The Charles Kingsley method of frightening little children

Water Babies coverWhen I mentioned on Twitter recently that I was reading Charles Kingsley’s classic children’s novel The Water-Babies (1863), the response was unanimous: everyone who’d read it, or had it read to them, as children had been terrified by it. I’m not being hyperbolic and I didn’t get the impression they were either.

The Water-Babies is the story of a young chimney sweep whose present is terrible and his future distinctly unpromising:

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. He cried when he had to climb the dark flues, rubbing his poor knees and elbows raw; and when the soot got into his eyes, which it did every day in the week; and when his master beat him, which he did every day in the week; and when he had not enough to eat, which happened every day in the week likewise. And he laughed the other half of the day, when he was tossing half pennies with the other boys, or playing leap-frog over the posts, or bowling stones at the horses’ legs as they trotted by, which last was excellent fun, when there was a wall at hand behind which to hide.

A compelling mixture of sad and amusing, this opening. Poor Tom! Life is hard but it has its compensations. Not the same compensations that Blake imagined for his little chimney sweeps, mind:

When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry ” ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep!”
So your chimneys I sweep & in soot I sleep.

There’s little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head
That curled like a lamb’s back, was shaved, so I said,
“Hush, Tom! never mind it, for when your head’s bare,
You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair.”

And so he was quiet, & that very night,
As Tom was a-sleeping he had such a sight!
That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, & Jack,
Were all of them locked up in coffins of black;

And by came an Angel who had a bright key,
And he opened the coffins & set them all free;
Then down a green plain, leaping, laughing they run,
And wash in a river and shine in the Sun.

Then naked & white, all their bags left behind,
They rise upon clouds, and sport in the wind.
And the Angel told Tom, if he’d be a good boy,
He’d have God for his father & never want joy.

And so Tom awoke; and we rose in the dark
And got with our bags & our brushes to work.
Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy & warm;
So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.

Blake’s bleak social critique holds that faith in God is both the only respite for child labourers such as these, and no respite at all for it merely normalizes the unacceptable. Death, of course, is the only real respite.

It seems as though Kingsley allows for taking the earthly pleasures that come to hand–but, no, he doesn’t really. His Tom dreams only of becoming the one in control of the balance of power; he is not capable of dreaming of a life better or beyond this one. He wants only to be the one in the position to decide who handles the money and determines the distribution of the beatings. Kingsley’s Tom is a victim of a terrible social injustice like Blake’s is–but he’s already to blame. Tom doesn’t want the things that will make him better (even though he clearly doesn’t really know what they are, or have access to them anyway); Tom is already well down the path to his own destruction.

A protagonist who’s bad and doesn’t know it, doesn’t have or see any other alternative, and is already doomed? I can see why this might scare a kid. And The Water-Babies is all about this strange combination of children reaching towards innocence, towards happiness, towards safety and being constantly sabotaged–by everyone around them but being punished for it anyway. Not that the bad adults who treat them badly don’t suffer, in the end–they certainly do, thanks to the terrifying Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid–but such retribution is almost incidental. Or, it’s there only for little childers to practice their moral perfection or lack thereof upon–and be treated accordingly for it.

Tom is taken by his master to sweep the chimneys in a country mansion. This mansion has had so many additions built onto it that its chimney systems comprise a fully labyrinthine hell. Tom gets lost and finds himself in the bedroom of a very beautiful and very clean and very good little girl named Ellie. He is confused, doesn’t know what to do. He tries to escape before she wakes but is startled by his own devilishly sooty appearance in her mirror, trips, wakes her, she screams, and the chase is on–everyone believes, of course, that he’s stolen something and gives pursuit.

They hunt him to death, literally. He runs fully 20 miles trying to escape before coming across a schoolhouse where the mistress allows him to sleep in the outhouse (but not inside her house because he’s so repellent to her); he’s feverish and ill, though, and wanders off in a delirium (those 20 miles were run under full sun and him with no food or water the entire time). He ends up drowning in the nearby river after sleeping with his “head under water for a few hours.” Only after he’s died does anyone bother to confer with Ellie on whether or not Tom did anything wrong–which, of course, he had not and she could have said so from the beginning, had anyone asked her.

Tom, we are told, does not die, although everyone on land thinks so. He is, rather, turned into a water-baby–a tiny sort of nymph who lives under the water. But he’s not in paradise, oh no. Tom must go through a long series of hard moral lessons to find out how to behave like a good person. He’s made physically clean by his death but he’s not off the hook, at all, for being a bad little boy before! And the lessons he learns are a terrifying mixture of straightforward “Be nice to people and they’ll be nice to you” and “If you’re not nice, you’re going to pay.” Scary, but straightforward.

