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The Water-Babies

The Water-Babies by Charles Kingsley
By: (1819-1875)

First published in 1863, The Water Babies by Rev Charles Kingsley became a Victorian children's classic along with J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan and Lewis Caroll's Alice books. It is an endearing and entertaining novel that can equally be enjoyed by adult readers as well. However, it fell out of favor in later years since it contained many ideas that are considered politically incorrect and offensive today from a humanitarian perspective.

The Water Babies, A Fairy Tale for a Land Baby to give the book its complete title tells the story of Tom, a young orphan chimney-sweep in Victorian London. Tom is apprenticed to the mean Mr Grimes, who employs such children to work in inhuman and often dangerous conditions, sweeping out the chimneys of large houses. When Tom is assigned to work at Harthover House, a stately mansion, he is dazzled by the luxury and elegance of the place. He stumbles into the bedroom of the daughter of the house and his appearance startles her so much that she “screams like a peacock!” Tom is equally frightened and he rushes out of the house, falls into a river and drowns! But this is only the beginning of a great underwater adventure.

Scholars have described The Water Babies as a didactic fable. Kingsley expresses many of the prevailing attitudes and prejudices against different races, countries and customs. He also expected the book to be read as a satire against the cruel and inhuman child labor laws of the time. Kingsley was himself a contradiction. He was a devout churchman who was one of Charles Darwin's greatest supporters. He was also profoundly influenced by the scientific thinkers of the day like Thomas Huxley and Sir Roderick Murchison.

The Water Babies was first published as a serial in Macmillan's Magazine. It reflects some of the issues that concerned Victorians of the time. Problems like sanitation, health reforms, Christian Socialism, child abuse and primary education are discussed at various points in the book. After his studies at Cambridge, he chose to go into the Church and was ordained as a minister, from whence he rose to become the chaplain of Queen Victoria. He also wrote several other popular books like Westward Ho! Hypatia and Two Years Ago. A prolific writer and speaker, Kingsley's works were received with great admiration during his lifetime. In fact, a town in England was named Westward Ho! It is the only town with an exclamation mark in the country and perhaps the world!

The Water Babies is indeed an interesting slice of an era long past and a great addition to your collection.


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