The Water-Babies, A Fairy Tale for a Land Baby

The Water-Babies, A Fairy Tale for a Land Baby

"The Water-Babies, A Fairy Tale for a Land Baby" is a children's novel by the Reverend Charles Kingsley. Written in 1862-1863 as a serial for Macmillan's Magazine, it was first published in its entirety in 1863. The book was extremely popular during its day, and was a mainstay of children's literature through the 1920s.

The Story

The protagonist is Tom, a young chimney sweep, who falls into a river after encountering an upper-class girl named Ellie and being chased out of her house. There he dies and is transformed into a "water baby", as he is told by a caddis fly — an insect that sheds its skin — and begins his moral education. The story is thematically concerned with Christian redemption, though Kingsley also uses the book to argue that England treats its poor badly, and to question child labour, among other themes.

Tom embarks on a series of adventures and lessons, and enjoys the community of other water babies once he proves himself a moral creature. The major spiritual leaders in his new world are the fairies Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby, Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid, and Mother Carey. Weekly, Tom is allowed the company of Ellie, who had fallen into the river after he did.

Grimes, his old master, drowns as well, and in his final adventure, Tom travels to the end of the world to attempt to help the man where he is being punished for his misdeeds. By proving his willingness to do things he does not like, if they are the right things to do, Tom earns himself a return to human form, and becomes "a great man of science" who "can plan railways, and steam-engines, and electric telegraphs, and rifled guns, and so forth". He and Ellie are united (though the book makes clear that they never marry).


In the style of Victorian-era novels, "The Water-Babies" is a didactic moral fable. Among the views that Kingsley expresses in the book on religious and political matters, he refers to Americans as chaotic and lazy, to Jews as greedy, and he insults Catholics generallyFact|date=June 2007, the French in particular. These views may have played a role in the book's gradual fall from popularity.

Neither at the time it was published, nor certainly in the present day, have most readers realised that the book had been intended in part as both a satire and as a serious critique of the closed-minded approaches of many scientists of the day in their response to Charles Darwin's ideas on evolution, which Kingsley had been one of the first to praise. He had been sent an advance review copy of "the Origin of Species", and wrote in his response of 18 November 1859 (four days before the book went on sale) that he had "long since, from watching the crossing of domesticated animals and plants, learnt to disbelieve the dogma of the permanence of species." and had "gradually learnt to see that it is just as noble a conception of Deity, to believe that He created primal forms capable of self development into all forms needful pro tempore and pro loco, as to believe that He required a fresh act of intervention to supply the lacunas which He Himself had made", asking "whether the former be not the loftier thought." [Harvnb|Darwin|1887|p= [ 287] .]

In the book, for example, Kingsley argues that no person is qualified to say that something that they have never seen (like a human soul or a water baby) does not exist.

"How do you know that? Have you been there to see? And if you had been there to see, and had seen none, that would not prove that there were none . . . And no one has a right to say that no water babies exist till they have seen no water babies existing, which is quite a different thing, mind, from not seeing water babies."

Darwin's "Origin of Species" mentions that, like many others at the time, he thought that changed habits produce an inherited effect, a concept now known as Lamarckism. [Harvnb|Darwin|1860|p= [ 134] ] In "The Water Babies", Kingsley tells of a group of humans called the Doasyoulikes who are allowed to do "whatever they like" so gradually lose the power of speech and degenerate into gorillas and are shot by the African explorer Paul de Chaillu.

"The Water Babies" at various times refers to "Sir Roderick Murchison, Professor (Richard) Owen, Professor (Thomas Henry) Huxley, (and) Mr. Darwin", and thus they become explicitly part of the story. In the accompanying illustrations by Linley Sambourne, Huxley and Owen are caricatured, studying a captured water baby. In 1892 Thomas Henry Huxley's five-year-old grandson Julian saw this engraving and wrote his grandfather a letter asking:

"Dear Grandpater -- Have you seen a Waterbaby? Did you put it in a bottle? Did it wonder if it could get out? Could I see it some day? -- Your loving Julian."

Huxley wrote back a letter that evokes the New York Sun's "Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus" letter:

"My dear Julian -- I could never make sure about that Water Baby."
"I have seen Babies in water and Babies in bottles; the Baby in the water was not in a bottle and the Baby in the bottle was not in water. My friend who wrote the story of the Water Baby was a very kind man and very clever. Perhaps he thought I could see as much in the water as he did -- There are some people who see a great deal and some who see very little in the same things."
"When you grow up I dare say you will be one of the great-deal seers, and see things more wonderful than the Water Babies where other folks can see nothing."


It was adapted into a film "The Water Babies" in 1978 starring James Mason, Bernard Cribbins and Billie Whitelaw. The movie's storyline is very unlike the book's storyline. It was also adapted into a stage show at least twice: first, as a popular musical theatre version described as a "fairy play", by Rutland Barrington, with music by Frederick Rosse, Albert Fox, and Alfred Cellier, at the Garrick Theatre in London, in 1902; and second, as a play by Jason Carr and Gary Yershon, which was mounted at the Chichester Festival Theatre in 2003, directed by Jeremy Sams, starring Louise Gold, Joe McGann, Katherine O'Shea, and Neil McDermott. It was also adapted into a radio series (BBC Audio Tapes).



*Harvard reference
Surname = Kingsley
Given = Charles
Authorlink = Charles Kingsley
Year = 1863
Title = The Water-Babies
Publisher = Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1995
ID = ISBN 0-19-282238-1

* The Encyclopedia of Evolution, 1990, R. Milner, ed.
*Harvard reference
Surname = Darwin
Given = Charles
Authorlink = Charles Darwin
Year = 1860
Title = On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life
Publisher = London: John Murray
2nd edition. Retrieved on 2007-07-20
*Harvard reference
Surname = Darwin
Given = Charles
Authorlink = Charles Darwin
Year = 1887
Editor = Darwin, F
Title = The life and letters of Charles Darwin, including an autobiographical chapter.
Publisher = London: John Murray
(The Autobiography of Charles Darwin) Retrieved on 2007-07-20

External links

*gutenberg|no=1018|name=The Water-Babies
* [ The Water-Babies] : public-domain audio-book from []
* [ A German article on the Water Babies]
* [ The Water Babies] , an unabridged edition.

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