The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley

I remember a copy of ‘The Water Babies’ from when I was very young. It was an old hardback edition, it was beautifully illustrated, but I didn’t read it. It looked much too old and much too scary! I wish I knew where that book went.

I forgot about ‘The Water Babies’ until a couple of years ago. We were on holiday on Devon, we were walking along a particularly lovely stretch of the River Dart, and we met a local do-walker who directed us to the area where he said Charles Kingsley had sat to write.

Then I met Mr Kingsley himself, in the pages of Ruby Ferguson’s ‘Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary.’ he met the young Lady Rose, and he gave her a copy of ‘The Water Babies!’

I remembered all of that as I looked to see what I might read for  my 100 Years of Books

* * * * * * *

‘The Water Babies’ began beautifully with a lovely narrative voice that made it clear that there was a story that I really should know, and telling that story is simple but elegant prose that begged to be read aloud.

"No. She could not be dirty. She never could have been dirty."

“No. She could not be dirty. She never could have been dirty.”

Tom was a chimney sweep’s boy, small enough to be sent up and down chimneys by his master, Mr Grimes. It was a hard life, but To knew no other. His life changed  when he and Mr Grimes visited a country house; the chimneys were a veritable rabbit warren, Tom lost his way, and he came down in the wrong room.

It was a lovely,  light, bright room, the squire’s daughter, Ellie, was sleeping peacefully in her bed,  and what he saw made Tom realise, for the fi that he was dirty. Before he had time to escape back up the chimney he was spotted, and Tom fled.

He jumped out of the window, and he ran, as fast and as far as he could. He found himself in a wonderful new world – the countryside. And when he saw a river he jumped right in, because he so wanted to be clean.

"Oh, don't hurt me! cried Tom. I only want  to look at you; you are so handsome."

“Oh, don’t hurt me! cried Tom. I only want to look at you; you are so handsome.”

That was when Tom turned into a water baby, and began a whole new life in the water.

And that was when things began to go wrong.

The author began to lecture. He made lengthy digressions to show off his knowledge, and he aired his opinions and revealed his prejudices. I was happy that Tom learned lessons during his adventures under the water, I didn’t mind this being a moral tale, I was happy that Tom learned lessons, but I minded that very much.

I nearly gave up. But I so wanted to share in those adventures.

"He looked up at the broad yellow moon  and thought that she looked at him."

“He looked up at the broad yellow moon and thought that she looked at him.”

Tom had to learn to live with the other water creatures. He had to learn not to tease, he had to learn to make friends, and he had to learn what to do when there was conflicts between his friends. I think that this was my favourite part of the story; everything was so nicely described, but not over described, and the characters of the creatures – some real and some fantastic – were drawn subtly and well.

This was the story I could imagine Charles Kingsley writing as he sat by the River Dart.

There was one kind of creature Tom didn’t meet; he didn’t meet another water baby, and he so wanted to.

The salmon told Tom that there were water babies down by the sea, and so he followed then down there.

"Tom reached and clawed down the hole  after him . . . the clumsy lobster  pulled him in head-foremost."

“Tom reached and clawed down the hole after him . . . the clumsy lobster pulled him in head-foremost.”

Tom found the water babies, and they were so pleased to see him. They took him to their home – St. Brandan’s fairy isle – and he learned that they were all children who had been carried away by the fairies, because their lives on the land had been unhappy.

It made perfect sense, but it was here that the story wobbled some more. I couldn’t quite make sense of Tom’s world, and even magical worlds need to make sense. And without that sense I was just reading a series of scenes.

I was very taken with Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby – who looked after the water babies – and Mr Bedonebyasyoudid – who taught them lessons. And it was lovely to see Tom meet Ellie again, and to see the two become friends.

But soon we were off again.

Tom’s final lesson saw him setting out to save Mr Grimes, his erstwhile master. It was a wonderful journey, but it felt rushed and underdeveloped. There were so many things in this book that could have been developed more, so many possibilities that might have been explored but weren’t.

I was particularly sorry that Tom’s relationship was the other water babies was never really explored; and I was sorry that his creator’s genuine concern acout the issues of the age was lost because of the way he pontificated.

Tom’s reward for learning his final lesson, for realising he must help someone who had been unkind to him, was to be restored to his original form, to live with Ellie, and to become a man of science.

It was an anti climax, and I’m afraid that I didn’t read the final moral.

I can’t recommend reading ‘The Water Babies.’ But I can recommend looking at Jessie Willcox Smith’s editions for the 1916 edition, and dreaming of life in the water …..

18 responses

  1. Water Babies isn’t my favorite book (although I too liked parts of it), but it has produced some of my favorite illustrations. I love the Warwick Goble ones from the 1909 edition!

  2. I only know this book from characters in other books reading it! and from the illustrations that I’ve seen in various places. I don’t think I’ll be adding it to my reading list though.

  3. Oh my… now there’s a book from my childhood. I dont recall the story, but I do recall the illustrations – and loving them. My mother read this one to me, aswell as Dot and the Kangaroo. I recently looked into puchasing these for a little friend of mine – but when I looked into it, they were much too complicated for her. Maybe I too should look back at those stories my mother loved.

    • Aside from Tom being sent up chimneys, this story hasn’t dated as badly as some, but I would recommend a children’s version, as Margaret remembers below, or reading aloud, because the prose reads beautifully and because there are passages that should definitely be passed over.

    • I was surprised to find Mr Kingsley so far north, because I’d always associated him with Devon – knowing he walked by the Dart and the naming of the town Westward Ho! I could never say don’t read a book, but if you do pick it up you shouldn’t feel at all guilty about skimming some parts,

  4. Like Margaret I loved this as a child, then read it a few years ago (pre-blogging days) and wondered if the story I remembered was an abridged version, because I couldn’t remember all that moralising either, and it irritated me beyond measure. I don’t like being preached at! And, as an adult, I found it incredibly twee and failed to engage with the story or the characters, and I just couldn’t believe in any of it.

    • This is definitely a situation where abridgement was wise, but to come to the full verion afterwards must have been a shock. I can’t say that I really engaged with the characters, but I was captivated by the idea.

  5. I think my siblings and I had the same edition of this book. I too remember being terrified of the pictures but at the same time oddly drawn to them – even as a little girl I loved muted brooding colours!

    By the way, I stumbled across your blog via a comment you left on Jackie’s Life During Wartime Challenge, and am very glad I did…

    • I can understand those feelings, because growing up by the sea I knew that it was wonderful, but I also knew that it was powerful and that it had to be treated with respect. I’m very pleased to have found your lovely blog too.

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