Things You May Not Know about The Water-Babies

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-DickCatch-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.

Waterbabies2Kingsley 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).

38 thoughts on “Things You May Not Know about The Water-Babies”

  1. Wow…this is a lot. Despite the Disney film, I don’t remember having heard of this story. Oddly, despite my (as yet incomplete) education in English, I don’t recall ever learning about Kingsley, either. Kind of sad, that. Lot of interesting information. I think I would like to read this book. Thanks for sharing this!

    • I don’t think Kingsley is remembered to the extent he should be. He gave us all of the stuff mentioned in the post above, and some of his more contemporary novels tackled social themes of the day. The Water-Babies is definitely worth reading, as it’s so odd!

    • Sounds like it was well loved! The mark of a good book. I hope you enjoy rereading it; people often say it’s a book you come to as an adult and notice all sorts of things going on that pass you by as a child. I only saw the Disney film as a child and read the book first as an adult, so I can’t pass comment…

  2. Fascinating. I need to dust off my copy of The Water-Babies now. I don’t recall the moralistic tone but I was likely too young when I first read it to really notice.

    A bit disappointed that Carroll wasn’t the originator of those phrases from Alice – as is common belief. But, interesting to know about the many everyday legacies shared here.

    Lovely article. Thank you.

  3. I have never seen the book, but I enjoyed the film as a child. I watched it again, for the first time in decades, with my young children a couple of months ago and have to say I did not like it at all anymore. I might appreciate the book better?

    And how interesting about the Carroll — I have always been an Alice devotee.

  4. Great post. I always get annoyed when stuff gets edited out of the original – it removes the historical context, and at the very least denies us from realising how much things have improved.

    • Well said! As a lecturer in English literature, I share your view – context is vital and, as you say, it’s a chance to reflect on the social, moral, and cultural marches made in the name of enlightenment and progress between then and now.

  5. I had a childhood copy with lovely illustrations by Jessie Wilcox Smith. I liked the pictures but did not like the book because of the bad things that happened to Tom. The morals, if there were any, went right by me.

    • That sounds like a fine edition. Will have to seek it out for the illustrations! The main moral is about Tom becoming a successful Victorian gentleman, which has its more dubious overtones as well as its positive side…

  6. The Water-Babies is certainly an odd book. I remember reading it as a child, and the story continued to fascinate me. I have never seen the Disney film and I’m glad of it. I don’t think I can find my childhood copy of the book, yet, after reading this excellent post, I’m going to get hold of a copy. I might understand the story better now. Thanks, this is definitely interesting literature.

    • I was very disappointed with the film — it lost its moorings with the frame story, and the plot for the animated section underwater was so cutesy I don’t even remember if I lasted to the end. A waste of time, effort and money and a betrayal of the book.

      • Absolutely! It’d be good to see if a faithful adaptation of the book would be possible – the book is so unconventional in its digressions and the range of its subjects, that I wonder if any director could do it justice…

        • It might work best as a TV series, an episode to each chapter, to remain faithful to the book. (I’m old enough to remember Kinsley’s Hereward the Wake broadcast as a BBC TV serial.) With motion-capture or decent CGI animation the underwater scenes would be possible, but the main problem (apart from cost, of course!) would be in not losing a modern audience. But if it works with Dickens, why not with Kingsley?

  7. This is such a good introduction to Kingsley’s most famous work; so glad too that you mentioned Glaucus as a precursor to The Water-Babies, and a reminder that I need to read ‘The Wonders of the Shore’ again.

    At the moment I’m reading At Last, Kingsley’s account of his first and only visit to the Caribbean where he had previously set Westward Ho! and St Brendan’s Isle in The Water-Babies. Even early on it’s clear how excited he is to be visiting places which he had only imagined in his fiction and where his mother’s family had spent so much of their lives.

  8. This is a book I’ve never read, but for some reason it’s a book I remember. Maybe some of it was read to class in my early years of school.
    I was unaware that Disney had made a movie of it, and I thought I had a good knowledge of Disney films up to the late 80s; so if we learn something new everyday – I’ve already fulfilled today’s requirement : )


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