The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

The Water Babies (1862-1863)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

The Water Babies was written by Charles Kingsley and first appeared in Macmillan’s Magazine (Aug 1862-March 1863). The Reverend Charles Kingsley (1819-1875) is not well-known today. His only book which remains regularly read is The Water Babies. But during his lifetime he was one of the giants of mid-century Victorian literature. Kingsley wrote children's literature, poetry, historical romances, sermons, scientific treatises, religious tracts, and literary criticism. He was also a parish priest, a prominent social reformer and political activist, a professor of history at Cambridge, tutor to the future Edward VII, and chaplain to Queen Victoria herself. The Water Babies is a classic of children’s literature. It was popular and influential in its time and is still read today. In several respects, however, The Water Babies is not merely dated but is unwholesome.

Tom is a young orphan who works as chimney sweep. His master is Grimes, a brutal man who beats Tom every day. But because Tom is used to this treatment he does not think it unusually harsh. One day Grimes gets a choice job: to clean the chimneys of Harthover Place, a sprawling, centuries-old mansion. Tom does his usual job of climbing up the flues and brushing down the soot, but because the chimneys are as old as the house and run in crooked directions, Tom gets lost in them, and rather than returning to the room he started in he ends up in the bedroom of Ellie, Sir John Harthover’s daughter. Ellie is pretty, and the room, all in white, is cleaner and more beautiful than anything Tom has ever seen before. Tom sees a washing-stand with bowls and soap and towels, and notices how clean Ellie is, and then he sees himself in a mirror and realizes for the first time how dirty he is. He is mortified and bursts into tears, but when he tries to leave he knocks over the fender and makes a lot of noise, waking Ellie up. She screams, and her nurse comes and tries to catch Tom, thinking that he has come to steal something. Tom escapes from her and jumps out the window. The entire household pursues him, all believing that he has stolen something. Tom runs over the moors and up and over a long hill, for ten miles, easily eluding his pursuers. He ends up in the village of Vendale, where an old woman who runs a girls’ school gives him something to drink. But he is feverish and obsessed with cleaning himself, so he wanders to the nearby river, disrobes, and gets into the water. He falls asleep and drowns, but his spirit takes on a new form, that of a four-inch-long water baby.

In his new body Tom stays in the water near Vendale for a long time, making friends with many of the river-creatures and generally acting as selfish and misbehaving as he did when he was a human child. But eventually he hears about other water babies who live in the sea, and because he is lonely he sets off to find them. He eventually reaches the sea, but because he is selfish and unkind he is not allowed to see them. It is only when he tries to help a lobster escape from a lobster trap that Tom is given the ability to see the other water babies. He is overjoyed to be with them, and they take him to St. Brendan’s Isle, their magical island home. Tom meets Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid, who rewards the water babies for good behavior and punishes them for bad behavior. Unfortunately, Tom still has too much of the selfish human child in him, and his behavior earns him the reproach of Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid. Ellie, the human girl, has died and become a water baby, and because she is a good person she is allowed to go to a special place every Sunday, somewhere Tom is not allowed to go. Ellie treats Tom well, and he enjoys the pure motherly love of Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid’s sister, Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby, but he continues to misbehave. Tom is eventually told that he must leave St. Brendan’s Isle, but that he will be allowed to accompany Ellie to her special place if he goes to the Other-end-of-Nowhere and rescues Grimes, who Tom continues to dread. Tom and his water dog go on a long trip, for seven years, and see many strange people, and when they find Grimes Tom’s tears free him from his prison. Grimes is allowed to work off his sins, and Tom is allowed to go “home” on Sundays with Ellie.

The Water Babies was immediately popular on publication and remained so for decades. The Water Babies appeared only four years after Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s Schooldays and was part of the first wave of children’s books which emphasized entertainment more than instruction. The popularity of The Water Babies allowed for further publication of non-traditional children’s novels, specifically Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, whose publication was largely due to the success of The Water Babies. The Water Babies was also the first modern English children’s fantasy novel which did not draw on traditional English folklore; the fantasy elements in The Water Babies are Kingsley’s invention. The Water Babies was also influential beyond literature. One of Kingsley’s reasons for writing the book was his hatred of the cruel use of child chimney sweeps, and because of The Water Babies a law was passed prohibiting their use. But modern readers, while valuing the novel’s positive qualities and acknowledging its influence, are likely to find it less entertaining and much more objectionable than Kingsley’s original readers did.

The Water Babies is far from unreadable. Kingsley was competent enough as a writer to produce entertaining prose, and the concepts and images in The Water Babies range from interesting to ingenious. The novel has a great deal of energy, and the incorporation of information on nature, natural history, and oceanography is done skillfully enough that the reader is informed rather than lectured. Readers of a sufficiently religious cast will find the themes of redemption and spiritual maturation to be moving. But The Water Babies has many more flaws besides Kingsley’s unfortunate weakness for long digressions. The didacticism which mars the first one hundred and fifty pages of Westward Ho! and most of Hypatia is on full display in The Water Babies. Modern readers may agree or disagree with the content of Kingsley’s preaching, but the repetitive, heavy-handed fashion in which he goes about lecturing the reader soon grows tedious. Kingsley’s approach to his readers, both his morality and his narrative style, make The Water Babies a novel only adults will be able to appreciate. The Water Babies is written by an upper-class Victorian for middle and upper-class Victorians, and will not be approachable by modern children. Moreover, Kingsley’s style is almost precious in its attitude toward children and may well alienate modern children.

The modern reader is likely to be struck at how relatively mild the novel’s indictment of child labor is. The influence of The Water Babies on Kingsley’s contemporaries is historical fact, but from a modern perspective the sections in which Tom works as a chimney sweep are told in so understated a way as to be soft. Kingsley’s intentions cannot be doubted, and that he raised the subject at all, especially in fiction meant for children, is to his credit, but when compared to the work of the realists of the 1890s or of journalists like Henry Mayhew, who described the reality of child labor in the popular press of the 1840s and 1850s, The Water Babies is usually unimpressive. (In one respect, however, Kingsley does live up to his reputation. His portrayal of child labor is underwhelming, but his willingness to kill characters is almost startling. Ellie’s death comes as a shock).

Again, Kingsley’s intentions cannot be criticized. But many aspects of his morality are deplorable. The Water Babies is anti-intellectual. Kingsley criticizes democracy and displays a great deal of snobbery toward the lower classes. Kingsley freely slurs the Irish, the Welsh, and the Americans and includes several nasty comments about Catholics and Jews. Kingsley’s bigotry ruins many otherwise enjoyable passages, and the modern reader is likely to eye the book with disgust rather than pleasure.

Recommended Edition

Print: Charles Kingsley, The Water-Babies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.