The Water-Babies by Charles Kingsley

The Water-Babies is a children’s story written by Charles Kingsley (1815-1875). It features a young boy named Tom. Tom is a hungry, dirty orphan in Victorian England. He works, as many small and young children did during the industrial revolution, as a chimney sweep.

Although a law was passed in 1788 against the employment of children as sweeps they were still used  well into the 19th century because of their size and agility.This story is about the salvation of Tom’s soul, Kingsley’s main goal was to bring attention to the deplorable exploitation of children.

Charles Kingsley was an Anglican priest, an author, a Christian Socialist and a Christian Darwinist. He was a staunch supporter of the working class and his novels cover their many plights. His work focused on issues such as sanitation, public health, work conditions, child labour, race, slavery, education of the poor, pollution of rivers and streams and the lack of support in general by the high-church during the Crimean war. In his opinion, The negligent attitudes of nineteenth century movers and shakers in regards to their fellow man were causing irreparable damage.

However he also firmly believed that politics and religion should go hand in hand to bring about positive changes for the poor and hungry, and indeed this notion is also reflected in his belief that evolutionary theory should be linked to religion, hence the title of Christian Darwinist.

Kingsley didn’t start writing children’s fiction until 1856, up to that point he wrote fiction for adults, poetry and pieces with strong political, religious, historical and socioeconomic themes. He actually wrote the Water-Babies (pub 1862) for his youngest son.

As a side note he was also a private tutor to the Prince of Wales in 1861, so I wonder if this piece of fiction with strong political and religious views was also a way of swaying young minds of future importance? Food for thought.

Tom works for a man called Grimes, who beats all his workers (children) every day and seems to take pleasure in the pain of others. Grimes is feared by the children, a fact that becomes important during the story when young Tom runs away because he is frightened of being punished.

This particular story is heavy set with the notion of man/woman/child being clean of sin and thus being pure enough to enter into the folds of the inner sanctum of heaven.

Grimes and Tom are on the way to a job at a huge manor house with plenty of chimneys when they meet an Irishwoman. Grimes and the woman get into an altercation, she accuses Grimes of deeds most foul and her ominous words set the tone for the rest of the story.

Those that wish to be clean, clean they will be; and those that wish to be foul, foul they will be. Remember.

As she speaks Tom can hear church bells ringing in his head and he feels a pull, an urge or need deep inside.

I must be clean, I must be clean.
I will be a fish; I will swim in the water, I must be clean, I must be clean.

I must be quick and wash myself; the bells are ringing quite loud now; and they will stop soon, and then the door will be shut, and I shall never be able to get in at all.

At the beginning of the story it is pointed out that Tom has no concept of God/religion/Christianity. So we should question his apparent innate instinct towards being cleansed of his dirt (sins) and being offered entry into the door of heaven. Of course the subtle implication is that we are all born with a hidden/subconscious embedded belief of God.

I can just hear all the Christians rising up and cheering with joy at the affirmation and the Atheists roaring in anger at the assumption. Bear with me oh ye of little faith. (pun completely intended) The author Charles Kingsley was a very devout Christian, so it is only natural that he would impose his views on others via his medium of choice.

There is reference made to the fact that in England the church doors were open for all if they were peaceful, which suggests no matter the sin, if willing, you shall be forgiven your sins. Enter the Irishwoman once again, and by this time you start to wonder who she represents.

I have been coaxing little children away from gutters, staying men’s hands as they were going to strike their wives, doing all I can to help those who will not help themselves.

No pressure there then.

She speaks as poor Tom is mistaken for a burglar after coming down the wrong chimney and ending up in the room of a young sickly girl. He runs for it.

Tom runs, climbs and the scared, fatigued little boy ends up falling asleep and tumbling into a cool stream. The fairies laugh with joy at the thought of a new little brother. They collect him and he awakes to find himself swimming in the stream now a mere 4 inches in size. A water-baby.

 The most wonderful and the strongest things in the world, you know, are just the things which no one can see.

Meanwhile up at the grand house they have finally figured out poor Tom has been accused of something he never did and he simply ran away in fright. Feeling a streak of conscience the Master of the manor starts a search.

By the way the fairies are representative of angels and things we cannot prove are neither here nor there or anywhere.

