The Water-Babies by Charles Kingsley.

The Water-Babies is a children's novel by Rev. Charles Kingsley, first serialised in Macmillan's Magazine between 1862-63 and first published in its entirety in 1863. It is a very charming and enjoyable work, but it's also so sweet is frequently crosses the line into a level of sugary that is rarely seen outside the Victorian era. Enjoyable, yes, but not wholly so.

Kingsley, a Christian socialist (along with the likes of John Ruskin, Thomas Hughes, and others), tells the story of a rather cynical and obnoxious chimney-sweep called Tom:
Once upon a time there was a little chimney-sweep, and his name was Tom.  That is a short name, and you have heard it before, so you will not have much trouble in remembering it.  He lived in a great town in the North country, where there were plenty of chimneys to sweep, and plenty of money for Tom to earn and his master to spend.  He could not read nor write, and did not care to do either; and he never washed himself, for there was no water up the court where he lived.  He had never been taught to say his prayers.  He never had heard of God, or of Christ, except in words which you never have heard, and which it would have been well if he had never heard.  He cried half his time, and laughed the other half.  He cried when he had to climb the dark flues, rubbing his poor knees and elbows raw; and when the soot got into his eyes, which it did every day in the week; and when his master beat him, which he did every day in the week; and when he had not enough to eat, which happened every day in the week likewise.  And he laughed the other half of the day, when he was tossing halfpennies with the other boys, or playing leap-frog over the posts, or bowling stones at the horses’ legs as they trotted by, which last was excellent fun, when there was a wall at hand behind which to hide.  As for chimney-sweeping, and being hungry, and being beaten, he took all that for the way of the world, like the rain and snow and thunder, and stood manfully with his back to it till it was over, as his old donkey did to a hail-storm; and then shook his ears and was as jolly as ever; and thought of the fine times coming, when he would be a man, and a master sweep, and sit in the public-house with a quart of beer and a long pipe, and play cards for silver money, and wear velveteens and ankle-jacks, and keep a white bull-dog with one grey ear, and carry her puppies in his pocket, just like a man.  And he would have apprentices, one, two, three, if he could.  How he would bully them, and knock them about, just as his master did to him; and make them carry home the soot sacks, while he rode before them on his donkey, with a pipe in his mouth and a flower in his button-hole, like a king at the head of his army.  Yes, there were good times coming; and, when his master let him have a pull at the leavings of his beer, Tom was the jolliest boy in the whole town.
Charles Kingsley by Adriano Cecioni 
for Vanity Fair (1872).
We can forgive Tom for being a horrid little boy for several reasons: his master, Grimes, is ungodly (in all senses of the world) and treats him terribly, and consequently he has a bad start in life: he is taught badly by Grimes' example, is barely educated, and, the crux of the matter for Kingsley's Water-Babies, is completely unfamiliar with Christ, a problem forced home a tiny bit later in the novel when Tom sees a painting of the crucified Jesus:
The other picture was that of a man nailed to a cross, which surprised Tom much.  He fancied that he had seen something like it in a shop-window.  But why was it there?  “Poor man,” thought Tom, “and he looks so kind and quiet.  But why should the lady have such a sad picture as that in her room?  Perhaps it was some kinsman of hers, who had been murdered by the savages in foreign parts, and she kept it there for a remembrance.”  And Tom felt sad, and awed, and turned to look at something else.
In this passage Tom is in the bedroom of Ellie about to clean her chimney. Ellie, asleep, is a good middle class girl, clean unlike Tom who is frequently referred to as ape-like in his dirtiness (there is a casual racism to the book, I must warn you). When Tom is discovered staring in awe at the sleeping Ellie naturally her father is somewhat perturbed and believes he's been stealing, and so he chases poor Tom more or less to his death, or at least so it seems: Tom enters a stream, very desperate to rid himself of his filth and become clean, and he becomes a water-baby, whereupon he begins his spiritual and moral journey guided by the likes of Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby, Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid, and Mother Carey.

