Fairy Tale as Sarcasm: The Water-Babies

“…there are dozens and hundreds of things in the world which we should certainly have said were contrary to nature, if we did not see them going on under our eyes all day long.”

The Table of Contents for Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies, a Fairy Tale for a Land Baby (1863) scared me, promising me, as it does, a Moral at the end of a book—a Moral that, moreover, lasts for a full chapter.

Unlike the Duchess of Wonderland, I am not fond of morals, wherever they appear in a book, which makes me even less fond of chapters labelled as “Moral.”  And I am very suspicious of any book that cheerfully tells me that no, no it doesn’t have any morals at all, since it’s a fairy tale, only to end up with an entire chapter called “Moral.”

As it turns out, however, what Kingsley means by “Moral” and what I mean by “moral” are not entirely the same thing, given that I am using the dictionary definition and Kingsley is using “an opportunity for me to sum up a few points of my book and then tell everyone not to believe it.” No wonder he put it at the end.

The Reverend Charles Kingsley had, shall we say, opinions, and many of them. He also held various clerical and academic positions, with a particular focus on history, eventually climbing into the role of chaplain for Queen Victoria and tutor for the Prince of Wales.  Science was another major interest: he read and admired Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species, an action that later earned him the ire of creationists appalled that a clergyman would turn against a church. (Amusingly, this is still a top Google result for “Charles Kingsley.”)  He also studied geology as an amateur, befriended several Victorian intellectuals, and insisted that the best way to know God was to study science.

Most of his opinions, however, centered not on science, but on his horror about the living conditions of the lower classes in Victorian England, and in particular, the poor sanitary conditions that led to cholera outbreaks and other diseases. He also had strong opinions on child labor, education, Irish people, Americans, Catholics, abstruse academic language, academic arguments, evolution, and far more, all of which he sarcastically dealt with in The Water-Babies.

The Water-Babies claims to be a fairy tale for children, and it can, indeed, be read that way, although contemporary parents may wish to approach the work with caution, as I’ll explain below. After all, throughout the book, Kingsley directly addresses the reader as a “my little man.” The language is, apart from one digression, relatively simple, and the story is more or less a fairy tale.  But this is deceptive, as this is a book that works on more than one level: a fairy tale for children, and a bitter denunciation of child labor practices, Victorian sanitation, and other issues for adults—one where a surprisingly high number of people end up dead.

The plot first, to get this out of the way. When not fighting people, landing in jail, or various other awful things, young Tom works as a chimney sweep. On their way to an extremely grand house indeed—which receives considerable ire from the author, who wanted Victorians to spend more time on drainage systems and less time on fake castles—Tom and his master, Mr. Grimes, encounter an Irish washerwoman.  This is a chance for everybody including Kingsley to say some very nasty things about the Irish, even though, as it turns out, she’s not actually Irish. But I anticipate.

Mr. Grimes and Tom then arrive at the estate, where after some cheery and pointed comments about hunting and poaching, Tom finds himself cleaning chimneys until he falls out to see a lovely, little, and above all clean girl, Ellie. And a mirror. The sight of his filthy self in the mirror, and some misunderstandings, leads him to flee in terror through the countryside, injuring himself. He is temporarily rescued by a kindly woman who gives him some food and a place to sleep for the night. The next day, he stumbles into water. Kingsley cheerfully tells his child readers that Tom transforms into a Water Baby. 

I am sorry to tell you that this is a lie.

In actual fact (and this becomes more clear later in the book), Tom drowns and is very, very dead indeed, but, like the book, his main focus is on fairies and water so let’s focus on that because it’s slightly more cheerful.

Tom’s next journeys are sorta like Purgatory, except a lot wetter.  It gives him the opportunity to encounter various critters: bugs, fish, porpoises, dolphins, lobsters and one very mean otter. And here I thought otters were cute. Tom’s ability to communicate with all of these creatures is yet another indication of his very dead state, though Kingsley continues to call him a Water Baby, telling readers that it’s all very sad that the fairies can’t speak to Tom directly (another indication; fairies can speak to living children, or magical children, but not dead ones.)  On the seashore, he is spotted by humans for the first time since his death—Ellie, still beautiful and clean, and her companion a professor.  Tom bites the professor (I may have mentioned that Kingsley had some issues with education and academia) and falls down on some seaweed. Ellie, determined to save him and prove to a skeptical professor that water babies really do exist, jumps, lands on some rocks, and, as Kingsley tactfully puts it, gets a little pair of wings and flies off and is not seen or heard from for some time, like THANKS TOM. 

Kingsley hastily and not altogether successfully tries to cover this up by derailing for a long satire on language, academics, taxation and Irish people (again).  Tom, fortunately enough, misses all this, as he is swept out into the water again to voyage to the Blessed Isle of St. Brendan (given all the anti-Irish bits in the book, this destination comes as a bit of a jolt) where finally he meets up with more Water Babies.


For a place filled with dead children, it’s surprisingly pleasant. Tom, alas, has still not learned anything from floating here and there, which requires first Moral Lessons, and the arrival of the suspiciously angelic Ellie, who explains that she can visit Tom here because she, er, “flew out the window.”  I got a bit depressed. Fortunately Tom soon learns to be good. But before he can settle down in Paradise, he has one more task: to return to his master and deliver an appropriate punishment. This done, it’s time for the moral.  Which, as it turns out, can be summed up as: “Be nice, and don’t believe a word of this book, even if it’s true.”

