Guest Blog: The Water Babies

The Water Babies in the 100 Greatest Books for (Victorian) Kids

Guest Blog
by Catherine Batac Walder


A recent blog post on this site linked to the 100 Greatest Books for Kids. It made me think of children’s books that were extremely popular during their time and wonder what had caused the decline in their status such as Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies.

Around the time this list of 100 Greatest Books for Kids was published, we nipped into an antique shop in Eversley, a village close to ours, and were drawn to St. Mary’s Church right beside the antique shop, where Kingsley had been rector from 1844 until his death in 1875.

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St. Mary’s Church in Eversley, the view from Charles Kingsley’s grave.

The Water Babies is the only work of Kingsley that I’ve read so far. I personally couldn’t grasp the idea of Tom, the young boy in the story, turning into a water baby as I thought this new life in the water was even lonelier at first and more unsafe than the cruelty and danger he had faced as a chimney sweep. The idea is for him to learn from his adventures but then it wasn’t his fault that he was born poor and didn’t know much as a chimney sweep. To become a water baby was, I thought, an unfair way to be taught lessons in life. At the end of the tale, he was restored to being a human again. That he didn’t remain a water baby, to me, seemed to have defeated the whole purpose of his transformation and just proved that it was better to be a land baby after all. The first few chapters were strong but it appeared as though his transformation into a water baby was only to keep the adventures going, somehow to create excitement out of the author’s desire to impart a moral fable. Tom’s adventures aren’t as fantastic as those of the hobbits or that certain boy wizard for today’s readers. There didn’t seem to be enough “action” whenever he met someone new. Kingsley (as the narrator addressing a young boy, presumably his youngest child, to whom he dedicated the story) wrote like a firm school teacher. I did enjoy the references to pop culture of that time. His thoughts I didn’t find out of date but there was just a lot of information and he dwelt too much on a single subject, almost sounding too defensive about his arguments.
 
Many are of the opinion that the decline in popularity of The Water Babies roots from the inclusion of the common prejudices of that time period and insulting references to other races, cultures and religion.* Apparently, most modern editions of the book have an inscription on the copyright page stating that “references that would have little meaning or purpose for the children of today have been omitted.” I haven’t read a modern edition of the book so I’m not sure which parts had been edited out. But then the tale is satirical and as in any such work, the author uses irony that in the end we’re not quite sure if he’s dismissing others or his kind. Undeniably, Kingsley had wit and humor. And if I would think of other things that were admirable about him, I would put on top of the list his niece Mary Kingsley (1861-1900) who was considered to be a woman who belonged to the twentieth century in her desire to affirm the value of different cultures. She was an explorer in West Africa and was a champion of the traditions of indigenous peoples. She challenged the prevailing assumptions of her generation through her passionate concern to understand and safeguard the tribal societies she encountered (Fuller and Fuller, The Story of Eversley Church, 2004, p.19).

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Kingsley Centenary Window, the south window of the chancel, designed by Christopher Webb.

Eversley Church was listed in the Domesday Book as a possession of Westminster Abbey. What singles it out among typical English churches is its connection to Charles Kingsley. As you explore the church, you see many memorials, stained glass windows, etc. all relating to Kingsley. The crèche is called “The Water Babies Creche.” There is a stained glass window in the chancel that marks the centenary of Kingsley’s arrival in Eversley as a curate. Installed in 1942, the window shows the figure of St. Elizabeth of Hungary, the heroine of Kingsley’s poem “The Saint’s Tragedy” and the figures on each side are reminiscent of the water babies. My favorite part of the church is the Sarsen Stone that was discovered there in 1940. Geologists identified it as one of the Bagshot series from about 50,000 years ago.

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Grave of Charles Kingsley and his wife Fanny at the St. Mary’s churchyard. The Latin epitaph at the base reads “Amavimus, amamus, amabimus” (We loved, we love, we shall love).

Although I’m not a huge fan of The Water Babies, I now associate Charles Kingsley with St. Mary’s Church, the great changes he had made for the parish and the legacy he had left in Eversley, something that the villagers are undoubtedly proud of even to this day.

*I couldn’t find evidence of this theory about its decline in popularity. Even the “studies” I found on some sites point to Wikipedia, which doesn’t suffice. Perhaps FB&C readers could shed some light...

Many thanks to Catherine Batac Walder, a writer living in the UK, for this photo essay. She has previously written for us about Sherlock Holmes and ex-library books.


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