'No Water-Babies indeed?'
by W. Heath Robinson.
What saves The Water-Babies is that it is, at least, in part a satire. Kingsley was a friend and admirer of Charles Darwin and in Kingsley we see a sort of evolution from water-baby back to land-baby with the defence that it cannot be proved otherwise:
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.
It is also a social protest novel along the lines of Anne Sewell's Black Beauty (1877): Kingsley was outraged by child labour and the effects not only on the child but also society. These kinds of protest novels, or novels addressing social injustice seemed to peak in the 1840s and 1850s: Gaskell's Mary Barton and North and South, Charlotte Brontë's Shirley, Dickens' Hard Times, Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol, and Disraeli's Sybil, or The Two Nations (as, indeed, Kingsley's Alton Locke) are a few examples, but the social novel did indeed continue throughout the century, The Water-Babies being one such example. Such was its impact it contributed to the Chimney Sweepers Regulation Act 1864 which prohibited anyone under 21 sweeping chimneys. The UK Parliament explains:
In 1863 the publication of 'The Water-Babies', a novel by Charles Kingsley, did much to raise public awareness about the gross mistreatment of children in this kind of employment through its central character, Tom, a child chimney sweep. Parliament responded the following year with a new Chimney Sweepers Regulation Act. This was ineffective despite its humane purpose.
In 1875, a successful solution was implemented by the Chimney Sweepers' Act which required sweeps to be licensed and made it the duty of the police to enforce all previous legislation.
For this, The Water-Babies is an important and successful work insofar as it contributed to the end of child labour. In terms of enjoyment, I don't think it is as timeless as, for example, Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland (written two years later in 1865) which shares its dream-like passages. It is anti-child labour, but it is also anti-Irish, anti-black, anti-Catholic, and I'm certain I've forgotten one or two others things it is against. For the adult reader, however sweet and charming, there's also the element of the macabre which really made me wince, along, of course, with the complete lack of subtlety. Nevertheless I didn't hate it, I actually quite liked it.

To finish, some illustrations. The Water-Babies was illustrated by two of my favourite illustrators - Warick Goble and W. Heath Robinson. I'm absolutely unable to decide which are my favourites, so here are both sets!

Finally, a gif from the 1935 Water-Babies by Disney as part of the Silly Symphonies series:


  1. I've always kind of meant to read the Water-Babies. When I was a kid, I read a lot of E. Nesbit, and she mentioned it often as a standard kids' book, and of course I had no idea what it was so it was very mysterious. Charles Kingsley was kind of weird, though...

    1. Sounds like he was a bit. Going to see if I can get some more of his works. While I'm at it, some more Nesbit - I've actually only read The Railway Children and that was years ago...

    2. Gasp! Oh my goodness, you must read more Nesbit! She was a groundbreaker. Here is what I wrote about her a few years ago: "At that time, British literature for children was overwhelmingly imaginative, which is lovely, but Nesbit brought in new ideas with her books about ordinary British children. And I do mean ordinary--her characters were middle-class children who quite frequently had serious family problems to cope with. These children were nice but real: they bickered, they tore their clothes, they got into trouble, they came up with improbable plans that didn't work out, they disliked school. And then they had adventures, sometimes even magic adventures. E. Nesbit thus invented both realistic adventure stories and contemporary urban fantasy!"

      I didn't read the realistic ones until I was grown; I grew up on the magic adventures, the Psammead stories, The Enchanted Castle, and The Wonderful Garden. I think they're great.

    3. Wow, I didn't know any of that! I'll have to get some. I hardly ever check out the children's section of bookshops, which is silly really. Next time I'll have a good look. I do have two Nesbits planned - a re-read of The Railway Children and also Melisande (a short one) - have you come across Melisande?

    4. I feel like I have; perhaps it was in a collection I read. We had a couple of short-story collections.

  2. Kingsley was an odd duck, yes... i've read Two Years Ago, Alton Locke, Westward Ho and maybe some others... his Christianity is not obtrusive in most of his work, which is full of event and happenstance, with the sort of Trollopian concerns that seem to be the base of many Victorian works... but he can tell a story as well as any, imo, and better than some... by the way, his brother wrote a rousing adventure tale about rangers in Australia(Geoffrey----) that was very entertaining... wonderful pictures; i notice that Robinson put pants on his babies....

    1. Keeping meaning to read Westward Ho! - still not got a copy though. You make him sound very interesting - will look out for some of his novels :)

  3. This book has been a hand me down from my grandmom's collection and one of those I never really got reading. The book and the author sounds weird and while I understand the such novels and infact quite admire them for their "protest", North and South and Mary Barton being up there for me, this one just seems...meh. I think it shall lay unread for a while! Thank you for an excellent review as always!

    1. I think the likes of North and South and the 1840s/50s novels are more powerful than this. It's sweet as I say, just lacking a bit in sustenance :)

  4. I think I've only heard of this one peripherally. It's something I might look into, despite its flaws. Those illustrations are absolutely beautiful; I think I have a slight preference for the Goble. Probably impossible to find an edition in print (for a reasonable price).

    Have you read Little Lord Fauntleroy?

    1. I haven't read Little Lord Fauntleroy, think I saw a film when I was young. It's never really on my radar and I've not even seen it in a shop I don't think (mind, as I said in another comment, I always forget to look at the children's bit).

      I think I like Goble's the best too - I love Goble. His Chaucer illustrations are brilliant!


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