The Water-Babies, A Fairy Tale for a Land Baby
The Water-Babies, A Fairy Tale for a Land Baby is a children's novel by the Reverend Charles Kingsley. Written in 1862–63 as a serial for Macmillan's Magazine, it was first published in its entirety in 1863. It was written as part satire in support of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species. The book was extremely popular in England, and was a mainstay of British children's literature for many decades, but eventually fell out of favour in part due to its prejudices (common at the time) against Irish, Jews, Americans, and the poor.
The protagonist is Tom, a young chimney sweep, who falls into a river after encountering an upper-class girl named Ellie and being chased out of her house. There he drowns and is transformed into a "water baby", as he is told by a caddisfly—an insect that sheds its skin—and begins his moral education. The story is thematically concerned with Christian redemption, though Kingsley also uses the book to argue that England treats its poor badly, and to question child labour, among other themes.
Tom embarks on a series of adventures and lessons, and enjoys the community of other water babies once he proves himself a moral creature. The major spiritual leaders in his new world are the fairies Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby (a reference to the Golden Rule), Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid, and Mother Carey. Weekly, Tom is allowed the company of Ellie, who did not drown after he did.
Grimes, his old master, drowns as well, and in his final adventure, Tom travels to the end of the world to attempt to help the man where he is being punished for his misdeeds. Tom helps Grimes to find repentance, and Grimes will be given a second chance if he can successfully perform a final penance. By proving his willingness to do things he does not like, if they are the right things to do, Tom earns himself a return to human form, and becomes "a great man of science" who "can plan railways, and steam-engines, and electric telegraphs, and rifled guns, and so forth". He and Ellie are united, although the book claims that they never marry.
In the style of Victorian-era novels, The Water-Babies is a didactic moral fable. In it, Kingsley expresses many of the common prejudices of that time period, and the book includes dismissive or insulting references to Americans, Jews, blacks, and Catholics particularly the Irish. These views may have played a role in the book's gradual fall from popularity.
The book had been intended in part as a satire, a tract against child labour, as well as a serious critique of the closed-minded approaches of many scientists of the day in their response to Charles Darwin's ideas on evolution, which Kingsley had been one of the first to praise. He had been sent an advance review copy of On the Origin of Species, and wrote in his response of 18 November 1859 (four days before the book went on sale) that he had "long since, from watching the crossing of domesticated animals and plants, learnt to disbelieve the dogma of the permanence of species," and had "gradually learnt to see 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", asking "whether the former be not the loftier thought."
In the book, for example, Kingsley argues that no person is qualified to say that something that they have never seen (like a human soul or a water baby) does not exist.
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.
In his Origin of Species, Darwin mentions that, like many others at the time, he thought that changed habits produce an inherited effect, a concept now known as Lamarckism. In The Water Babies, Kingsley tells of a group of humans called the Doasyoulikes who are allowed to do "whatever they like" so gradually lose the power of speech, degenerate into gorillas, and are shot by the African explorer Paul Du Chaillu. He also (controversially, nowadays) likens the Doasyoulikes to the natives of Africa, by mentioning that one of the gorillas shot by Du Chaillu "remembered that his ancestors had once been men, and tried to say, 'Am I Not A Man And A Brother?', but had forgotten how to use his tongue."
The Water Babies alludes to debates among biologists of its day, satirising the Great Hippocampus Question as the "Great hippopotamus test." At various times the text refers to "Sir Roderick Murchison, Professor (Richard) Owen, Professor (Thomas Henry) Huxley, (and) Mr. Darwin", and thus they become explicitly part of the story. In the accompanying illustrations by Linley Sambourne, Huxley and Owen are caricatured, studying a captured water baby. In 1892 Thomas Henry Huxley's five-year-old grandson Julian saw this engraving and wrote his grandfather a letter asking:
Dear Grandpater – Have you seen a Waterbaby? Did you put it in a bottle? Did it wonder if it could get out? Could I see it some day? – Your loving Julian.
My dear Julian – I could never make sure about that Water Baby.
