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

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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.

In the style of Victorian-era novels, The Water-Babies is a didactic moral fable. 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, as one might suspect from this beginning, is largely concerned with Christian redemption, though this is fairly well disguised by the standards of the age.

Eventually Tom (and Ellie, who has also fallen into the river and gone straight to heaven because of her "purity") are returned to life and begin living a proper, Christian life as envisioned by Kingsley.

The book was extremely popular during its day, and was a mainstay of children's literature through to the 1920s. It was adapted into a motion picture The Water Babies in 1978 starring James Mason, Bernard Cribbins and Billie Whitelaw.

Neither at the time it was published, nor certainly in the present day, have most readers realized that the book had been intended in part as a satire of Darwinian science and as a serious critique of the closed-minded approaches of many scientists.

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.

Kingsley was a proponent of the theory of degeneration, the notion that evolution does not necessarily imply progress. (He is entirely correct about this, no modern scholar of the subject would suggest that new species are better than old ones, merely that they were able to out-compete them under prevailing conditions.) In The Water Babies, Kingsley tells of a group of children who do "whatever they like" and gradually lose the power of speech. They degenerate into monkeys 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 Noel Paton, Huxley and Owen are caricatured, studying a captured water baby.

Delightfully, 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 is, to me, as wonderful as the New York Sun's "Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus" letter, which it somewhat resembles. It is a blessing from a great scientist to a young boy whom he hopes will some day be a scientist too.

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.

Julian Huxley did go on to be a scientist. In the 1940s, he was a driving force behind the development of the synthetic theory of evolution.

Richard Milner points out that Julian's early scientific work involved the axolotl, an animal that never matures past its gilled stage. It is therefore a real-life vision of Kingsley's imagined Water Babies.

The book also questions the morality of enforced child labor and the treatment of the poor in England.

External links


The Encyclopedia of Evolution, 1990, R. Milner, ed.


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