“and so there may be fairies in the world, and they may be just what makes the world go round…”
The water babies can be an uncomfortable read today. It is racist against the Irish, Turks and Jews, amongst others; it satirises a range of religious, political and scientific beliefs (for example, spiritualism) in a manner we would consider alien to a bedtime story, and it is unceasingly moralistic and dogmatic. For all that, it is innovative and original in many respects and has some attractive features. Kingsley calls it a fairy tale and it certainly has fairies as major characters, but in fact they bear very little resemblance to any fairies before or since. How serious he’s being is also left in doubt: he denies a serious intent but defies those who disbelieve in fairies- “That is a very rash, dangerous word, that ‘cannot’; and if people use it too often, the Queen of all the Fairies … is apt to astonish them suddenly by showing them, that though they say she cannot, yet she can, and what is more, will, whether they approve or not.”
There are three major fairy characters in the book (although we learn at the end that they are all the same supernatural being). One is the “great fairy” Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid and another is “the loveliest fairy in the world” Mrs. Doasyou wouldbedoneby. Their names are sufficient to indicate their roles. The third is the Queen of the Fairies. caring for the poor and sick. Her subordinate fairies likewise help and protect the weak and vulnerable, specifically chimney sweep Tom, as will be seen.
Tom is treated badly by his master Grimes. He runs away and drowns accidentally whilst bathing in a stream. The drowning is a transformation, although it does not appear such to those left behind in the mortal world: “they found a black thing in the water, and said it was Tom’s body, and that he had been drowned. They were utterly mistaken. Tom was quite alive; and cleaner, and merrier, than he ever had been. The fairies had washed him, you see, in the swift river, so thoroughly, that not only his dirt, but his whole husk and shell had been washed quite off him…” Tom becomes a ‘water baby.’ Thereafter, (as pictured below) the fairies guard him against injury and accident although all this is done without “his seeing their fair faces or feeling their gentle hands.”
One major responsibility of the fairies is to save abused children from their cruel situations. They are all transformed into happy water babies like Tom: “All the little children whom the good fairies take to, because their cruel mothers and fathers will not; all who are untaught and brought up heathens, and all who come to grief by ill-usage or ignorance or neglect; all the little children who are overlaid, or given gin when they are young, or are let to drink out of hot kettles, or to fall into the fire; all the little children in alleys and courts, and tumble-down cottages, who die by fever, and cholera, and measles, and scarlatina, and nasty complaints which no one has any business to have, and which no one will have some day, when folks have common sense; and all the little children who have been killed by cruel masters and wicked soldiers; they were all there…”
Fairies are, therefore, a form of social conscience for Victorian Britain; they are also an instrument of moral pedagogy. Throughout the book Tom is guided by criticism, warning, guidance, punishment and reward, so that he is able to grow into a responsible and well-behaved adult. This he does by finally forgiving and redeeming Grimes. Then Tom is fit to be united in adult life with his sweetheart Ellie.
These fairies as moral instructors bear scant resemblance to the native fairy. Traditional elves operated a strict moral code, but it was largely in their own interest. They aimed at changing humans for their own benefit and gain, not for the personal improvement of the human. In contrast, in The water babies the fairies act as ministers of divine justice; they are more like angels than elves.
There are, nonetheless, a couple of respects in which Kingsley’s fairies behave like the fairies of folklore. Firstly, there is the use of glamour. The fairy queen is first met disguised as an old Irishwoman- an omnipresent one, it must be conceded, who sees and judges all wrongdoing.
Secondly, there is Kingsley’s equation between death and fairy abduction. Tom falls into the water and into a delightful sleep. This is explained very simply: “It was merely that the fairies took him.” Something similar happens to Ellie when she falls and bumps her head on a rock. “And, after a week, one moonlight night, the fairies came flying in at the window and brought her such a pretty pair of wings that she could not help putting them on…” (see illustration below)
The salvation of children from cruelty, and their transformation into water babies, is a comparable process, but clearly with heavy Christian overtones. Kingsley was, in fact, an Anglican minister and his fairy tale is in reality a parable. He has dressed up divine characters as fairies, perhaps to make them more accessible and appealing to his junior audience, but he is preaching at them all the same. With this story we have travelled a long way from the traditional British fairy lore that I have described in other postings: we are safely within the nursery and far from the sexuality and cruelty of much fairy behaviour. We are, too, concerned with improving and educating children to make them fit to take their place as adults within the British Empire; we have abandoned the fairies’ selfish preoccupations with their own interests and pleasures.
Above, ‘A land baby’ by John Collier, 1899; the other illustrations in this posting are from the 1929 MacMillan edition of The water babies, illustrated by Warwick Goble.