Charles Kingsley heavy handedly applies the time-honored tradition of the fairy tale to his famous children's novel, The Water Babies: A fairytale for a landbaby. From referencing fairytales in his title, Kingsley begins in traditional fairytale manner:

Once upon a time there was a little chimney-sweep, and his name was Tom. That is a short name, and you have heard it before, so you will not have much trouble in remembering it. He lived in a great town in the North Country, where there were plenty of chimneys to sweep, and plenty of money for Tom to earn and his master to spend. He could not read nor write, and did not care to do either; and he never washed himself, for there was no water up the court where he lived. He had never been taught to say his prayers. He never had heard of God, or of Christ, except in words which you never have heard, and which it would have been well if he had never heard. He cried half his time, and laughed the other half. [5]

Dirty little Tom appears to be very much the Victorian anti-protagonist. This graceless scamp lacks all the virtuous morality beloved by evangelical writers and indeed, seems almost unredeemable being neither educated nor religious. One can imagine Mrs. Trimmer and Maria Edgeworth up in arms over Kingsley's introduction of this amoral chimney sweeper. Tom lives a simple life divided between tears and laughter. However, while Kingsley's novel takes a significantly large step away from the grim didactic moralism of traditional Victorian children's literature, The Water Babies remains the work of a faithful British Victorian preacher, for Kingsley's views on faith, morality and education permeate text, producin g a liberal Protestant version of the older religious tracts for children.

The mysterious Irishwoman predicts the novel's ending and the underlying didacticism of the book, when she warns Grimes and Tom, that "I have one more word for you both; for you will both see me again before all is over. Those that wish to be clean, clean they will be; and those that wish to be foul, foul they will be. Remember" (13). Tom embarks upon all sorts of adventures underwater, but despite the water babies' fun and games, the lesson for naughty boys and foul men remains as stern as any traditional evangelical writer would have penned: Tom travels to the Other-End-of-Nowhere to forgive Grimes who is stuck in Chimney no. 345 where he is "so sooty, and bleared, and ugly, that Tom could hardly bear to look at him. And in his mouth was a pipe; but it was not alight; though he was pulling at it with all his might" (203) In order to get to the beautiful place, Tom must forgive and rescue someone whom he hates, Mr. Grimes. Indeed, despite the fantastical addition of the living truncheons who guard Grimes' chimney, the reference here to Christian goodwill and forgiveness can hardly be missed.

Furthermore, Kingsley refers to cleanliness and dirtiness constantly, both in terms of physical hygiene and spiritual health. Tom feverishly wishes to clean himself so that he may enter the church, "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" (38). Thus despite Kingsley's frequent reminders to his audience that they are, after all, reading a fairy tale, the narrator's numerous asides closely resemble lessons albeit gently administered. For instance, while Kingsley notes that "There must be fairies; for this is a fairy tale: and how can one have a fairy tale if there are no fairies?" (40), he continues a few pages later to chide his audience:

[Tom] too was like some other little boys, very fond of hunting and tormenting creatures for mere sport. Some people say that boys cannot help it; that it is nature, and only a proof that we are all originally descended from beasts of prey. But whether it is nature or not, little boys can help it, and must help it. For if they have naughty, low, mischievous tricks in their nature, as monkeys have, that is no reason why they should give way to those tricks like monkeys who know no better. [59]

This blend of the fantastic and reality, the call to suspend logic and believe in fairies and water babies while affirming that no matter how young, children are not mindless monkeys and must be responsible for their behavior continues throughout Kingsley's work and aptly demonstrates the manner in which fantasy merges moral lessons and pure imagination. In fact, Kingsley, a fervent preacher, laid out his aims for The Water Babies in a letter to his friend and 'master' F.D. Maurice, writing:

I have tried, in all sorts of queer ways, to make children and grown folks understand that there is a quite miraculous and divine element underlying all physical nature, and nobody knows anything about anything, in the sense in which they may know God in Christ, and right and wrong. And if I have wrapped up my parable in seeming Tomfooleries, it is because so only could I get the pill swallowed by a generation who are not believing with anything like their whole heart, in the living God. [quoted in Prickett, 140]

Here, then, is a new kind of moral tale, one wrapped 'in seeming Tomfooleries.' Unlike his predecessors, Kingsley rejects the traditional evangelical tract and uses all the entertaining fantastical elements and light tone of fairy tales to convey his lesson to children. After all, Tom's brushes with greedy otters and Tomtoddies are entertaining in their own right. Finally, Kingsley attaches a Moral to the end of his tale again, in good fairytale tradition. Here, his moral ends:

    Meanwhile, do you learn your lessons, and thank God that you have plenty of cold water to wash in; and wash in it too, like a true Englishman. And then, if my story is not true, something better is; and if I am not quite right, still you will be, as long as you stick to hard work and cold water.
    But remember always, as I told you at first, that this is all a fairy tale, and only fun and pretence; and, therefore, you are not to believe a word of it, even if it is true. [214]

Kingsley's flippant ending contrasts with the real-life political consequences of his tale. The Water Babies is often credited as the catalyst for the passing of the Chimney Sweeper's Act of 1864 which outlawed the use of climbing boys. In fact, Kingsley's ironic reminder to his audience that they are not to believe any of his tale, "even if it is true" must have been readily recognized by his audience for throughout the nineteenth century, children remained employed in often horrendous conditions whether in factories, as chimney sweeps or other low skill, cheap forms of labor. Perhaps the most fantastical element of Kingsley's fairy tale, written at the height of the Industrial Revolution in England, is its portrayal of the happily employed water babies who clean rock-pools and plant cockles, whelks, razor-shells, sea-cucumbers and golden-combs to "make a pretty live garden" to wipe man's dirt away.


Kingsley appears to address parents as well as children in his lessons. What aspects of Victorian parenting does he appear to criticize? How does he think children and adults should interact?

How do Kingsley's descriptions of childhood death resemble earlier child deaths told by evangelical tract writers such as Reverend W. Carus Wilson? Also, contrast Ellie and Tom's deaths.

What are Kingsley's views on education? Why does Kingsley include pseudo-scientific facts in his tale? For instance, Tom's tears cause the tide to rise ".3,954,620,819 of an inch higher than it had been the day before" (145).

Does Kingsley's blatant reminders that The Water Babies is a fairy tale work? What fairy tale mechanisms does Kingsley employ?

How does Kingsley describe childhood? Is this a Romantic idealization of childish innocence or the evangelical sinful child? Moreover, Tom's quest resembles fairy tale quests, but could also follow in the tradition of a pilgrimage, the toils and tasks that he undergoes appears similar to that told by evangelical tracts such as John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress. Does this suggest a similarity between fairy tales and evangelical tracts? What is Kingsley's purpose in this blatant mimicry?

Related Material


Kingsley, Charles. The Water Babies: A Fairy Tale for a Landbaby. 1863. Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1994.

Prickett, Stephen. Victorian Fantasy. 2nd ed. Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2005.

Last modified 6 August 2007