Not a fairy tale by today’s standards

‘The Water Babies’ – Charles Kingsley


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The Water Babies – Charles Kingsley

Tom, a poor orphan, is employed by the villainous chimney-sweep, Grimes, to climb up inside flues to clear away the soot. While engaged in this dreadful task, he loses his way and emerges in the bedroom of Ellie, the young daughter of the house who mistakes him for a thief. He runs away, and, hot and bothered, he slips into a cooling stream, falls asleep, and becomes a Water Baby.

In his new life, he meets all sorts of aquatic creatures, including an engaging old lobster, other water babies, and at last reaches St Branden’s Isle where he encounters the fierce Mrs Bedonebyeasyoudid and the motherly Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby. After a long and arduous quest to the Other-end-of-Nowhere young Tom achieves his heart’s desire.

A satirical, fantastical novel that follows young Tom on his adventures as a water baby, this often becomes quite tiresome to read as Kingsley has a lot to say in as many words! Often he comments that this is a fairy tale, but it is difficult to ignore the satirical comments towards 19th century society. True, it has the narrative voice and attempts to teach like a fairy tale, and, on further research after reading this, it was originally accepted as a child’s novel, but this is certainly not the case when reading it in the 21st century. Yes, his comments are interesting to ponder and sometimes quite funny, it is the manner that it is told in that is most challenging and difficult to overcome.

The characters Mrs Bedonebyasyoudid and Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby summarise Kingsley’s intentions for “teaching” his readers. Whilst there are some humorous parts to this story, such as his commentary on taxing long words, I found it a struggle to keep focused on the story and did find myself racing to the end, simply to find out Tom’s fate.

Give this book a go if you are interested in 19th century satire. It does read similar to ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ because of this social commentary and the fantastical world created. If you have always been curious about this story and what it has to offer, then I would definitely recommend dipping in and out to fully appreciate what Kingsley is trying to say. In fact, I would recommend to all who are interested to read up on this novel once you have finished to really understand the background to Kingsley’s commentary.