Now comes my favourite part of the book.

But there are no such things as water-babies.

How do you know that? Have you been there to see? And if you had been there to see, and had seen none, that would not prove that there were none. And no-one has a right to say that no water-babies exist, till they have seen no water-babies existing; which is quite a different thing, mind, from not seeing water-babies; and a thing nobody ever did, or perhaps ever will do.

Now insert word of choice for water-babies in the above mentioned quote: fairies, vampires, unicorns, God.

Catch my drift? Let’s just assume for a minute that the author meant God. If you have never seen God how can you say he doesn’t exist, hence you cannot prove he doesn’t because just not seeing him to prove he doesn’t exist doesn’t mean he wasn’t there, he perhaps just wasn’t there when someone looked.

You must not speak about ‘ain’t’ or can’t when you speak of this great wonderful world round you, of which the wisest man knows only the very smallest corner.

What follows is quite a clever monologue on humans as a species, who have debated and still do debate the impossibility of things …a round earth, flying dragons (Pterodactyls) or aliens.

In essence saying that we as humans do not know all, hence are unable to say with irrevocable proof whether something does or doesn’t exist until proven otherwise.

One true doctrine of this fairytale – your soul makes your body, just as a snail makes his shell.

Again that puts a lot of pressure on us as individuals, because it doesn’t take external factors such as environment, socioeconomic factors, or indeed a certain lack of power we have over our own destiny, as children.

All the while children whom the good fairie take to… all who are untaught and brought up heathens

Excuse me while I go extinguish the flames of hellfire suddenly appearing on my body, us heathens must endure such tedious afflictions.

Tom is reunited with the little girl from the bedroom. She is also dead but unlike Tom was allowed to enter through the door. His need to know why he hasn’t been allowed to enter grows stronger. Tom questions the Queen of Fae/Irishwoman aka the Keeper of the Door.

What is the beautiful place?

Dear, sweet, loving, wise, good self sacrificing people who really go there, can never tell you any thing about it.

Tom also meets his tormentor Mr Grimes again (now dead). He however is paying a heavy restitution for his sins.

I’ve made my bed and I must lie in it. Foul I would be, and foul I am…but it’s too late.

To which the Queen replies:

It’s never too late.

So I guess that means that there is still hope for all of us…even the heathens. Despite the religious morality there is an aspect of the last sentence that rings true. It is never too late. What it is or isn’t too late for is up to each of us to decide or not.

Free downloads of the books mentioned above:
Download to read the Water-Babies by Charles Kingsley at Feedbooks or the Internet Archive.
Download to listen to the Water-Babies by Charles Kingsley at Librivox.
Download to read Westward Ho by Charles Kingsley at the Internet Archive.
Download to read Alton Locke by Charles Kingsley at the Internet Archive.
Download to read Hypatia by Charles Kingsley at the Internet Archive.

5 thoughts on “The Water-Babies by Charles Kingsley

  1. I remember that I read this book as a child. I also remember my mother being surprised that I wanted to tackle it (I was a voracious reader). I don't remember much about the book, but I doubt I was looking for – or even picked up on – the heavy symbolism of the book. I should download one of these eBooks and give it another go as an adult. Thanks for the review!

  2. Same here. It makes for an interesting read when you pick a book from your childhood or younger years and read it with the frame of references and knowledge you have accumulated over the years.

  3. I have never read this book but I do remember reading similar stories when I was younger and they always drove me up the wall. The protagonist died. It never mattered to me whether they went to some paradise after, the point for me was that they died. It wasn't fair! It wasn't right!

    I seem to be railing about that a lot recently, don't I?

    But, anyways, as a kid, and even as an adult, these kind of stories irritate me in the extreme. The same way with stories where the protagonist dies, is allowed to come back for some reason, BUT is not allowed to keep their original persona. I stop reading and yell: but… he's dead! He may be actually living in that body but nobody knows that. He doesn't even know that. If the protagonist does not know he is the original persona then the original persona is…..dead! It's not fair! It's not right!

    It really irritates me. But that's probably just the action-adventure freak in me. Give me a good villain-trashing over a paradise-floating any day.

    Anyways, thanks for the review, Cheryl! 🙂

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