‘THE WATER BABIES’
Literary styles and attitudes change,
especially within the genre of children’s books.
Although Charles Kingsley intended his
‘The Water Babies’ to be a crusade
against child-labour it has recently
fallen out of critical favour.
Which is reason enough to re-explore its appeal…
‘Come read me my riddle, each good little man;
if you cannot read it, no grown-up folk can’
It opens as almost a Victorian cliché. The waif working impossible hours in textile mills, the children working down the coal mines, the chimney-sweep ‘climbing boys’ small enough to be forced up chimneys. Charles Dickens drew reformist attention to the degradations of poverty. Charles Kingsley too, if in a more cautious fashion. He was a Christian Socialist and Christian Darwinist. I’ve never quite understood what that means. Yet it seems his Socialism was based in a kind of logical unease that saw the coexisting extremes of wealth and poverty as incongruous in a rational and ordered society. A revulsion at bad Landlords, squalid sanitation and the Game Laws, which he denounced. He saw such inequality as a discrepancy in god’s eternal plan. To those who argue that – based in analysis and veracity, science is incompatible with faith, apparently that is not so. His brand of ‘muscular’ faith provides a bridge. He corresponded with Charles Darwin, who used a letter from this Anglican prelate in the second edition of ‘On The Origin Of The Species’ (1859). Rabid Creationists still hold a grudge against Kingsley for that.
The chimney-sweeping duo are summoned to work at Sir John Harthover’s Hall. A journey that takes them ‘past the closed window-shutters, and the winking, weary policeman, and the roofs all shining grey in the grey dawn,’ through the black dusty pitmen’s village between black slag walls and the thumping of the pit-engine – ‘I’d be ashamed to want washing every week or so, like any smutty collier lad’ grumbles Grimes. They pass through the turnpike, and out into a countryside that Tom has never seen before. As they travel, a barefoot Irishwoman joins them – wearing a ‘crimson-madder petticoat’ that indicates ‘sure she came from Galway’. She prefers young Tom’s company to that of Grimes. Which the older man resents. She will continue as a shadowy presence throughout Tom’s subsequent escapades, a guardian angel, spirit guide or mother-deity. She tells him of the sea until ‘he longed to go and see the sea and bathe in it.’ As he will.
Fiction fabricates, that is its function. It condenses and compresses some incidents and locations, and expands others, as required by the needs of the tale. Born 12 June 1819 in Holne, Devon, the son of a clergyman, Kingsley’s family moved several times during his childhood, before settling in the London borough of Chelsea. Although he originally intended studying law, Kingsley decided to follow his father’s example and was ordained in 1842. His first parish was Eversley in Hampshire, for which he retained an affection throughout his life.
In her account of his life, ‘Charles Kingsley: His Letters And Memories Of His Life’ (1877) Kingsley’s widow Frances ‘Fanny’ Eliza Grenfell describes how she chides him over breakfast about his omission in neglecting to dedicate a book to infant Grenville. He promptly locks himself away in his study, emerging barely a half-hour later with the longhand draft of the opening chapter of what would become his most celebrated work. What he describes as his ‘Tomfooleries’.
‘Dank and foul, dank and foul,
by the smoky town in its murky cowl;
foul and dank, foul and dank,
by wharf and sewer and slimy bank;
darker and darker the further I go,
baser and baser the richer I grow,
who dare sport with the sin defiled?’
On their way to sweep the chimneys in his fictionalised version of Malham Tarn House, it’s likely to have been along the Keighley-Kendal turnpike that Tom heard ‘between black slag walls, the groaning and thumping of the pit-engine in the next field.’ Or perhaps the location was Ingleton, also a coal-mining village on the turnpike, and within easy reach of roads leading to Malham Moor? There are suggestions that the waterfalls and limestone crags of Gordale Scar were also used as locations for the story.
