"The Water-Babies" by Charles Kingsley is best described with reference to J. M. Barrie's more famous work "Peter Pan", both of which belong in the canon of Victorian fairytales. Kingsley's work is poised between two words: the world of Christianity and the whimsical realm of fairies, and the onset of the scientific and historical developments that resulted in the evolution theory, industrial factories and the War. Although certainly not as famous as Barrie's tale of the boy that never grew up, Kingsley's story is equally fascinating, though much more difficult to read.
Tom is a young chimney sweep of London, under the brutal care of Mr Grimes who doesn't hesitate in sending him up the filthiest, narrowest chimneys whilst he collects the money from downstairs. Tom himself is quite the little savage, but when his master is employed at Harthover Place, he is in for a surprise. Getting lost on the rooftop and crawling down the wrong chimney, Tom finds himself in a room where three things change his life. The first is a picture of the Crucifixion on the wall. Having no idea who Christ is, Tom is rather intrigued by the picture: "Poor man, he looks so kind and quiet. But why should the lady have such a sad picture in her room?" The second is the young girl asleep in the bed, beautiful and peaceful. The third is his own reflection in the mirror, which horrifies him - "Tom, for the first time in his life, found that he was dirty".
Accidentally waking the little girl on his way out, Tom sets the entire household upon him - out of the house, across the moorlands and down the valley to meet his "death" in a nearby creek, and his rebirth as a water-baby. And there his adventures really begin, as he investigates his new form, meets the river-folk and begins his journey to be reunited with the little girl in the white bedroom - Ellie, who has not forgotten the boy who woke her from her sleep.
Like Barrie, Kingsley's story is chock full of allegory and moralising, namely concerned with images of baptism and rejuvenation, as seen from Tom's transformation from "dirty" (figuratively and literally) to the white form of the water baby, to the moral growth that he gains over the course of the story. Presiding over all of Tom's adventures is the Madonna-like figure of Mrs Do-as-you-would-be-done-by; a fairy queen that takes many different forms and names throughout the course of the story. As well as this, there are touches of the Victorian fascination with insect life, as Tom's `evolution' could also be compared with the pupae and larvae stages of the insect life cycle that (with the onset of microscopes) was being explored by biologists of the age.
But Kingsley's story falls short in several aspects, namely when he is speaking to an adult audience rather than a child one. Though the story is subtitled "a fairytale for a land-baby" and the narrator is conversational and chatty throughout (in fact the style reminds me a great deal of C. S. Lewis in the "Narnia" series) calling the reader "little man" and often providing legitimate queries that the reader would probably be asking at that time, often he strays away from Tom's story to discuss his own personal opinions and theories on the general mindset of the Victorian world - some of which is amusing, some of which is tedious.
For instance, Kingsley perhaps gives us the strongest evidence of the existence of fairies in the world - or at least why experts can never really claim that fairies, water babies and other such creatures do not exist. Only his own words can really do this justice; as the reader says: "But there are no such things as water babies," to which he answers with devastating logic: "how do you know? Have you ever been there to see? No one has a right to say water babies don't exist until they have seen no water babies existing." You can never prove a universal negative!
But these amusing ponderings, and tongue-in-cheek criticisms on other Victorian minds will probably be far over the heads of any children that the book is aimed toward. I can't believe I'm saying this, considering I hate having original books tampered with, but perhaps it would be best to read a young child an abridged version of Kingsley's story, and waiting till they're older for the complete text. For the record, I got my copy at age nine, and didn't get it finished till ten years later. Furthermore, it is a book of its time, and you'll find within its pages several disparaging remarks directed toward the Irish, Americans and several other ethnic groups (heck, this *was* written during the British empire!)
However, Kingsley's book is a necessary inclusion into the library of children's literature - namely because it can be enjoyed by adults too. With a poignant look at the horrors of a sweep's life, to the humorous commentary on his contemporaries, his intriguing philosophy on the nature of fairies and the sublime moments of Christian spirituality, this is a classic to be read and re-read in childhood, adulthood and old age; it'll be a different story each time.