Charles Kingsley & The Water-Babies

At the bicentenary of the birth of Victorian author Charles Kingsley (12 June 1819), I look at one of my favourite childhood books. 

‘First she pulled all their teeth out; and then she bled them all round……and then she gave them a great emetic of mustard and water.’ With her black bonnet and black shawl, large spectacles and hooked nose, Mrs Bedonebyasyoudid was the cruel teacher from an underwater world, from whom you were safe only if you had done no wrong….

I was eight and ill in bed when my mother read to me The Water-Babies: A Fairy Tale for a Land-Baby. Strange and haunting, the story of little Tom the chimney sweep made a deep impression on me. Two hundred years ago, on 12 June 1819, its creator, Charles Kingsley, was born at Holne on Dartmoor, where his father was Rector. The young Kingsley was a Cambridge scholar and, after recovering from a crisis of faith, he also went into the church and was appointed Rector of Eversley, Hampshire in 1844.  Influenced by, and contributing to, the Christian Socialist movement, Kingsley believed politics and religion were inseparable and that it was the Christian’s duty to improve social conditions; his early novels reflect his outrage. The employment of children as chimney sweeps particularly troubled him, for they were often condemned to early death by suffocation, cancer or the brutality of their masters.

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Kingsley wrote The Water-Babies for his son and in 1862-3 it appeared in serial form for Macmillan; in 1863 it was published in its entirety and has been reprinted many times since. Mine is the 1932 Macmillan edition and oh! the pictures, fascinating black and white feasts of malice and tenderness. Added in 1885, Linley Sambourne’s illustrations are the only ones that will do: those in other editions are too safe, too saccharine to convey the other-worldliness of Tom’s experiences. My copy was my mother’s, probably given to her by her own Victorian-born mother, whose descent from a long line of northern Methodists and lay preachers surely had something to do with the choice of this moralistic tale.

When I was very small, the stories read to me were suitably gentle. But once I could read, I never chose the anthropomorphic world of Beatrix Potter.  I wanted only stories that were sinister or surreal: Alice in Wonderland, Hans Christian Anderson’s Fairy Tales, with their strange manifestations and wicked punishments. With Water-Babies the pleasure lay not only in being scared but in being saddened, my tears ready to flow for Tom’s miserable life and the cruelty inflicted upon him by his master, Mr Grimes. Illiterate and perpetually dirty, Tom ‘cried half his time, and laughed the other half. He cried when he had to climb the dark flues, rubbing his poor knees and his elbows sore……and when his master beat him…..and when he had not enough to eat..…and he laughed when he was tossing halfpennies with the other boys ..…or bowling stones at the horses’ legs as they trotted by, which was excellent fun.’

Water Babies- Tom & Grimes

He looked forward to being a man and a master sweep like Grimes, when he could sit in the public houses with his beer and his bulldog and gamble, and have apprentices: ‘How he would bully them and knock them about, just as his master did to him; and make them carry home the soot sacks while he rode before them on his donkey’. With one parent dead and the other in a penal colony, Tom has no role model in the mortal world and ‘had never heard of God, or of Christ, except in words which you never have heard’.  But for Kingsley, circumstances like Tom’s, however terrible, were not an excuse for turpitude.  The child must gain self-knowledge so that he might grow. And so begins Tom’s extraordinary journey.

With Grimes, he goes to clean the chimneys of a large house in the countryside, which he has never seen before: how he longs to climb a gate and pick the buttercups!  On the way they have a strange encounter with a young Irishwoman, who is kind to Tom but presents Grimes with his past offences; when he tries to challenge her, she vanishes. In the house, Tom sees a beautiful golden-haired girl, Ellie, asleep in her white bedroom.  He also catches sight of his own dirty body for the first time and is ashamed; he cries, tries to leave and wakes her.   Her screams alert the household and he is chased over the hills in the belief he is a thief. Exhausted, he lies down by a river, which sings to him and invites him in; there he goes, down, down, down, and there is the Irishwoman too, her shawl and petticoat replaced by green weeds, and waterlilies floating about her head.

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She tells the fairies of the stream that she has brought them a new little brother, but they must not play with him, or let him see them, for he is ‘but a savage now…..and he must learn.’ They must only keep him safe from harm.

