Charles Kingsley was an eccentric who once made friends with a wasp which he saved from drowning. He gave a Devon village its name. He gave us a number of words and phrases still in common use. His most famous work, The Water-Babies, is an odd book which is at once a children’s classic, a moral fable, a response to the theory of evolution, and a satire on Victorian attitudes to child labour and religion.
The Water-Babies (note the hyphen, which an eagle-eyed IL reader pointed out to us in the comments to a previous post; like Moby-Dick, Catch-22, and Slaughterhouse-Five, the hyphen is often erroneously omitted) is celebrating its sesquicentenary or 150-year anniversary this year. Kingsley wrote it quickly, and when it was published in 1863 it was embraced by adults and children alike. And yet how many of us really know The Water-Babies? Many people either read it as children (and don’t revisit it in adulthood), or know little of the novel itself except perhaps what they have encountered via the 1978 Disney film (which departs dramatically from the style and plot of Kingsley’s book).
The book tells the story of the boy chimney-sweep, Tom, who goes beneath the water and becomes a ‘water-baby’. In many ways the tale of a child slipping underwater into an alternate world of fantasy, where the Victorian world is curiously inverted, foreshadows that other classic of children’s literature produced in the 1860s, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which appeared just two years after The Water-Babies. Of course, Alice’s adventures begin when she slips underground (rather than underwater), sliding down the rabbit-hole into the world of the March-hare and the Cheshire cat (the phrases ‘mad as a March-hare’ and ‘grinning like a Cheshire cat’, by the by, both appear in The Water-Babies). But whereas Carroll eschewed moralising, as we noted in our previous post on him, Kingsley – who, like Carroll, was a man of the cloth as well as a writer – saw it as his duty to teach children how to lead an ethical life.
As such, the novel is about a sort of ‘moral evolution’ to match Tom’s own physical evolution (into a water-baby, among other things, but ultimately into a successful and morally upright Victorian gentleman). The most famous character in the novel, after Tom himself, is Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby, which points up the moral message of the novel – the so-called Golden Rule that is central to many religions and philosophies, including Christianity – pretty clearly. Kingsley believed that water could purify the soul as well as the body, and he once went so far as to say, in one of his sermons, ‘If you will only wash your bodies your souls will be all right.’
One of the less favourable aspects of the book for modern readers is the language Kingsley uses in reference to different racial or ethnic groups, with Irish and Jewish people, as well as Americans, being spoken of in particularly dismissive terms. This is largely because of the context in which the novel appeared, though it has meant that Kingsley’s classic has often been edited and abridged in more recent years. The recent 150-year anniversary edition of the novel, published by Oxford World’s Classics and with an excellent introduction by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, has restored the complete original text.
Kingsley took a keen interest in science and saw no problem in reconciling his religious faith with Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection: Kingsley read a review copy of Darwin’s The Origin of Species in 1859 before it had even been published and became a friend and correspondent of Darwin’s in the 1860s. Kingsley was also the first person to use the phrase ‘ice age’, which is one of his more surprising legacies: the term appears in his 1855 work Glaucus, or the Wonders of the Shore, which was a guide to rockpools named in honour of the fisherman in Ovid’s Metamorphoses who turns into a half-man, half-fish creature and goes to live in the sea (and which thus prefigures Kingsley’s classic children’s novel of eight years later).
Meanwhile, the political element to the novel – criticising child-labour – has been credited with easing the passage of the Chimney Sweepers Regulation Act of 1864, passed just one year after the novel appeared, which prohibited the use of minors as chimney-sweeps (though many employers appear to have taken the act with a pinch of salt, and another act had to be passed in 1875).
There are other, more everyday legacies: Kingsley’s 1855 novel Westward-Ho! gave the village in Devon, England its name (indeed, it is one of only two place names in the entire world to contain an exclamation mark, the other being Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha! in Quebec, Canada). Set in Elizabethan times, Westward Ho! features Francis Drake among its cast of characters, and begins in Bideford, Devon, not too far from the site of the village that now bears the name bequeathed by the novel.
Kingsley also gave us a number of words still in everyday use, including ‘cuddly’ (in The Water-Babies), ‘unrealistic’ (in a letter of 1865), and ‘cataclysmic’ (in his novel Yeast); he even originated the phrase ‘eleventh commandment’. He also coined the term ‘pteridomania’ to describe his fellow Victorians’ fern-obsession.
Image: Linley Sambourne’s cartoon of Richard Owen and Thomas Henry Huxley inspecting a water baby (1885).