The Water-Babies: A Fairy Tale for a Land-Baby, by Charles Kingsley

The classic children’s story is 150 years old

Thu, Oct 17, 2013, 12:49


Book Title:
The Water-Babies


Charles Kingsley

Oxford University Press

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Charles Kingsley (1819-1875) won most of the prizes. An Anglican priest, he became canon of Westminster Abbey. Hardly a great scholar, he was nevertheless appointed regius professor of history at Cambridge University, a post he held from 1860 to 1869. In 1860, too, he became chaplain-in-ordinary to Queen Victoria, and in 1861 private tutor to the prince of Wales. He was also a resourceful naturalist of two of the four elements, earth and water. A Darwinist, he told Darwin that “it is just as noble a conception of Deity, to believe that He created primal forms capable of self-development into all forms needful pro tempore and pro loco , as to believe that He required a fresh act of intervention to supply the lacunas which He Himself had made.”

An often noisy polemicist, he was a popular lecturer in England and the US. A poet, too, in Andromeda and Other Poems (1858). More successfully, he was a novelist, especially in Alton Locke (1850), Yeast (1851), Hypatia (1853) and Westward Ho! (1855).

Not that he was an original thinker: his ideas were plucked from much greater minds than his own, especially those of Thomas Carlyle and FD Maurice. He was an assiduous purveyor rather than an inventor. His faith – “muscular Christianity”, as it was often called – amounted to appeasement: he found it easy, apparently, to make friends with the mammon of unrighteousness, especially if he could call it Science. “Give me the political economist, the sanitary reformer, the engineer; and take your saints and virgins, relics and miracles,” a representative character in Yeast writes to his Roman Catholic cousin.

Kingsley’s politics started with Chartism and, when that failed, contented itself with the British Empire, colonisation, industrial expansion and “the glorious work which God seems to have laid on the English race, to replenish the earth and subdue it”. His motto might well have been that cleanliness and sanitation are next to godliness. He despised the races and tribes that did not participate in British destiny: the Irish, the Jews, the blacks. The only things he liked about the Irish – “the poor Paddies who eat potatoes” – were their fishing and Brendan’s voyages.

But Kingsley’s posthumous reputation has settled down on two considerations: he wrote a fairy tale that has never gone out of print, and he insulted one of the greatest personages of his time. The two acts are intermittently related. A word about the insult first.

Kingsley published, in the January 1864 issue of Macmillan’s Magazine , a review of the seventh and eighth volumes of James Anthony Froude’s History of England . He was under no obligation to refer to John Henry Newman in the review, but he did: “Truth for its own sake had never been a virtue with the Roman clergy. Father Newman informs us that it need not, and on the whole, ought not to be; that cunning is the weapon which heaven has given to the saints wherewith to withstand the brute male force of the wicked world which marries and is given in marriage.”

Kingsley hated Newman, as many Anglicans did; they never forgave him for leading the Oxford Movement on the path to Rome. (Newman converted to Roman Catholicism on November 1st, 1845, and was ordained a priest two years later.) Kingsley hated Roman Catholicism, too, for many reasons, and he associated it with Mediterranean effeminacy and indolence. Rome’s insistence on celibacy in its priests particularly infuriated him. Newman regarded Kingsley’s reference to him in the review as a gross slander. He might have let it pass, but he had endured years of obloquy and the review touched a nerve; he was not willing to be called a liar. So he demanded an apology from Kingsley and got a half-hearted one. Both disputants issued pamphlets, Newman’s far more effective than Kingsley’s, but Newman remained unappeased. He was quick to take offence, but only when it was loudly given. He decided that the slander called for a large response. Kingsley had been “furiously carried away by his feelings”, but the quarrel could not end there, because Newman deemed the insult an equal reflection on Roman Catholicism, the church as an institution and the priesthood. A pamphlet was not enough.

Newman’s definitive response was Apologia pro Vita Sua (1864), a book in seven parts, the first two and the seventh being answers to Kingsley, the remainder “a history of my religious opinions” from boyhood to 1845. Later editions removed all reference to Kingsley. Newman went ahead on his own and achieved one of the greatest autobiographies of his age. Kingsley was wiped out; his repute never survived the blunder. He would have made a better showing if he had specifically recalled the history of equivocation in Catholic thought – the right to silence, privacy, verbal misleading and mental reservation, everything short of the palpable lie – as it was devised to save Catholic priests when they were charged with treason and in danger of being hanged, drawn and quartered, like the English Jesuits Robert Southwell, in 1595, and Henry Garnet, in 1606. Kingsley disgraced himself in scholarship and truth by calling Newman a liar and failing to bring up a single instance of his lying.

