The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley

TheWater Babies was published in 1863, a fairy-tale dedicated to Charles Kingsley’s youngest child Grenville, and became his most widely read book (apart from ‘Westward Ho!’ which I had not realised he had written!)

I suggested reading this book as I had very fond memories of reading this when I was a mere child of 10/11. My brother used to buy me books for every birthday and Christmas, green leather bound volumes, and I have them still. On re-reading, I was amazed that I had remembered so much and at the same time so little. I did not remember the lists of adjectives, those now meaningless references to old controversies, the personal prejudices etc. which I must admit I skipped through without reading in their entirety. What I did remember was the magical bare bones of the story, and the characters of Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby, Grimes, and of course Tom and Ellie. Some of the group who had read the book in their youth, said they thought they must have read a childrens edition, and very much enjoyed it, but did not enjoy the original text. Others started to read, but were put off by the language and did not finish it.

Some of the descriptive passages in the book, particularly about the countryside, are wonderful ‘clear and cool, clear and cool’, ‘Mother Carey’s Haven, where the good whales go when they die’, and the names too, ‘Peacepool’ ‘Shiny Wall’ and lots of other examples ‘those that wish to be clean, clean they will be; and those that wish to be foul, foul they will be’.

I think you might gather that I still think this is a great book, and well worth reading, (having the choice of what to leave out) although very much a product of its Victorian past and very moralistic (Charles Kingsley was after all, a minister!). Although very much in the minority in the group, I would encourage others to read or reread if only for the wonderfully descriptive passages, especially of the river, and forgive the platitudes and dogmas, and just enjoy the fairy story.

Chris Fisher