20th-century (and for all I know, 21st-century) young readers.


  5. Thanks for pointing this review out to me -it’s a really interesting overview of what sound like a complex book written by a complex man. I had a copy of the book – illustrated by Mabel Lucie Attwell – when I was small. You’ll be appalled to hear I loved the illustrations and dedicatedly copied them over and over 🙂
    Pretty sure I had a condensed text, though, as I don’t remember the social commentary etc. Yes, lectures don’t go down well woth modern readers 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sorry to diss your love of Mabel Lucie’s work, Lynn! Yes, I think her illustrations must have graced a condensed version — some Victorian children’s classics seem to require a Masters in social history in order to fully appreciate them, so beyond the comprehension of a modern youngster they must seem at times.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: Charles Kingsley The Water-Babies: a Fairy Tale for a Land-Baby – literature888

  7. My edition of The Water-Babies is abridged and illustrated by Mabel Lucy Atwell. I am rather fond of it as it is a relic of my childhood, but after reading this I want to read the full version. And thank you for explaining what ‘Musclar Christianity’ is! Think I’ll stick to the softie version…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Mabel Lucy Atwell illustrations have a certain charm, though they’re not entirely to my taste — sorry! — and don’t quite match some of the hardly concealed social criticisms Kingsley levelled at contemporary England, nor some of the contemporary prejudices he entertained which we wouldn’t find so palatable now, however mildly put. But early versions met in childhood have a draw that later versions don’t, I often find.


      1. That is true. And I do see your point about them being too sugary for social criticism. I suspect the social criticism is missing from my abridged version! Maybe the contemporary prejudices too.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m not surprised it’s not well known in Belgium, it’s a very peculiar book which nevertheless retained its classic status in Britain for a century before reading tastes really moved on.

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  8. This is so interesting – I haven’t read The Water-Babies but have an ancient copy that my great grandmother gave my grandmother for her birthday with hand tinted pictures, I should add it to my (intended) children’s classics challenge and read the Oxford Classics edition which are always superb I think. Thanks for the nudge!

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  9. Other than an abridged version read as a child I have never read The Water Babies although I have a distant memory of it read aloud in school. It’s one I feel I should get round to and your interesting post has reminded me. Thank you, (again!).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re always welcome, Anne! There was a 1978 film, part live action and part animation, with a very stellar cast (James Mason, Billie Whitelaw, Bernard Cribbins, Joan Greenwood, David Tomlinson) but which completely mangled the original—not something I’d ever recommend. Best to plough through the original as a social document, some great nature writing and a deal of humour, both conscious and inadvertent.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I read this book many times as a child, and I think it had the Mabel Lucie Attwell illustrations or if not some other illustrations that were one of the reasons I loved the book so much. It was also the first book that made me aware children could die.

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    1. That intimation of one’s own mortality is one that much kids’ fiction avoids for fear of distressing, or because it’s a difficult issue to handle sensitively—we’re culturally acclimatised to happy-ever-after tales in childhood. That’s maybe why The Last Battle is such a shock; and I’m about to review Astrid Lindgren’s The Brothers Lionheart which also deals with the death of youngsters from the off.

      Mabel Lucie Atwell’s aquababies are just too cutesy for me, however…

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Been trying to find the illustrator of my edition of The Water Babies (now sadly lost). I never realised there were so many editions. Mine could have been illustrated by Jessie Willcox or J Noel Paton or A E Jackson or some one else altogether.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Editions with illustrations by Jessie Willcox were/are very popular so it’s very possible that was so for the copy you had. I still favour the original (well, published a decade after Kingsley’s death in 1875) illustrations by Edward Linley Sambourne plus some by Joseph Noel Paton.

      I found this WP site which goes into more detail, if you’re interested:

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Thank you for this, Chris. Reading it has sent me on a vain search for my old edition of The Water Babies. I had picked it up somewhere years ago and was sure that I still had it but it seems not. I fancy it had those beautiful illustrations in it, in color plates.
    Like you, I read, or tried to read, the book as a child and was bemused by it. There was something in it that attracted me, but I couldn’t fully enter its world. To be truthful, I really had no idea what it was about. It was very different from, say, The Little Grey Men (by B.B., or Denys Watkins-Pitchford), which I read and re-read and which continues to draw me in. Your terrific review makes me want to have another try, and to solve the riddle (even though “no grown-up can”); but now I need to find my copy! (This is what happens when one moves and resolves to cull books; one inevitable misses the books one has jettisoned, even when they had sat unread on one’s shelves for decades.)


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