What’s really scary is that these aren’t the only lessons. Kingsley jokingly refers to the “thirty-seven or thirty-nine things” we should have learned by reading The Water-Babies but that’s not really a joke. This book is full of mysterious rules that, when broken, are no less harshly punished for being either unknown or misunderstood. This is frightening to contemplate as an adult–but for a kid! It made me break out into a sweat a few times just thinking of how I would have felt reading this as a 7-year-old.

I think Kingsley meant to soften the blow somewhat by insisting, “Don’t you know that this is a fairy tale, and all fun and pretence; and that you are not to believe one word of it, even if it is true?” Wrong, wrong, wrong. He’d clearly forgotten what it was like to be a kid when he wrote that. I can’t think of a way he could have more elegantly and completely muddled things. To not believe things even if they’re true–what, like Tom being a victim of an avaricious master, or the propriety of either prayer or general cleanliness? Kingsley, you were a cruel, cruel man.


And yet, there are moments of true light-hearted fun and gentle compassion in The Water-Babies, and it’s beautifully written to boot. Discussing the surprising moments at which adults become capable of expressing real sentiment, Kingsley wrote:

HERE I come to the very saddest part of all my story. I know some people will only laugh at it, and call it much ado about nothing. But I know one man who would not; and he was an officer with a pair of gray moustaches as long as your arm, who said once in company that two of the most heartrending sights in the world, which moved him most to tears, which he would do anything to prevent or remedy, were a child over a broken toy and a child stealing sweets.

The company did not laugh at him; his moustaches were too long and too gray for that: but, after he was gone, they called him sentimental and so forth, all but one dear little old Quaker lady with a soul as white as her cap, who was not, of course, generally partial to soldiers; and she said very quietly, like a Quaker:

“Friends, it is borne upon my mind that that is a truly brave man.”

This is one of the sweetest, best moments in the book, but certainly not the only one. When Tom finally becomes a good enough water-baby to be allowed to meet other water-babies (he wanders along, desperately lonely, until he learns to modify his behaviour sufficiently to be allowed the privilege of interaction with others of his kind–my god, the horrid and cruel reproach and unfairness of it!), Kingsley shows what he can do again just in terms of the pure beauty of expression:

And now happened to Tom a most wonderful thing; for he had not left the lobster five minutes before he came upon a water-baby.

A real live water-baby, sitting on the white sand, very busy about a little point of rock. And when it saw Tom it looked up for a moment, and then cried, “Why, you are not one of us. You are a new baby! Oh, how delightful!”

And it ran to Tom, and Tom ran to it, and they hugged and kissed each other for ever so long, they did not know why. But they did not want any introductions there under the water.

So lovely!

Kissing water babies

Later, Tom meets another water-baby named Ellie; yes, that Ellie. She dies by falling off a cliff and breaking her skull open–by trying to see the water-baby (Tom, in fact) who is caught, but then escapes, from her adult companion. So many dead children. I know child mortality rates were much higher in the Victorian era than they are now (well, now in the first world) but still. This is scary stuff.

All this brings me to questions, questions that no one has answers to that aren’t rejected, often heartily, by following generations: what should children’s lit be doing, how harsh should it be, how realistic, how sanitized? I don’t know how I would have reacted to The Water-Babies but I do know how I reacted to Felix Salten’s fairly violent and entirely bitter anti-hunting story Bambi, a Life in the Woods (1923). Bambi was my most beloved book from the age of about 5 to 10; it focuses on the experience of hunting from the animals’ perspectives. It was terrifying. But it certainly didn’t scar me; on the contrary, it taught me, as maybe nothing else could have, to be kind to beasties. Of course, the lesson in Salten’s book is infinitely more straightforward than in Kingsley’s.

So, I don’t know. Maybe the lesson is: if your kid finds the book you’re reading them at bedtime too terrifying then maybe make another selection. That’s all I’ve got. Except that in spite of its crazy and confusing messages, I still kind of loved The Water-Babies. But I’m also very glad I came to it as a grown-up person.

5 Comments Add yours

  1. heidenkind says:

    I’ve heard about this book. Good thing I never read it, because Harold and the Purple Crayon was enough to terrify me as a kid.

    1. Colleen says:

      That’s sweet. Also, incredibly hilarious.

  2. Stefanie says:

    I don’t recall ever hearing about this book. I can see why so many thought it terrifying as children. Yikes! The book I found terrifying as a kid was Baum’s Wizard of Oz. I couldn’t finish it it scared me so badly. And then when I saw the movie on TV! I still have nightmares.

    1. Colleen says:

      I didn’t realize The Wizard of Oz was a book at all until I was well into adulthood. What about the book and the movie scared you? I was very fond of it but I was frightened by the Tin Man’s plight–particularly that he was vulnerable to rust and could just get stuck. That was pretty much my worst nightmare.

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