Thursday, June 20, 2013

What I've Read Recently

What I've Read Recently . . .

The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley, illustrated by Jessie Wilcox Smith -- Children's classic

This Victorian fairy tale begins in England in the mid-19th century with a boy named Tom who works for the cruel chimney sweep Grimes. Along the way to a lucrative job in the countryside, they meet with an old Irish woman who is the first person to ever be kind to Tom. She tells him that those who wish to be clean (pure) can always become so. When Tom is wrongly accused of stealing, he runs away, thus beginning an adventure that culminates with him leaving off his dirty body (i.e. he dies) and being taken by the fairies to a magical undersea world where he is reborn as a water baby. Before he can see and play with the other water babies, Tom must first learn how to be kind and unselfish. Following that lengthy journey, he joins the water babies in work and play. They are taught lessons by Mrs. Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid , ugly and a bit stern. All their loving comes from the beautiful and kind Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby. A surprise water baby arrives to help Tom along on his journey to manhood. Finally, in order to become a man, Tom must travel to the edge of nowhere and find Grimes. Only then can he go home and become a man. 

 I had a very hard time getting into the story because it was so slow moving. The exposition is very very long and it takes several chapters before Tom becomes a water baby. I forced myself to finish this book, but it wasn't easy. This is a very bizarre fairy tale with not so subtle moral, religious and cultural overtones. There are lots of morals in this story that the author fairly clobbers the reader with: be kind, be good, live like a good practicing Christian and you'll become pure and get into heaven. This includes being kind to children, poor people and not hiring quack doctors, or doing any other sort of typical Victorian behavior. There's also an environmental message that's very far ahead of it's time. While I agree with the general sentiments, especially the environmental one, I thought the message was way too heavy handed. There's even a moral spelled out in the end. In short, the book is very much a product of it's time. The story reminded me a lot of Dante's Divine Comedy, especially the last section where Tom travels on to find Grimes. There are several passages revealing anti-Irish and anti-American/democratic sentiment that was common at the time. It bothered me a little but it didn't make or break the whole book.

The edition I read has two color line drawings that appear randomly in the book, having nothing to do with the passage. It also has beautiful, full-color watercolors by the famous early 20th century illustrator Jessie Wilcox Smith. I wish there were more illustrations because the story is filled with many creatures I didn't recognize.

I wouldn't give this one to modern children to read. It's too slow, too didactic and too frightening at times for the young children who might enjoy the story without fully understanding all that is happening. I would recommend this book to Victorian scholars as a class assignment because it covers a lot of the controversial issues in Victorian society.

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