Oh, and there’s a rather, shall we say, unique take on the story of Prometheus and Epimethus—basically, Prometheus, bad, Epimethus, awesome, which more or less gives you a sense of this book. And for those of you tired of stories where the boy marries the girl—well, Kingsley has that covered as well, although I couldn’t help thinking that he really needed to read a few more actual fairy tales.

At one point, Kingsley insists that, despite the title of the last chapter, the book does not have a single moral in it. Maybe not, but it does have some pointed comments on education (Kingsley does not like pretty much anything happening in Victorian schools), waste disposal (and specifically the effects of sewage and other waste on marine habitats), infant mortality, early childhood education, academia, and pretentiousness.  And child labor.

Like other Victorian novelists, Kingsley was appalled by contemporary child labor practices. But his argument is a little different: strongly convinced that yes, the lower orders were lesser people (especially if these lower orders were Irish or American) he was not quite as concerned about the cruelty towards children, but more concerned about the spreading effect on society. It’s not just that Tom’s life as a chimney sweep has left him hungry, filthy, and beaten, but it has also left him prone to mischief, with no idea how to be good—which is the actual problem.

But although the book is generally taken as an indictment against child labor and poverty—in part because other Victorian novels that also featured very dead children zipping off to fairy lands (hello, On the Back of the North Wind) were such indictments—Kingsley saves his real ire for academia and academic quarrels.  Side comments slam Victorian educational methods and scientific quarrels; two long sections mock the debate about evolution, with a later comment noting that since it is easy enough to turn men into apes, it’s not all that hard to imagine men coming from apes.

Kingsley’s irritated summary on education:

For in the stupid old times, you must understand, children were taught to know one thing, and to know it well; but in these enlightened new times they are taught to know a little about everything, and to know it all ill; which is a great deal pleasanter and easier, and therefore quite right.

Trying to discuss his attack on words with more than five syllables led Microsoft Word to have a heart attack and die on me, but let’s just say it includes this bit:

…the subanhypaposupernal anastomoses of peritomic diacellurite in the encephalo digital region of the distinguished individual of whose symptomatic phoenomena we had the melancholy honour (subsequently to a preliminary diagnostic inspection) of making an inspectoral diagnosis, presenting the interexclusively quadrilateral and antinomian diathese known as Bumpsterhausen’s blue follicles, we proceeded” –

But what they proceeded to do My Lady never knew; for she was so frightened at the long words that she ran for her life, and locked herself into her bedroom, for fear of being squashed by the words and strangled by the sentence.

Which leads to an attempt to tax long words. Which is stopped by the Irish. Sigh.

(If you are curious, after all this, no, Kingsley’s most famous pupil, the Prince of Wales, did not become known for either scholarship or moral probity, but lots of women liked him a lot so perhaps some lessons snuck through.)

For all the bitterness, sarcasm, and fairies, however, this also remains a very Christian book, focused not just on the need to treat others with kindness, and do onto others as you would have done to you, but also on redemption and atonement. It’s not an accident that Tom only learns to be good after arriving in the Blessed Isle of St. Brendan, or that he needs supernatural help; it’s also not an accident that he and his master both need to atone with deeds.

Despite its societal indictments—or perhaps because of them—The Water-Babies remained popular and influential for years, serving as an example of how to successfully address both a child and adult audience on a dual level though simple language and sarcasm—in stark contrast to Sylvie and Bruno, which left all of the humor out of the grown-up bits.  Gradually, however, despite its humor and magic, it fell out of favor, quite possibly because of a few factors I’ve been dancing over here: the book’s ongoing negative comments about the Irish, Jewish people, and Americans.

I’m willing to give Kingsley a pass with the anti-American comments.  After all, as the book was written and initially serialized, the Americans were plunging into a brutal civil war about slavery. Kingsley never mentions slavery directly—most of his comments are either broader or focused on how awful Boston is—but he apparently resented the moral judgments coming from certain Americans about British practices, given that Americans kept slaves. Fair enough, even if I do think that the comments about the American obsession with table-rapping and spirits was a little, how do I put this, mean spirited (sorry) and the comments about Boston kinda bizarre given that Kingsley had never encountered Boston drivers (also sorry.)

The negative comments about the Irish and Jews are less easy to pass over, even if they are also relatively typical for the Victorian period, and Kingsley somewhat softens up one of the Irish moments by having the Irish woman turn into a helpful fairy—and then immediately destroys this nice touch by later insisting that all Irish people are inherently dishonest and they’d do just fine if they imitated their English and Scottish betters and learned to be honest. And so on. It’s also pretty typical of Kingsley, who made a number of still more racist statements later in his day, convinced, as he was, that English and Scottish were superior to everyone else.

It’s the reason I can’t exactly recommend this book. It has its funny, delightful moments, and if you are interested in issues with Victorian society and can deal with the small ghosts of dead children swimming through water, this is probably your sort of thing. (Also if you hate Boston you will find much to love here.) But it’s not always comfortable reading, and that’s without even paying attention to the fact that so many of its characters are dead.

Mari Ness was born just outside Boston but still can’t understand Boston drivers. She currently lives in the much warmer central Florida. 


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