n extraordinary blend of fundamental Christian tenets with current evolutionary thought, and fantasy, enables Charles Kingsley to conceive of the dissolution of the self in quite a different way from Dickens. Hiding religious uncertainties with playfulness rather portentousness, Kingsley ends up denying the seriousness of his purpose, but [....] the first two chapters of The Water-Babies contain a refreshingly unsentimental and positive treatment of child death--a commendable achievement for one who spoke with such fierce passion on the subject. In Kingsley's account, the river of death has nothing frightening about it. Though later on he seems to have recalled Mrs Sherwood's Mrs Bountiful, he surely had in mind here not the deep, black river of the children's writer, with its "deadly putrid smell" (The Infant's Progress 230), but the encouragement which Bunyan's Hopeful receives from the Old Testament: "When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee" (Isaiah xliii.2).
The pace in these chapters is brisk, the narrator's sympathy does not preclude humour, and the approach to the great mystery is made, as it must be, through nature--not through wintry solemn wastes or pastoral meadows, but through the kind of varied and uneven terrain where, as the author has an old cock-grouse maintain, the end of the world is always just around the corner.
An advertisement of the novel in The Reader on its publication.
The Rabelaisian hue and cry which goes up when Tom, a ten-year-old chimney-sweep, is discovered in little Ellie's bedroom, leads to a spirited bare-foot run through the grounds of Harthover House, a scramble through the scratchy undergrowth of its woods, a sharp brush with the stone wall bounding the estate, a jog across the adjoining fell, and a scramble down Lewthwaite Crag to the stream. Kingsley evidently enjoys buffetting and surprising the city-bred boy with the flora and fauna, and changing features, of the countryside, almost all of which is seen from Tom's point of view. This is very much in the popular vein of current children's literature: the first of Mrs Gatty's five volumes of Parables from Nature was published in 1855; his own Glaucus, or The Wonders of the Shore, in the same year. But gradually even the naive readership which Kingsley addresses (his own youngest son and the "other good little boys" of the dedication) must have some inkling that this child is being literally driven to his death, first by his cruel master, Grimes, and Ellie's father, Sir John (et al.), and then by his own urgent need for the water which will quench his thirst, cool his over-heated body and cleanse his sooty skin.
Increasingly giddy from banging his head on the wall, faint because of the hot midday sun on the exposed rocky moorland, famished as well as parched, and "b-e-a-t, beat" (31), Tom bumps and slithers his way down, down, down. "I wish it was all over; and so did he" (30), says the narrator, echoing the cry torn from many a watcher by a pain-tossed sick-bed.
All the while, his failing power is appropriately (for a tale which will soon become a parable about redemption) expressed by his fancy that he hears church bells. It is the beginning of his delirium. At length he himself suspects the bells are in his own head, but even when this is confirmed--when he is told by the old dame in the Vendale schoolhouse that it is not Sunday--he tosses and turns restlessly in his sanctuary there, feeling that he must clean himself up before going to the service. The fever which carried away so many children of his class is upon him. He leaves the dame's hay-strewn outhouse (with its promising connotations of the nativity) and hurries off in a frenzy:
"Ah," said Tom, "I must be quick and wash myself; the bells are ringing quite loud now: and they will stop soon, and then the door will be shut, and I shall never be able to get in at all." 
The bells turn out to have been imaginary, while the river, which has had all the allure of a mirage, turns out to be real. Tom, ripping off his sooty rags, is soon inside it.
The only panic in the little sweep's last moments comes from that fear of rejection which is, Kingsley suggests, the lot of a child whose religious education has been totally neglected. From the earthly point of view Tom's life ends here. Kingsley now puts the facts quite clearly. A black 'thing' is recovered from the water, mourned over by a contrite Sir John and retinue, and buried in Vendale churchyard, where a tombstone is erected over it and regularly adorned with garlands of flowers by the schoolhouse dame until she grows too old to visit the grave. But by now, a lively inventiveness has already taken over; these facts, says Kingsley, are all meaningless. The black 'thing,' Kingsley tells us, was only the "husk and shell" (47) of the boy (sound Biblical teaching); it has been removed like the split and discarded skin of a caddis-worm, or may-fly larva (Kingsley's knowledge of the grub he used for fishing-bait). Tom, reduced by a process of "strange degradation" (46) or backwards evolution to precisely 3.87902 inches long, and endowed with a set of gills, is seen to have entered on a new phase of his existence as an amphibian in the purgatorial stream.
Both church bells and river were real enough on the symbolic, spiritual level: as the old dame had quickly realized, "God's guided the bairn, because he was innocent!" (33), and God in this fantasy is the Queen of the watery world in the first of her many incarnations, the Irishwoman who has watched him the whole way and preceded him into the river. This is why sentiment has been largely irrelevant; why, for example, Kingsley could afford to poke fun at Sir John's wife, drawing attention to her wig instead of dwelling on her tears for the lost child.
After all, then, dying young is not such a terrible experience [....]. Moreover, it offers children like Tom a second chance; in fact, a number of second chances. Kingsley still inveighs against the treatment of 'land-babies': Tom's encounter with the poor Tomtoddies, all heads and no bodies, being crammed with facts until they turn into watery turnips, reminds us of Mr Toots in Dombey and Son, if not Paul Dombey himself. But, among the lobsters, the salmon and the oysters, and under the continued guidance of the similarly amphibious, and many-faceted mother-figure, the spiritual journey that started in the Harthover estate can be completed.
Disconcertingly, Kingsley ends up restoring Tom, along with Ellie (who had later fallen in the very same river and been taken directly to heaven from her sick-bed), to terra firma. As I suggested above, this pulls the rug out from under the first two chapters. Kingsley's problem was, perhaps, in envisaging heaven in any more meaningful terms than those already provided by Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby's maternal embraces, or those promised by more mature fondlings. But whatever the reason, the ending in which he commits children to "hard work and cold water" (205) as ways of dealing with that 'black thing'--the sinful body and the death it dies--is a let-down.
Last modified 24 July 2007