Tom has been turned into a water baby, four inches long with a set of external gills. What? Do you say there are no such things as water babies? But how do you know? No one can say that no water babies exist until they have seen no water babies existing, says Kingsley, ‘which is quite a different thing, mind, from not seeing water babies.’ And neither is a water baby ‘contrary to nature,’ for there are ‘hundreds of things in the world which we should certainly have said were contrary to nature, if we did not see them going on under our eyes.’ Less than twenty-five years earlier, learned men still believed that ‘a flying dragon was an impossible monster’ but now they could be found in ‘fossil up and down the world.  People call them Pterodactyles’.

Water babies- Tom

Science, philosophy, religion: here, then, is the mid-19th century world that underpins this parable. Darwin’s Origins of the Species had been published in 1859, which Kingsley, an accomplished amateur naturalist himself, read before it came out, and the men became good friends. Far from feeling his Christian beliefs were threatened by the new science of evolution, as many churchmen did, Kingsley embraced it; in the preface to the book’s second edition, Darwin acknowledged his support. A story of many layers, my mother probably left out its deeper passages, but when I read them myself, I liked the feeling of strangeness they evoked, even if I didn’t fully understand them.  Somehow they satisfied my sense that there was more to the everyday world than we saw, both in it and beyond.

Obsessive about detail, and to do justice to the naturalistic elements, Linley Sambourne used real specimens for his illustrations of animals and fish, sketching in the zoo or Natural History Museum. The pictures of Ellie and Tom were modelled on his children Maud and Roy.  ‘Knowledge’ is a young woman with short hair, a mortar board and gown. Yet although she looks stern, seeing the picture now through adult eyes, her body is surprisingly comely, with a wasp waist and prominent breasts.

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However, Kingsley died before Sambourne was commissioned, and may not have approved of that particular picture, for he was critical of ‘foolish ladies who pinch up their children’s waists’ for the sake of fashion; their punishment in The Water-Babies is to be laced up in tight stays so that they swell up, choke and are sick. Not that Kingsley had a problem with sexuality. His world remained more God-centred than Darwin’s and he believed in the divinity of the human form, leading him to treat sex with his wife as a sacramental conduit to God. Kingsley’s erotic life, I discover, was vivid: not something I needed to know as an eight-year-old.

In Kingsley’s world, everyone has a purpose and something to learn. Punishment is meted out by the terrifying Mrs Bedonebyasyoudid, whose mission is to teach all the wicked people: she cannot become handsome until everyone has had their comeuppance.  (Sambourne said he did not illustrate her because he found her too unattractive.) A curious medley of aquatic creatures also come Tom’s way, each with attitude, such as the well-bred salmon and his wife, who consider themselves socially superior to the common trout. When Tom tries to warn the salmon that a vicious and hungry otter is prowling nearby, the creature pursues him into a lobster pot with such vengeance that he fears for his life.

Water babies - otter

The stuff of nightmares? Certainly, but the book is interspersed with gentle prayers and lyrical poems and the soft, pretty Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby, who is the only person in Tom’s sad life who cuddles him  – ‘cuddle’ being used for the first time, one of several words Kingsley is credited with giving to the English language. Meanwhile, those on land are not spared the consequences of their deeds. Having realised Tom is no thief, they search for him and find his clothes on the riverbank; believing him dead, they are wracked with guilt. The level of torment for each is satisfying, the worst, of course, saved for Grimes. And what sweet sadness in the death of the good people, who are carried away by angels to a faraway place. As for Tom, his end is everything a good person might wish for.

The Water-Babies was a mainstay of children’s literature through the 1920s, but it contained many prejudices of the time, which saw it fall out of favour. Yet its immediate impact was positive. The year after it was published, Parliament began the process that would lead to the 1864 Chimney Sweepers Regulation Act; in 1875, the year of Kingsley’s death, it was replaced by the more effective Chimney Sweepers’ Act, which required sweeps to be licensed and made it the duty of the police to enforce all previous legislation. Charles Kingsley’s extraordinary story made a lasting impression on me, but for many children, it was literally a lifesaver.