But Tom is there at Harthover’s Hall to work. Forced up into the ‘pitchy darkness’ of the complex system of chimneys, he loses his way, and accidentally descends into the bedroom of the sleeping Miss Ellie, the little lady in white, ‘the most beautiful little girl that Tom had ever seen.’ There’s an intense visionary quality about this confrontation between two worlds. The product of two social classes. As he sees his own reflection in the mirror, a ‘little black ape’ ragged with ‘bleared eyes and grinning white teeth,’ Tom ‘for the first time in his life, found out that he was dirty.’ Disturbed by the ‘stout old nurse’ he escapes through the open window, pursued in comic cavalcade by the under-gardener, the dairymaid, the groom, the keeper, the Irishwoman, the old steward – and Grimes. The writing is concise, but rich with detail. He eludes them out onto Harthover Fell, and then down Lewthwaite Crag to Vendale which lies so deep in the valley ‘that the bad bogies can hardly find it out.’ Making effective use of internal rhyme Tom goes ‘bump, stump, jump down the steep’, down by ‘stock and stone, sedge and ledge, bush and rush’.
‘Ah, now comes the most wonderful part of this wonderful story’ he gushes. In a passage that bears all the rich elaboration of a Pre-Raphaelite painting, the Irishwoman is revealed to be the queen of the fairies. And it is the fairies that take Tom away. This is the point where the story leaves quasi-realism and enters fantasy. This is the stepping through the wardrobe into Narnia moment. A third of the way into the tale, this is the over-the-rainbow into Oz moment. Essentially, Tom dies. He drowns. Indeed, the ‘land-world’ he’s left behind him carries on with that assumption. Yet, when a penitent Sir John finds a black thing in the water, and determines it to be Tom’s drowned body ‘they were utterly mistaken.’ For he awakes swimming in the stream, barely four inches long (‘that I may be accurate – 3.87902 inches long’), with the gills ‘of a sucking eft.’ In this book, no-one dies. Death is not final, merely a transition from one form to another. After all – the narrator argues, dragonflies alter form, evolving from one stage to the other. As a pupae is released, so the ‘real’ Tom is released from his dirt, husk and shell. It’s less a Christian idea, as a version of the Hindu rebirth cycle. The amphibious Tom at first has no memory of his past life.
Kingsley wrote the rest of ‘The Water-Babies’ while holidaying at Inveraray, in Argyll on the western shore of Loch Fyne, with chapters appearing as serial instalments in ‘MacMillan’s Magazine’, a monthly periodical founded by the publishers MacMillan And Co, in the same way that Arthur Conan Doyle’s tales appeared in ‘The Strand’ or HG Wells stories debuted in ‘The New Review’ or ‘Pall Mall Budget’ magazines. Kingsley tells how – through the summer months of his new body-form, Tom befriends a short-sighted dragonfly and they sit on a water-lily leaf together, until an otter rekindles his interest in the sea, and a thunderstorm washes him away in its torrent. He’s carried through a world rich with wildlife that Kingsley details in knowingly affection terms, gently chiding academics who ‘are forced to call everything by long names now, because they have used up all the short ones.’ He travels as far as the salt-sea which ‘as some wise men tell us, is the mother of all living things.’
Meanwhile, lonely and seeking companions, Tom rescues a lobster friend from a fisherman’s pot, after which he realises that other water-babies have been there around him all the time, tending to the eco-needs of the shoreline. Lost and abused, mistreated and malnourished, the thousands of children who die of neglect or brutality, by the hand of cruel parents or wicked masters, they are reborn as water-babies who gather around St Brendan’s Isle, a mythic westward fairy island built on ribboned pillars which might once have been Atlantis, ‘whether men can see it or not.’ Yet there are still rules. When Tom teases sea-anemones by putting stones in their mouths, he’s rewarded by the formidable Mrs Bedonebyasyoudid with a stone popped in his own mouth while other water-babies are gifted with sweet-treats. But Tom’s naughtiness persists. When he tracks down her cabinet of sea-bullseyes and sea-lollipops he can’t help gorging himself on them, until there’s none left. He’s not directly punished, because ‘people’s souls make their bodies,’ instead his guilt causes an inner aversion to the sweets, while his outer body develops ugly prickles.
