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
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‘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.
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.
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.
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 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 …..