For my eighth birthday I was given a copy of The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley. I loved this book. We were then living in Jersey where my mother was working as a cook housekeeper in a family home. I remember reading the book in her sitting room for hours on end, poring over all the long words which I did not understand. A lot of it was above my head, the social implications and the scientific information, but I think the moral message it contained was loud and clear.
I loved the story of little Tom, the chimney sweep covered in soot, who jumped into the river after being accused of stealing, where he became immediately cleansed and was turned into a water baby. There followed all his adventures with the creatures in the river, and then in the sea. Tom was not always a good little boy, and so he met Mrs Bedonebyouasyoudid, who punished him. He tried to be better and was rewarded by meeting Mrs Doasyouwoudbedoneby, who cuddled and kissed him. Tom’s adventures led him to Mother Carey, the grand old lady who created all things, or rather made them ‘make themselves’, until he finally landed back on the earth, where he met Miss Ellie again, into whose room he had originally fallen down the chimney.
Time expands and contracts, and different characters mysteriously become one and the same, all very fascinating to a young mind. It is interesting too that Charles Kingsley’s world is presided over by goddesses.
The other day a film of The Water Babies, made in 1979, was shown on BBC4. I watched the film, because I had loved the book. It was not very good, but it was followed by a commentary on the book by Richard Coles, which was much more interesting. He explored it as a social tract, which actually had an impact on the politics of the day, as shortly afterwards a law was passed in Parliament on child labour. It was full of scientific facts which seemed to show that he was in some agreement with Charles Darwin, and finally it was a Christian parable, peopled by feminine deities. All this a way above my head then.
My mother was an atheist and so I had little religious input after leaving the nuns, and what I did have made little impact on me. But I have a feeling that the message of The Water Babies had a profound effect on me, and I still remember reading it, for hours, absorbed by the story.
When I retired I started going to a writing class. I came across this piece the other day, it was an exercise on the senses at the age of five. Following on the theme of childhood, I thought I would do a podcast from it. Here it is.