Essie Fox worked as a professional illustrator before turning to writing a few years ago. Her first novel, The Somnambulist, is a Victorian gothic mystery published by Orion Books. She is currently writing a second book, to be called Elijah's Mermaid. Here Essie writes about Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies.
Essie Fox on The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley
1967. The summer I turned seven. The Summer of Love - although in our sleepy country town where the clocks used to tick 20 years out of date, who would know there was such a change in the air?
Every day the sun shone in hot blue skies. Every day my mother walked us over the fields and down to the river where willows draped over the high grassed banks, below which spread a shingled beach where children paddled or knelt in the shallows to catch 'bullyheads' in old glass jars. The older and braver swam further out. The 'big' boys would shout from an arched stone bridge, and then make great splashing bangs when they dive-bombed into the blackest depths.
Timeless and changeless those days always seemed, and every night when I lay in my bed, I used to dream of the river again and imagine myself a mermaid, being able to breathe underwater, floating amongst the fishes and weeds.
But that was the year when everything changed, not only in the outside world that I viewed through the little black and white screen that stood at one end of our sitting room - where silvery rockets zoomed up to the moon, where Mad Arthur Brown transfixed me when he sang about 'Fire and Hell' and warned of all the dangers to come: 'You've been living like a little girl, in the middle of your little world. And your mind, your tiny mind, you know you've really been so blind.'
That autumn my mother painted some rooms with a fiery orange fluorescent paint - and then sat down and cried for hours. My father sat me on his knee and told me that he was leaving home. That winter, the river flooded up. Three children from my school were drowned when playing too near to the icy banks. The following summer the water's undulating course was re-engineered as a straight canal, with high concrete walls and fences - a fortress that no-one dared to breach.
I think it was my nostalgia for things by then forever lost that contributed to my obsession with the Victorian story of The Water Babies: A Fairy Tale for a Land-Baby by the Reverend Charles Kingsley - a didactic moral fable where good was good, and bad was bad, where no one died or disappeared but simply transformed into something else. I remember being charmed by Tom, an orphan and a chimney sweep - about the same age as me at the time. He was employed by the cruel Mr Grimes, who set him to work in a large country house where the soot-covered boy climbed down into one of the bedroom hearths and saw Ellie, a lovely golden-haired girl and a room where everything was white. When chased away by Ellie's nurse, the shamed Tom escaped through a window, running through gardens and over fields until he found a river where he tried to wash himself clean. But there, he fell into the deepest of sleeps, and when he came to wake again his old body had been quite worn away, leaving him very much smaller - hardly even four inches long, with a ruffle of gills around his neck.
Reborn in the guise of a water-baby and cared for by such strong matriarchal characters as Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby (very much like the visiting aunts existing in my own family), Tom went on to have many a watery adventure - actually a series of lessons whereby his soul was at last redeemed, miraculously returned to human form, and becoming a gentleman of science who worked for the greater good of mankind. How admirable and industrious. How very Victorian!
But I not only cared about Tom, the boy. The charming illustrations by Jessie Wilcox Smith also helped to colour my love for the tale which remained very vivid in my mind; so much so that, this year, when writing my second novel about a Victorian artist obsessed with painting water, with his muse depicted as a mermaid or nymph, I thought to use motifs from Kingsley's book and, with such a task in mind, went out to buy a new version, this time entirely unabridged.
The first familiar pages seduced me all over again, especially when I read these pretty lines:
Clear and cool, clear and cool.
By laughing shallow, and dreaming pool;
Cool and clear, cool and clear,
By shining shingle, and foaming wear;
Under the crag where the ouzel sings,
And the ivied wall where the church bell rings,
Undefiled, for the undefiled;
Play by me, bathe in me, mother and child.
But I have to admit, I was quite unprepared for the darker vision that followed on, which I had not recalled at all:
Dank and foul, dank and foul,
By the smoky town in its murky cowl;
Foul and dank, foul and dank,
By wharf and sewer and slimy bank;
Darker and darker the farther I go,
Baser and baser the richer I grow;
Who dare sport with the sin-defiled?
Shrink from me, turn from me, mother and child.
Neither had I expected to find the text to be so pompous - at times a long-winded, bigoted affair with pages of ranting sermons, with lists that described all the 'ills' of the world, which would certainly send any children to sleep - perhaps explaining why Tom had drowned! But more shocking to me, when viewed in these politically correct times of ours, are the many examples of prejudice. Americans are murderous crows. Jews are dishonest merchants who grow rich on the sale of false icons. Blacks are fat, old, greasy Negros. Catholics, particularly the Popes, are the world's worst bogies - only rivalled by the Measles! All of which may well explain why the story is no longer so popular.
Also, when reading as an adult, I could see that The Water Babies was as much a piece of political lobbying as it was a children's story. An ardent Christian Socialist, Kingsley regularly campaigned against the unjust conditions under which many labourers were forced to work. The Water Babies would have been a very powerful weapon in petitioning to abolish the use of children as chimney sweeps.
Kingsley also had a genuine interest in science, sympathetic to the work of Darwin, the issues of evolution (for Kingsley the change of the body and soul) being explored in his story. I'm sure that when they read his words many Victorian children would have been as desperate as I was to believe that Water Babies could exist - just as many Victorian adults were eager to believe in a spiritual rebirth where the souls of the dead still existed elsewhere. And Kingsley well understood that need, once offering this explanation: '... 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.'
Linley Sambourne, the famous Punch cartoonist, satirized the concept with this illustration which showed the contemporary scientists Richard Owen and Thomas Henry Huxley examining a Water Baby caught in a specimen bottle. Somewhat ironically, when Huxley's five year old grandson saw this, he wrote to his grandfather:
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
To which his grandpater wrote this reply:
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.
I am no longer one of 'the great-deal seers', but once I think I might have been, and for that I must thank Charles Kingsley, for the essence of a story which brought something magical into my life - and which continues to influence it now.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]