Alongside the persisting horrors of child-abuse, exploitation and child-labour, the issue of child discipline is a continuing debate and an ongoing social experiment. From the ‘spare the rod, spoil the child’ zeal for chastening corporal punishment, it gradually evolves into our own more humanitarian ethos of caring indulgence. Yet there must be some kind of behavioural framework in place as a preparation for adult life, even if it’s simply a mutual understanding and tolerance for others. And Kingsley’s ‘Mrs Bedonebyasyoudid’ – balanced by her loving sister ‘Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby’, seems a useful place to open the debate. ‘As old as Eternity, and yet as young as Time’ the stern fairy had a range of talents, not least being that she had ‘found out photography… more than 13,598,000-years before anybody was born’ and has a most wonderful waterproof book of colour images of the past.
Tom is schooled in goodness for seven years, by a beautiful tutor he eventually recognises as the ‘little white lady, Ellie’, who recognises him as the ‘very same little chimney-sweep who came into my bedroom.’ The only thing that marrs Tom’s new idyll is the mystery of where Ellie goes on Sundays. There will be new adventures when he’s deprived of her company – his tears raise the level of the sea by .3954620819-of-an-inch. Much classic fiction – from the tales of brave Odysseus on, consist of the epic journey, and now Tom must travel nine-hundred and ninety-nine million miles to the Other-End-Of-Nowhere, taking in new rambling asides and meandering digressions, such as the devolutionary fable of the Doasyoulikes who lived ‘where the flapdoodle grows wild’ and who feast on ready-roasted pigs who run around saying ‘come and eat me’. Tom travels north by the great codbank of the Orkneys and Shetland on a quest to seek the Shiny Wall, meeting eccentric characters who tell their own internal stories, the King of the Herrings and the old Gairfowl on Allonestone. He’s led by migrating petrels north-east, sees the Singing Lady’s baby rescued by the fairies as a gallant ocean-steamer sinks beneath the waves, and Tom is joined in his quest by the ship’s transfigured water-dog. From the Norwegian volcanic Jan Mayen’s island they ride on the back of a mollymock who happens to be the spirit of Henrick Hudson – lost discoverer of Hudson’s Bay, until they reach the Ship’s Graveyard locked in giant icebergs, a realm recalling Coleridge’s “The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner”.
The diverse strands come together when Tom is reunited with Grimes – stuck fast in a chimney, in a prison patrolled by animated truncheons. And it’s by taking the more difficult path, and seeking reconciliation with his former Master, and by attempting to assist him, that Tom is vindicated, and restored to his human form. Ellie is there too, but although Tom grows into a ‘great man of science’, unlike the conventional storybook happy ending, they do not marry. ‘What a silly notion!’ jibes the narrator. ‘Don’t you know that no-one ever marries in a fairy-tale, under the rank of a prince of princess?’
There was also a loose movie adaptation of ‘The Water Babies’ (1978, MGM), uniting animated sequences with the acting talents of James Mason, Bernard Cribbins and Billie Whitelaw, for which the plot was tamed, simplified and sanitized in order to conform to more current social morès. For literary styles and moral attitudes shift, especially within the genre of books aimed at children. Although Charles Kingsley intended ‘The Water Babies’ to crusade against the evils of child-abuse, the book has fallen out of critical favour in recent decades, partly due to its insensitive racial caricatures of – especially, Irish people. Yet surely that’s no reason to throw the water-baby out with the bathwater? It retains a beguiling charm and visual poetry that makes it unique. Which is reason enough to re-explore its appeal…
In 1860, Charles Kingsley was appointed Professor Of Modern History at Cambridge University, later becoming Canon of Chester and then Westminster. He died at Eversley in 1875. His story remains, and deserves attention.