But he did good work elsewhere, mainly as a public lecturer on sanitation, the pollution of rivers, the degradation of cities and, in The Water-Babies (1863), the scandal of employing young boys as chimney sweeps. Again, he was not the first to speak of such indecencies: Henry Mayhew did the major work on scavenging in London Labour and the London Poor (1851). But Kingsley attracted huge audiences, and repeated the moral lessons. The Water-Babies , now reissued by Oxford University Press, probably had some influence in persuading the House of Lords, in 1864, to ban the use of children under the age of 16 in cleaning chimneys. One of William Blake’s poems about chimney sweeps gave Kingsley the motif he needed, especially in the stanza where Blake imagines the “thousands of sweepers” being liberated from their “coffins of black”:

And by came an Angel who had a bright key
And he open’d the coffins & set them all free.
Then down a green plain leaping laughing they run
And wash in a river and shine in the Sun.

This is essentially the story of The Water-Babies . Tom, 10 years old, is a chimney sweep for his master, Thomas Grimes. Cleaning the chimneys in Sir John Harthover’s lodge, Tom falls down the wrong flue and finds himself in an elegant room, “all dressed in white; white window curtains, white bed curtains, white furniture, and white walls, with just a few lines of pink here and there”. Under the coverlet, “upon the snow-white pillow, lay the most beautiful little girl that Tom had ever seen”. Miss Ellie screams “as shrill as any peacock”, and Tom rushes out. Pursued by everyone in the lodge, he escapes:

And all of a sudden he found himself, not in the outhouse on the hay, but in the middle of a meadow, over the road, with the stream just before him, saying continually, “I must be clean, I must be clean”. He had got there on his own legs, between sleep and awake, as children will often get out of bed, and go about the room, when they are not quite well. But he was not a bit surprised, and went on to the bank of the brook, and lay down on the grass, and looked into the clear clear limestone water, with every pebble at the bottom bright and clean, while the little silver trout dashed about in fright at the sight of his black face; and he dipped his hand in and found it so cool, cool, cool; and he said, “I will be a fish; I will swim in the water; I must be clean, I must be clean.”

He takes off his clothes, “and he put his poor hot sore feet into the water; and then his legs; and the further he went in, the more the church bells rang in his head”.

Tom becomes a water-baby, 3.87902 inches long, and begins his life in that element, cared for by the fairies, until gradually his life is transformed, his cruelties forgiven as he moves from brook to sea, led not by an interfering God but by Nature, here called Mother Carey:

“Thank you, ma’am,” said Tom.

“Then I won’t trouble your ladyship any more; I hear you are very busy.”

“I am never more busy than I am now,” she said, without stirring a finger.

“I heard, ma’am, that you were always making new beasts out of old.”

“So people fancy. But I am not going to trouble myself to make things, my little dear. I sit here and make them make themselves.”

So the story proceeds, haltingly indeed. With Rabelais for master, the narrator – we may call him Kingsley – often interrupts the narrative, putting Tom the water-baby aside for a while, to say something that has just come into his mind. He tells us what we should think about chemistry, flying dragons, jellyfish, caddis flies, salmon-poaching, Bewick on birds, Sir Robert Peel’s income-tax Bill of 1842, Napoleon III’s deal with Cavour and why Catholic Ireland lags behind England and Scotland in economic development. The book takes cleanliness as its ideal pattern, but Kingsley is indiscriminate in enforcing it. As a naturalist, he urges people to pay attention to everything that is to be seen, heard, touched or tasted. He ridicules those who go to the seaside just to lie in the sun or paddle in the waves. His favourite word is “and”, a word that delights in multiplicity and pays no heed to differences:

And after a while the birds began to gather at Allfowlsness, in thousands and tens of thousands, blackening all the air; swans and brant geese, harlequins and eiders, harelds and garganeys, smews and goosanders, divers and loons, grebes and dovekies, auks and razor-bills, gannets and petrels, skuas and terns, with gulls beyond all naming or numbering; and they paddled and washed and splashed and combed and brushed themselves on the sand, till the shore was white with feathers; and they quacked and clucked and gabbled and chattered and screamed and whooped as they talked over matters with their friends . . .

And so on for another six lines. In this book, if not elsewhere, Kingsley identifies truth with self-evidence. The Water-Babies is addressed “to my youngest son, Grenville Arthur, and to all other good little boys” and he tells them many things, some of which may be true, like the lesson a little girl teaches Tom in the water-world:

For the lessons in that world, my child, have no such hard words in them as the lessons in this, and therefore the water-babies like them better than you like your lessons, and long to learn them more and more; and grown men cannot puzzle nor quarrel over their meaning, as they do here on land; for those lessons all rise clear and pure, like [the River] Test out of Overton Pool, out of the everlasting ground of all life and truth.

Within a few months, he was to find himself defeated by a few foolish, hard words he flung at Newman.

Denis Donoghue teaches English, Irish, and American literature at New York University.