A revered professor in the UCLA English Department used to say that when a person could rattle on confidently about a book–preferably an uncontested masterpiece like Hamlet or Ulysses–without having ever cracked it open, only then could the degree of Ph.d be conferred.
Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies (1863) is one of those books I expected to fake for the rest of my unnatural life. When asked to serve on the advisory board of the Grolier 100 Books Famous in Children’s Literature project I did not confess my ignorance, knowing that Brian Alderson would wrangle The Water-Babies entry, having edited the Oxford World Classics edition. This month I was finally obliged to fetch the book from the basement, where it had been languishing for some time, and read it from cover to cover without benefit of pictures, either.
I’m happy to say that The Water-Babies lived up to its reputation as one of the most peculiar children’s books ever written and some of the passages about the rearing and educating of children are worth sharing. All quotations are from the 1995 Oxford University Press paperback edited by Brian Alderson, of course. If you have a tender stomach, Kingsley’s indelicate sense of humor may not be your cup of tea.
Here is the hideous and not entirely benign fairy Mrs. Be-Done-By-As-You-Did, who visits the water-babies on Fridays. When pleased with them, she gives “them all sorts of nice sea-things–sea-cakes, sea-apples, sea-oranges, sea-bullseyes, sea-toffee; and to the very best of all she gave sea-ices, made out of sea-cows’ cream, which never melt under water.”The real business of the day is to “call up all who have ill-used little children, and serve them as they served the children….And first she called up all the doctors who give little children so much physic (they were most of them old ones; for all the young ones have learnt better, all but a few army surgeons, who still fancy that a baby’s inside is much like a Scotch grenadier’s), and she set them in a row; and very rueful they looked, for they knew what was coming.
And first she pulled all their teeth out; and then she bled them all round; and then she dosed them with calomel, and jalap, and salts and senna, and brimstone and treacle; and horrible faces they made; and then she gave them a great emetic of mustard and water, and no basons; and began all over again; and that was the way she spent the morning” (Chapter V, p. 109).
This second excerpt is less savage, unless you happen to be in the children’s book publishing business. During his journey to the Other-end-of-Nowhere, the hero Tom visits a number of remarkable places.
“And first he went through Waste-paper-land, where all the stupid books lie in heaps, up hill and down dale, like leaves in a winter wood; and there he saw people digging and grubbing among them, to make worse books out of bad ones, and thrashing chaff to save the dust of it; and a very good trade they drove thereby, especially among children” (Chapter VIII, p. 157).
Last but not least is an excerpt from Tom’s sojourn in the Isle of the Tomtoddies:
“And when Tom came near it, he heard such a grumbling and grunting and growling and waiting and weeping and whining that he thought people must be wringing little pigs, or cropping puppies’ ears, or drowning kittens: but when he came nearer still, he began to hear words among the noise, which was the Tomtoddies’ song which they sing morning and evening, and all night too, to their great idol Examination–“I can’t learn my lesson: the examiner’s coming!” And that was the only song they knew….
Then he looked round for the people of the island: but instead of men, women, and children, he found nothing but turnips and radishes, beet and mangold wurzel, without a single green leaf among them, and half of them burst and decayed with toadstools growing out of them. Those which were left began crying to Tom, in half a dozen different languages at once, and all of them badly spoken, “I can’t learn my lesson; do come help me!” And one cried, “Can you show me how to extract this square-root?” And another, “Can you tell me the distance between Lyra and Camelopardalis?” And another, “What is the latitude and longitutde of Snooksville, in Noman’s County, Oregon, US?” (Chapter VIII, p. 165)
This post may squelch most people’s desire to read Kingsley, but perhaps a few will be curious to dip into a story dubbed by its author as “all a fairy tale and only fun and pretense,” that was one of the great children’s best-sellers of all time. It’s never too late for a Kingsley revival??? For more babies who love the water, take a look at the exhibition https://blogs.princeton.edu/cotsen/tag/water-babies/