A classic since its first publication in 1863, The Water-Babies is the story of a little chimney sweep named Tom and his magical adventures beneath the waves. The ill-treated Tom flees his dangerous toil and his cruel master, Grimes. When he jumps into a cool stream to clean the soot off himself, he becomes a water-baby, cleaner and happier than he has ever been, in a hidden fairy world. There, Tom meets haughty dragonflies, makes friends with a slow-witted lobster, and dodges hungry otters. Eventually, he meets the other water-babies and their clever rulers, Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid and Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby. After a long and arduous quest to the Other-end-of-Nowhere, young Tom achieves his heart’s desire.
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Moral Evolution in a Strange Delightful Fairy Tale
In The Water-Babies (1863) by Charles Kingsley, poor little Tom is an orphaned chimney sweep who knows nothing of Jesus and prayers or of bees and honey, who is black all over with dirt and soot, and whose master Grimes is a selfish and brutal man. But everything changes for Tom when he meets a mysterious barefoot Irish washerwoman who says, "Those that wish to be clean, clean they will be; and those that wish to be foul, foul they will be." When Tom, repeating, "I must be clean, I must be clean," tumbles into a clear stream, the major fantastic "fairy tale" movement of the novel begins. Transformed by fairies into a tiny water-baby (3.87902 inches long!), he embarks on a series of adventures that give him a moral education and matching physical metamorphoses. While at first his experiences involve encounters with natural creatures (like caddis flies, dragonflies, trout, and lobsters), which Kinglsey depicts with both 19th century scientific accuracy and fantastic moral imagination, they become more allegorical and satirical the farther Tom goes, as when, for example, he visits Gulliver's Laputa.
Simon Vance gives his usual accurate, clear, and appealing reading, and I really liked his cockney (?) Tom, though there are a couple places where he repeats lines, and one moment of static.
The Water-Babies is a strange book. I can't imagine today's children being able to enjoy much of it. It has difficult vocabulary, quotations from great writers, references to Greek mythology and famous scientists, paradoxical concepts about reality, truth, and imagination, repeated addresses to the male reader ("my little man"), and satires of Victorian education, fashion, science, poverty, and class. And the novel is intensely moral, at times didactically so, closer in spirit to the work of George MacDonald than to that of Lewis Carroll. Perhaps children would not respond to Kingsley's message that to become a good adult, we must learn to do what we do not like, as in helping a person who has harmed us, and to avoid doing what we like, or else we will be beasts. And I dislike his message that our souls make our bodies.
And yet a love for language and for the world and all its creatures shines through the novel, by turns humorously, beautifully, or movingly. Although he was an Anglican priest, Kingsley does not overtly push his Christianity and rather shares his enthusiasm for evolution (applied moralistically to shape how species and individuals change according to their souls and actions). And he wants parents and educators to respect children and wants children to treat everything with curiosity and kindness.
If you're interested in Victorian children's literature, you should listen to The Water-Babies. But be prepared to rewind a lot or, once you finish, to listen to it again or to read the free online text. It's unique and worth the effort.
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