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The Water-Babies Paperback – February 19, 2013
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About the Author
Charles Kingsley (12 June 1819 – 23 January 1875) was an English priest of the Church of England, university professor, historian and novelist, particularly associated with the West Country and northeast Hampshire.
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Top Customer Reviews
In his final adventure, Tom must travel to the Other-end-of-Nowhere in an attempt to help Grimes, his old master, who is being punished for his misdeeds. Will Tom be successful? What will happen to him? Author Charles Kingsley was a minister, and even though he was an advocate of Christian Socialism and a supporter of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species, Water-Babies is a didactic moral fable that is thematically concerned with Christian redemption. Kingsley also includes satire about child labor and how England treats its poor. The children’s novel was written in 1862 and 1863 as a serial for Macmillan’s Magazine; it was first published in its entirety in 1863. In the style of Victorian-era novels, it expresses many of the common prejudices of that time period, with dismissive or insulting references to the poor, Americans, Jews, blacks, Catholics, and the Irish. The story was extremely popular in England, and was a mainstay of British children’s literature for many decades, but these views may have played a role in its gradual fall from popularity.
While the book was written for children, much of it will be best understood by adults. It abounds in references to faith (“The most wonderful and the strongest things in the world, you know, are just the things which no one can see”), Scripture quotations (“’We are fearfully and wonderfully made,’ said old David”), and the desire for heaven (“But we, I hope, shall go upward to a very different place”). One reader reviewer noted, “But do NOT buy the abridged version (Puffin). One thing that is taken out is Kingsley’s many sarcastic references to American democracy. The publishers have taken out the anti-American sentiment to sell more copies to Americans.” Evidently, my version is unabridged. Additionally, perhaps some of the other prejudicial items were removed to make it less offensive, and possibly some of the adult satire was omitted to make it more understandable for children. There is a lot of description with many side comments, so it does read rather slowly at times, but it is still interesting.
Being a water-baby, being exactly and only 3.87902 inches long, and being invisible to normal folk, Tom sees his new watery world in ways we can’t. There are observations on the evolution of sea life and on what people should do to protect the aquatic and marine environment. We are told to deplore those cases “where men are wasteful and dirty, and let sewers run into the sea instead of putting the stuff on the fields like thrifty reasonable souls.”
Tom meets other water-babies and finds that, like him, they are children who have “come to grief by ill-usage or ignorance or neglect.” He continues his journey out into the ocean, meeting strange and wonderful denizens of the sea floor. His guides and mentors are two fairies, Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid, and Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby. Everywhere he gains new ideas about the land he left behind. He learns, sadly, that there are too many doctors “who still fancy that a baby’s inside is much like a Scotch grenadier’s.” He also discovers how much education has been improved, “for in the stupid old time, you must understand, children were taught to know one thing, and to know it well; but in these enlightened new times they are taught to know a little about everything, and to know it all ill; which is a great deal pleasanter and easier and therefore quite right.”
The Water-Babies is a remarkable little novel, beautifully descriptive of the natural world, that speaks moral lessons to children and social reform to adults. Part fairy tale and part satire in the mold of Gulliver’s Travels, it is Christian but progressive, supporting Darwin and various social movements. Kingsley seems not to have had much faith in democracy, though, parodying American government as an assembly of crows, and there are other slurs of ethnic and national groups that may have cost this book its place among children’s classics. But it’s still a delight and a surprise to read.
Charles Kingsley published this book in 1873, just after Charles Darwin's "The Origin of Species," "Variations in Animals and Plants Under Domestication" and "The Descent of Man..." appeared. Kingsley was probably aware of how the controversial concept of evolution impacted both the belief in a divine being and the concept of creation by a higher power. The book has always seemed to me to present a reasonable resolution of these concepts. As a child, I read and reread the book. As an adult, I found that Kingsley sometimes seems to "talk down" to his young readers; this possibly reflects the manners and attitudes of the 19th century,