Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Review: The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley

This Victorian children's morality tale is one that I've not heard many other people mention and that is a shame. It is more sophisticated than many elementary school-aged books written now and yet still sweet. Tom, a little chimney-sweep who is smacked about by his master, is cleaning a chimney at a great house when he is mistakenly thought to be a thief. He is terrified and runs off, all the while trailed by the queen of the fairies. After encountering huge obstacles in his path and overcoming them, he faces more mistrust and so wanders off to bathe in the river. He falls in and is transformed into a water-baby. As a water-baby, he has many adventures and learns to be a better boy than he had ever been when on land. This story owes much both to Gulliver's Travels and to The Odyssey. There are many strange creatures who instruct Tom in what is right and good during his quest and he has a loyal girl waiting for him to come home to her during his strangest adventure. The language would probably be a bit tough for elementary school readers today, either because they didn't understand it or simply because it is quite ornate and descriptive, unlike today's books, but the creativity of the land in which the water-babies live and the creatures that populate it might help children overcome these difficulties. There were pockets of the story that were a bit tedious in their insistence on moral lessons being pointed out in case the reader missed the significance of Tom's experience but this is very much a hallmark of the literature of the time and didn't ultimately detract from the overall loveliness of the story.


  1. I read this as a kid (my fondness for Victorian children's literature is a very old vintage) and I remember liking it but not really buying the "turned into a water spirit" -- I never like the happy endings that are variations on "he died but that's OK." I'm looking at you, C.S. Lewis!

  2. Hi Kristen

    This was one of my favorite books as a child about the little abused chimney sweep who falls into the ocean and goes through a learning and purification process, whereby he evolves into a new human being. Why do you think that
    pockets of the story were a bit tedious in their insistence on moral lessons being pointed out?

  3. The Water Babies may be sweet but it's also a bizarre book. Charles Kingsley was very interested in the science of his day and evolution in particular. What do most readers make of all the long, rambling references to 19th century scientists and their work, I wonder! The story owes a lot to a garbled understanding of Darwin's The Origin of Species.


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