The "Water Babies" is my Mum's favourite book. My grandfather gave her a copy when she was a child and read it to her. She then went on to read it to my sister and me when we were children. I'm not sure what happened to that copy, somewhere along the line it went missing, and the copies I have tried since have all been "updated", battered with the politically correct baton (and in some cases the party political baton) and have been fundamentally disappointing. Finally, I have found a version of the original classic story in this book.
Mr Kingsley wrote a book about the attitudes of Victorian society mainly towards the poor working class and their children and the way that they were the property of their "masters" and could be literally worked to death.
Tom (our hero) is a chimney sweep's boy - a small child who would be made to climb inside the chimneys of the large houses to clear any blockages or clumps of soot. It was not unusual for a child to get stuck in the chimney or fall and be seriously injured or die. Those living in the big houses did not see this as a problem. One day Tom is accused of a crime (which in those days could have seen the small child sentenced to hard labour as a minimum sentence. Understandably he flees the area and his "adventure" and "reclamation" begins.
Charles Kingsley used his story to point out the ills of the country in the same way that Dickens used such as A Christmas Carol and Hard Times to try to do.
Unlike Dickens, whose work has remained unchanged, Kingsley's work tends to be altered and re-written probably because it is seen as a "children's story" rather than the adult stories that Dickens is seen to have written. Yet it is a heart wrenching and thought provoking as the work of Charles Dickens.
This is a touching story which should also be of great interest for anyone looking at the social history of the UK.
I am glad to see that the unabridged, unaltered and unmodernised version is available again. It is a special story to my grandfather, my mother, my sister, myself and will be for, hopefully, generations to come.
on 27 July 2013
'The Water-Babies' first appeared in book form in May 1863, exactly a century-and-a-half ago. 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. The original 1995 issue of the OUP edition, 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 novel's 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, on the market in 2013 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 - perfectly 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 the later sentimental illustrations of Mabel Lucie Attwell and her ilk have not served the fortunes of 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. [...]
'The Water Babies' by Charles Kingsley is a fabulous childrens classic tale, and is a book that I personally love. It is a fantastic, magical story set in Victorian times, about a chimney sweeps boy, Tom, who falls into a lake and magically becomes a water baby. He has many adventures, meeting many strange and wonderful friends along the way. This book was written in the 19th century, and is actually a moralistic story, not just a fantasy. Charles Kingsley showed great imagination and creativity when he conceived this brilliant book I think. I read this book when I was a child, and then read it to my own children when they were young. Now that they are grown up, they read it to their children. For me, this is a book to treasure, and to love. It takes me back through the years immediately, straight back to my childhood, and is a 'feel-good' read for me. This book has pride of place on my bookshelf, and I'm delighted to have been able to get it, as my own copy is very tattered and worn out now. Highly recommended.
I started reading this at bedtimes with my 6-year-old and 2-year-old but with the antiquated text (this book dates to 1863), the long sentences and the many unnecessary diversions I stopped. This book would certainly have been edited a lot differently if it were to be published anew today.
This is a book for adults. Right from the way it has been presented with the dust jacket, the attached ribbon bookmark and the chapters number with Roman numerals, right through to the actual contents with an appendix being devoted to textual variants between the original published book form, as replicated in this book, and the preceding version as serialised in Macmillan's Magazine, something that only the most dedicated are going to refer to.
The book doesn't even start with the story, that begins after 49 pages of introduction and chronology of the author Charles Kingsley's life. The introduction is good though. It gives some context about the way Victorian society was at the time, with the way the railways provided the Victorians the means to get down to the seaside and take in all the coastal wildlife, and how popular that was, through to the Victorians' views on cleanliness and how that was reflected in Kingsley's tale. But it also gives quotes from reviews of the time that reflected some of my experiences with the book: "writing which is repeatedly stalled", "a jerkily episodic narrative", and "one of the most uneven and ragbaggy books in the language".
However upon reading there are good points too. You can see the love of nature pour out of the page in places, and the story contains many a moral for a young lad growing up (for the story is written for a boy and referenced so in many places).
The story itself follows Tom, a chimney sweep, who is mistreated by his master Grimes. In the introduction it talks of how the Water-Babies played a major role in the introduction of the chimney sweep act to prevent mis-use of children like this. Anyway Tom is accused of being a thief, although he is innocent, and he is chased far until he is exhausted and is drawn to a river where he drowns and becomes a water-baby.
As a water-baby he goes on many an adventure but the narrative is very full of ideas and not really going anywhere until near the end, although there are good moments along the way as Tom meets all sorts of creatures of the streams and sea and talks to them. But all the while he wants to meet other water-babies but he doesn't see any until he does a good deed one time and sees many so that "he knew that he had been hearing and seeing the water-babies all along; only he did not know them, because his eyes and ears were not opened."
After that he meets the fairies Mrs Bedonebyasyoudid and Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby who teach him some lessons. Finally he learns that to become a man he must do what he doesn't want, and Tom knows that that is to see his old master Grimes again. So he has a final journey to do to the Other-end-of-Nowhere.
And lots of surreal stuff goes on throughout, with the text also being experimental with poems songs and lists thrown in as and when Kingsley saw fit.
But a happy ending at the end. And as it is a fairy tale "you are not to believe a word of it, even if it is true."
So a book for adults to keep on a shelf, and if you want children to enjoy this tale too I recommend getting one of the abridged versions made for the modern audience.
on 23 September 2013
'Charles Kingsley's 'The Water Babies' was one of the first books I ever read on my own. I must've been around eight or nine when I first became fascinated with the contents of the glass-doored book cabinet we had in our living room in the sixties. I recall daringly opening up the ancient copy of a National Geographic book we had, and laughing like a loon at the picture of a mournful old chimpansee that reminded be of my moaning, yet lovely, old grandfather.
One of the other books on the shelves, was an ancient copy of Charles Kingsley's children's novel 'The Water Babies'. The cover was a faded blue and it lacked a dustwrapper. At the time I read it, it seemed like a dauntingly long book for a boy of my age to read, but even then I liked a challenge so I began reading it. It took a while to get into, but I was soon transfixed by the story of Tom, the chimney sweep's boy who is chased out of an upper class household, drowned, and was reborn as a 'water baby'.
Like the much later 'The Chronicles of Narnia' which I read as a teenager, I was totally unaware of the Christian subtext of the narrative. And I was also blind to the author's messages and concern about poverty in Victorian England.
This is a lovely edition of the book and comes complete with commentary, illustrations and a nice ribbon marker. The story remains a classic and re-reading it took me back to my childhood when such books were my favourite friends in the world.