I have seen Babies in water and Babies in bottles; the Baby in the water was not in a bottle and the Baby in the bottle was not in water. My friend who wrote the story of the Water Baby was a very kind man and very clever. Perhaps he thought I could see as much in the water as he did – There are some people who see a great deal and some who see very little in the same things.
When you grow up I dare say you will be one of the great-deal seers, and see things more wonderful than the Water Babies where other folks can see nothing.
The book was adapted into an animated film The Water Babies in 1978 starring James Mason, Bernard Cribbins and Billie Whitelaw. Though many of the main elements are there, the movie's storyline differs substantially from the book, with a new sub-plot involving a killer shark and a kraken.
It was also adapted into a musical theatre version produced at the Garrick Theatre in London, in 1902. The adaptation was described as a "fairy play", by Rutland Barrington, with music by Frederick Rosse, Albert Fox, and Alfred Cellier. The book was also produced as a play by Jason Carr and Gary Yershon, mounted at the Chichester Festival Theatre in 2003, directed by Jeremy Sams, starring Louise Gold, Joe McGann, Katherine O'Shea, and Neil McDermott.
A 2013 update for BBC Radio 4 written by Paul Farley and directed by Emma Harding brought the tale to a newer age, with Tomi having been trafficked from Nigeria as a child labourer.
- When Tom has "everything that he could want or wish," the reader is warned that sometimes this does bad things to people "Indeed, it sometimes makes them naughty, as it has made the people in America." Murderous crows that do whatever they like are described as being like "American citizens of the new school."
- Jews are referred to twice in the text, first as archetypal rich people ("as rich as a Jew"), and then as a joking reference to dishonest merchants who sell fake religious icons – "young ladies walk about with lockets of Charles the First's hair (or of somebody else's, when the Jews' genuine stock is used up)".
- The Powwow man is said to have "yelled, shouted, raved, roared, stamped, and danced corrobory like any black fellow," and a seal is described as looking like a "fat old greasy negro."
- "Popes" are listed among Measles, Famines, Despots, and other "children of the four great bogies."
- Ugly people are described as "like the poor Paddies who eat potatoes"; an extended passage discusses St. Brandan among the Irish who liked "to brew potheen, and dance the pater o'pee, and knock each other over the head with shillelaghs, and shoot each other from behind turf-dykes, and steal each other's cattle, and burn each other's homes." A character Dennis lies and says whatever he thinks others want to hear because "he is a poor Paddy, and knows no better." The statement that Irishmen always lie is used to explain why "poor ould Ireland does not prosper like England and Scotland."
- Sandner, David (2004). Fantastic Literature: A Critical Reader. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 328. ISBN 0-275-98053-7.
- The Encyclopedia of Evolution: Humanity's Search for Its Origins, Richard Milner, 1990, p.458
- Darwin 1887, p. 287.
- Darwin 1860, p. 134
- "The Water-Babies, by Charles Kingsley; Chapter VI Page 12". Pagebypagebooks.com. Retrieved 14 January 2013.
- Leonard Huxley, The Life and Letters of Thomas Henry Huxley Volume 3, p. 256
- (BBC Audiobooks Ltd, 1998) ISBN 978-0-563-55810-1
- "BBC Radio 4 - Classic Serial, The Water Babies: A Modern Fairy Tale". Bbc.co.uk. 2013-03-30. Retrieved 2014-04-19.
- Kingsley, Charles (1863), The Water-Babies, Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1995, ISBN 0-19-282238-1
- Darwin, Charles (1860), On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, London: John Murray 2nd edition. Retrieved on 2007-07-20
- Darwin, Charles (1887), Darwin, F, ed., The life and letters of Charles Darwin, including an autobiographical chapter., London: John Murray (The Autobiography of Charles Darwin) Retrieved on 2007-07-20
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- The Water Babies, illustrated by Jessie Willcox Smith at The University of Adelaide Library
- The Water-Babies at Project Gutenberg
- The Water-Babies at LibriVox