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The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley

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The Water Babies, subtitled by its author as A Fairy Tale for a Land Baby, on closer examination has been seen as more than just a fairy tale by many. It can also be seen as a story rich in moral lessons and religious parallels.

Written for his son Grenville, Charles Kingsley's popular fable was first serialised in MacMillan's Magazine on a monthly basis, from August 1862 through to March 1863.

It was first published in book form in 1863 with two full page illustrations by J. Noel Paton.

The Story:

The book tells the story of Tom, a young chimney sweep, who is cruelly treated by his master, Mr. Grimes. During a new job at the posh 'Harthover', Tom loses his way and accidentally falls down the chimney into the wrong room. He lands in the bedroom of the squire's daughter, Ellie. Tom examines the room and is 'puzzled' to see 'a washing-stand, with ewers and basins, and soap and brushes and towels; and a large bath, full of clean water - what a heap of things all for washing!' He then becomes aware of his own dirty, disheveled appearance, by means of a looking glass in Ellie's room. 'And looking round, he suddenly saw, standing close to him, a little ugly, black, ragged figure, with red eyes and grinning white teeth'.

Above right: 'Ellie's Room', illustrated by Jessie Willcox Smith.

On waking and seeing the dirty and 'ragged' Tom in her bedroom, Ellie began to scream, so alerting the rest of the household to the incident. A chase ensues, during which Kingsley cleverly uses the undergrowth and flora and fauna to show Tom in a different environment to the city; his usual surroundings. It reflects the freeness that Tom feels, as he runs away.

Tom's realization of his dirtiness makes him desire to be clean: 'I will be a fish, and swim in the water. I must be clean, I must be clean'. With that, 'suddenly, he found himself, not in the outhouse on the hay, but in the middle of a meadow, over the road, with a stream just before him...' Tom enters the stream and so he begins his magical adventures beneath the waves as a Water-baby.

Left: An illustration by Alice B. Woodward.

When Tom starts his journey to the sea, he is alone, but is always watched by the ever-present 'Queen of all fairies' and his other 'brothers and sisters', who long to play with him, but are warned that he first needs to 'learn lessons from the animals'.

Below right: Queen of the Fairies. Illustration by Warwick Goble.

During his adventures undersea, Tom meets many exciting and wonderful creatures that are all new to him, such as 'water-monkeys' and 'water-squirrels'.

Unfortunately, 'he was very fond of hunting and teasing animals, just for fun' The water animals soon stay away from Tom and he becomes very lonely, until he happens upon a dragonfly, who becomes his friend and tells him stories. Some of the water-creatures, however, are not so pleasant. He crosses paths with an otter and her family, who are intent on 'salmon for breakfast'. Later, he comes across them again, when he tries to help a 'clumsy' lobster who has been caught in a fisherman's pot. The otter wants the lobster for dinner too!

After a close escape helping the lobster, Tom almost immediately comes across a fellow water-baby - 'A real live water-baby, sitting on the white sand.' They meet and Tom finds his whole 'water-baby' family and is taken to their home - St. Brandan's fairy isle. The water-babies in this chapter are shown to be 'all the little children whom the fairies carry off because people are not kind to them in the land-world'.

Left: Tom is befriended by the Dragonfly. Illustration by Anne Anderson.

Tom is as happy as can be - but is soon up to his old tricks of tormenting the water-animals. Very soon, we are introduced to Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid, who serves out punishments to all the adults in the human world, who have been cruel to children. Then Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby comes to visit the water-babies, 'the most nice, soft, fat, smooth, pussy, cuddly, delicious creatures who ever nursed a baby'. She would mother and look after all the water-babies, singing them songs to nurse them to sleep.

There are more lessons to be learnt by Tom, after he gets himself into more trouble after stealing and eating too many sea-lollipops. He is taken by Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid, to be taught by Ellie, the same clean 'white lady', whose bedroom he had dropped into from the chimney all that time earlier. Ellie, who when a land-baby had believed in water-babies, had become a water-baby herself, after falling into a rock-pool and being given a pair of wings by the fairies.

After many years of teaching by Ellie, Tom is sent on his own journey to 'somewhere he doesn't like to go', to 'help someone he doesn't like'. He has to journey to the 'other-end-of-nowhere' to find Mr. Grimes and help him. To do this he must first go to 'Shiny wall, and through the white gate that was never opened.' The fairy instructs Tom that after coming to the Peacepool, Mother Carey in her Haven (below left) will tell him the way to 'the other-end-of-nowhere', where he would find Mr. Grimes.

With the help of the 'beasts in the sea and the birds in the air', Tom makes his journey to 'the other-end-of-nowhere', seeing many wonderful things on the way and makes new friends, especially with a dog, who helps him on the last part of his journey. Eventually he comes to find Mr. Grimes, who has now himself become a chimney sweep. From the lessons that Tom has learnt as a Water-baby and from Ellie, he comes to 'help someone he doesn't like'. On learning this lesson, Tom is allowed back to Ellie and the other water-babies. He is also allowed to go 'home' with Ellie on Sundays and became a 'great man of science'.

Illustrated editions:

'The Water-Babies' has been published in countless editions, many being abridged or retold for younger readers so they too can enjoy the story.

The first edition of 1863 had just two black and white illustrations and, indeed, the majority of Water-babies editions have at least some black and white pictures. However, some of the most sought-after and collectable are the numerous editions illustrated in colour by famous artists. Each different illustrator uses his or her own style to produce simply delightful depictions of Tom and the other memorable characters in 'The Water-Babies'. Even for similar scenes, each artist gives us a glimpse into the world of the water-babies as it appears in their imagination.

Some famous illustrators of the book include: Anne Anderson (1924), Warwick Goble (1909), Alice B. Woodward (1909), Margaret Tarrant (1908), Mabel Lucie Attwell (1915), W. Heath Robinson (1915), Harry Theaker (1948), Linley Sambourne (1885). A more modern illustrator is Anne Grahame Johnstone with her superb use of colour covering the entire page.

However, for some (including me), the favourite has to be the illustrations by Jessie Willcox Smith (1916). The 12 colour plates are beautifully drawn and, for me, capture the real essence of a water-baby. At the time of writing we have in stock at Stella Books a beautiful copy of 'The Water Babies' illustrated by Jessie Willcox Smith.

Submitted by Joanne Hill

(Published 17th Dec 2014)

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