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0486 | The Water Babies | Charles Kingsley

0486 | The Water Babies | Charles Kingsley post image

Context: Had a new musical addition to the household while I was listening to this.

This was not for me. Yes, I understand the importance of the book at time, how it was a satire on Darwin’s classic and the fact that it predates Alice in Wonderland did impress me when I compared their publication dates. But it just got on my nerves after about chapter three and from then on right until the end where, confronted with the most ridiculous last line in the history of literature, my patience gave way entirely.

So what irritated me? Well, the awful patronising tone of Kingsley the narrator who writes as if everyone is a) male and b) white Caucasian and c) wealthy, educated, clean and morally superior. It’s patronising and prejudiced in the extreme and pulls no punches in its portrayal of the Scots, the Irish, the Jews, etc.

There’s this kid Tom who ends up going up one chimney and coming down the wrong one in some massive house which just happens to border some land which contains a stream where, for fear of his life, he flees and, somehow, becomes a Water Baby, some kind of waterbound fairy.

He then undertakes, for reasons not apprent to me, some epic quest to get to the Back End of Somewhere or the Bottom Side of Everywhere or somesuch meaningless location. Along the way, he meets a range of fantastic beings who are loosely based on magical interpretations of real life beings. Most are as patronisingly moralising as Kingsley himself so there’s really no let up. The story’s really not that interesting actually. You certainly don’t really care what happens to Tom. If he’d been eaten by a pike, I don’t think I would have noticed actually.

Of course, he achieves his aim, but this is by means of passing some kind of  moral litmus test of doing something right even though it’s not something he wants to do. The implication is that our highest moral deeds are those which are done in the face of extreme distaste.

That’s a great shame for people like Mother Theresa whose entire life’s work count for nothing because they actually love people and want to help them. Bummer. Yep, next time I actually want to inconvenience myself for the sake of others, I’ll think twice before doing so and wait until I really, really, deep, deep down in my heart don’t want to at all. Then it will count.

But, count for what exactly? For nothing at all of course. Kingsley seems to have believed that you attain some kind of moral status by piling up good actions one after another (all without wanting to of course). What a sad fallacy for such an intelligent man to propound. No matter what we do in this life, we’re all so far short of moral perfection that we all pretty much look the same from the viewpoint of moral purity.

Anyway, all loose ends are neatly tied up and put to bed with a kiss and a warm glass of milk. Then, after having said repeatedly every other paragraph that just because someone says something is not true, that doesn’t mean it isn’t, the epilogue tells you not to bother believing a word of anything you’ve just read even if it is true. Great. Thanks.

Alice In Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass are so, so much better at giving us a satirical insight into ourselves and our lives than The Water Babies there’s hardly any comparison between them. Lewis Carrol was a genius who took Kingsley’s timebound witterings and made them into a timeless literary classic which both children and adults will treasure for hundreds of years to come, long after the last person has read that pointless last line of The Water Babies for the last time in human history.


Once upon a time there was a little chimney-sweep, and his name was Tom.


This might reveal the ending. If you want to see the quote, click show

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