Saturday, March 21, 2009

Bibliophile: The Water Babies: A Fairy Tale For a Land Baby

"Once upon a time there was a little chimney sweep: and his name was Tom." - So begins The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley, written in dedication to his youngest son Grenville Arthur, and to 'all other little good boys'. This classic and achingly beautifully illustrated children's book was a household staple in our family. My cousin Amalia had a copy at Grandma Elizabeth's, and my sister Lura and I had a copy at home.


HENCE, unbelieving Sadducees,
And less believing Pharisees,
With dull conventionalities;
And leave a country muse at ease
To play at leap-frog, if she please,
With children and realities.

The Water Babies was first published 1863 in it's totality, after being published in magazine excerpts. The book quickly gained immense popularity, and during the early 1900's was a staple of children's literature. Water Babies was a favorite of Queen Victoria, who read it to her children. The book was sheer mysterious magic for me as a child, and retains that quality as an adult- hence it's enduring worth. The story revolves around a poor little chimney-sweep named Tom, a little boy sadly with a cruel master- the wonderfully named Grimes- and a life of little food, hard work and no love or kindness. Tom meets a little upper-class girl named Ellie, and soon after falls into a river and drowns. The mystery of this book begins here-- I will never forget the powerful intellectual and emotional effects on my young self as I read of Tom's drowning ( trying to understand that an adult had trusted me- a child- enough to tell the truth of something awful ) and his transformation into, yes, a water baby. Tom's adventure begins for real now, and the magic of the illustrations, of which there have been a few sets, is crucial to the story.

He did not remember having ever been dirty. Indeed, he did not remember any of his old troubles, being tired, or hungry, or beaten, or sent up dark chimneys. Since that sweet sleep, he had forgotten all about his master, and Harthover Place, and the little white girl, and in a word, all that had happened to him when he lived before; and what was best of all, he had forgotten all the bad words which he had learned from Grimes, and the rude boys with whom he used to play.

That is not strange: for you know, when you came into this world, and became a land-baby, you remembered nothing. So why should he, when he became a water-baby?

Then have you lived before?

My dear child, who can tell? One can only tell that, by remembering something which happened where we lived before; and as we remember nothing, we know nothing about it; and no book, and no man, can ever tell us certainly.

Blogger Steve Holland has a wonderful post on the Water Baby comic strip mystery, and the discovery of Italian Water Baby playing cards...

And then there is this magnificently magical photo exhibition, telling the Water Babies story

you must soak up this book, yes?
this wheel's on fire said...

wow looks really cool! thanks for your comment :D

a mouthy irish woman? ridiculous! said...

it is a beautiful book! you are correct ma'm!

Snowbrush said...

God, but do you ever have a beautiful blog!

Daydream Lily said...

hello. I just read your comment on Ryans blog...I didnt know you posted about him too, i actually found him through flickr and sent him an email saying i was going to post about his series. The A Cup of Jo read it on my blog. hehe.

thanks for all the comments you leave on my blog, sorry i dont make it over to yours enough. Im a bad blog commenter. I'll be back again.

Love and hugs


Steam Me Up, Kid said...

That photo gallery is incredible.

jules said...

that seems enchanting, and beautiful.

sarasophia said...

In my adamant love of fairy tales and children's books I have never come across this story. I cannot WAIT to read it, and will put all my efforts into obtaining a copy.

Thank you for sharing it.

<3 sarasophia

Jenny Grace said...

I love that book. I have it from when I was a little girl.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful illustrations and lovely words too... lovely escape for a sunday afternoon.

Dave King said...

I had forgotten, but n ow I remember: hours of untold pleasure - reading them to my daughter, of course!

Bee said...

MM, I hadn't thought of this book in years -- (I, too, loved it as a child) -- and it was mentioned in an editorial I quoted from in my last post. He mentions the characters of Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby and Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid as "personifications of human instincts for fairness."

I need to unearth a copy and revisit it.

Anonymous said...

My dear child, who can tell?
That came be used to sum up all of life.
I've never read that story through.....but now you have me wanting to. ~Mary

Evangeline said...

I was totally in love with the illustrations by Jessie Wilcox Smith! And still am. Positively mesmerizing.

Claggie said...

really awesome!!! :)

Barrie said...

I can't believe I don't know this book! I'm so glad you posted about. My daughter would love it. And has a birthday coming up...

Jeanne Estridge said...

We had this book at home when I was a kid and I must have tried a dozen times to get into it, without success. Wonder if I'd like it any better now? I remember feeling frustrated that I didn't care for it, because it had the most wonderful illustrations.

frances said...

i really heart your blog & the divine artwork you select.

new fan

Victoria Thorne said...

gorgeous! you're right...not to be missed! thank you!

Anonymous said...

thank you maggie, your blog is wonderful, es genial!
your poems are those of a genius!
love you, a kiss? of course!
besos besos besos!

Anonymous said...

oh, and i love "jacob have i loved" translated here as "Amé a Jacob" one of my fave books ever!

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