Today is the birthday(1819) of Charles Kingsley, an evangelical priest of the Church of England, an Oxford professor, historian, and novelist. He was a friend and correspondent with Charles Darwin. His children’s “fairy tale,” The Water Babies was once very popular, but fell into disfavor because of its occasional strident bigotry.
Kingsley was born in Holne, Devon, the first of two sons of the Reverend Charles Kingsley and his wife Mary Lucas Kingsley. His brother, Henry Kingsley, also became a novelist. He spent his childhood in Clovelly, Devon, where his father was Curate 1826-1832 and Rector 1832-1836, and at Barnack, Northamptonshire and was educated at Bristol Grammar School and Helston Grammar School before studying at King’s College London, and Cambridge University. Kingsley entered Magdalene College, Cambridge, in 1838, and graduated in 1842. He chose to pursue a ministry in the church. From 1844, he was rector of Eversley in Hampshire. In 1859 he was appointed chaplain to Queen Victoria. In 1860, he was appointed Regius Professor of Modern History at the University of Cambridge. In 1861 he became a private tutor to the Prince of Wales.
In 1869 Kingsley resigned his Cambridge chair and, from 1870 to 1873, was a canon of Chester Cathedral. While in Chester he founded the Chester Society for Natural Science, Literature and Art, which played an important part in the establishment of the Grosvenor Museum. In 1872 he accepted the Presidency of the Birmingham and Midland Institute and became its 19th President. In 1873 he was made the canon of Westminster Abbey. Kingsley died in 1875 and was buried in St Mary’s Churchyard in Eversley.
Kingsley was sympathetic to the idea of evolution and was one of the first to welcome Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. He had been sent an advance review copy and in his response of 18 November 1859 (four days before the book went on sale) stated that he had “long since, from watching the crossing of domesticated animals and plants, learnt to disbelieve the dogma of the permanence of species.” Darwin added an edited version of Kingsley’s closing remarks to the next edition of his book, stating that “A celebrated author and divine has written to me that ‘he has gradually learnt to see that it is just as noble a conception of the Deity to believe that He created a few original forms capable of self-development into other and needful forms, as to believe that He required a fresh act of creation to supply the voids caused by the action of His laws’.” When a heated dispute lasting three years developed over human evolution, Kingsley gently satirized the debate, known as the Great Hippocampus Question, as the “Great Hippopotamus Test.”
Kingsley’s concern for social reform is illustrated in his classic, The Water-Babies, A Fairy Tale for a Land Baby, a tale about a young chimney sweep, which retained its popularity well into the 20th century. The Water-Babies, was written in 1862–63 as a serial for Macmillan’s Magazine, and first published in its entirety in 1863. The protagonist is Tom, a young chimney sweep, who falls into a river after encountering an upper-class girl named Ellie and being chased out of her house. There he drowns and is transformed into a “water-baby”and begins his moral education under a number of underwater tutors. The story is thematically concerned with Christian redemption, though Kingsley also uses the book to argue that England treats its poor badly, and to question child labor, among other themes.
Tom embarks on a series of adventures and lessons, and enjoys the community of other water-babies once he proves himself a moral creature. The major spiritual leaders in his new world are the fairies Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby, Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid, and Mother Carey. Weekly, Tom is allowed the company of Ellie, who became a water-baby after he did.
Grimes, his old master, drowns as well, and in his final adventure, Tom travels to the end of the world to attempt to help the man where he is being punished for his misdeeds. Tom helps Grimes to find repentance, and Grimes will be given a second chance if he can successfully perform a final penance. By proving his willingness to do things he does not like, if they are the right things to do, Tom earns himself a return to human form, and becomes “a great man of science” who “can plan railways, and steam-engines, and electric telegraphs, and rifled guns, and so forth”. He and Ellie are united, although the book states that they never marry (claiming that in fairy tales, no one beneath the rank of prince and princess ever marries).
In the style of Victorian-era novels, The Water-Babies is a didactic moral fable. In it, Kingsley expresses many of the common prejudices of that time period, and the book includes dismissive or insulting references to Americans, Jews, blacks, and Catholics, particularly the Irish. These views, though sparse, are harsh to a modern reader and undoubtedly played a role in the book’s gradual fall from popularity.
In his Origin of Species, Darwin mentions that, like many others at the time, he thought that changed habits produce an inherited effect, a concept now known as Lamarckism. In The Water Babies, Kingsley tells of a group of humans called the Doasyoulikes who are allowed to do “whatever they like” so gradually lose the power of speech, degenerate into gorillas, and are shot by the African explorer Paul Du Chaillu. He also (controversially, nowadays) likens the Doasyoulikes to enslaved Africans, by mentioning that one of the gorillas shot by Du Chaillu remembered that his ancestors had once been men, and tried to say, ‘Am I Not A Man And A Brother?’, but had forgotten how to use his tongue.”
The Water Babies alludes to debates among biologists of its day, satirizing what Kingsley had previously dubbed the Great Hippocampus Question as the “Great Hippopotamus Test.” At various times the text refers to naturalists “Sir Roderick Murchison, Professor (Richard) Owen, Professor (Thomas Henry) Huxley, (and) Mr. Darwin”, and thus they become explicitly part of the story. In the accompanying illustrations by Linley Sambourne, Huxley and Owen are caricatured, studying a captured water baby. In 1892 Thomas Henry Huxley’s five-year-old grandson Julian (later a famed evolutionary biologist) saw this engraving and wrote his grandfather a letter asking:
Dear Grandpater – Have you seen a Waterbaby? Did you put it in a bottle? Did it wonder if it could get out? Could I see it some day? – Your loving Julian.
Huxley wrote back:
My dear Julian – I could never make sure about that Water Baby.
I have seen Babies in water and Babies in bottles; the Baby in the water was not in a bottle and the Baby in the bottle was not in water. My friend who wrote the story of the Water Baby was a very kind man and very clever. Perhaps he thought I could see as much in the water as he did – There are some people who see a great deal and some who see very little in the same things.
When you grow up I dare say you will be one of the great-deal seers, and see things more wonderful than the Water Babies where other folks can see nothing.
Despite his rather ghastly views on certain peoples, which were common in Victorian England, Kingsley was, on balance, a humanist. These quotes make my point, I believe:
All we need to make us really happy is something to be enthusiastic about.
Some say that the age of chivalry is past, that the spirit of romance is dead. The age of chivalry is never past, so long as there is a wrong left unredressed on earth.
There are two freedoms – the false, where a man is free to do what he likes; the true, where he is free to do what he ought.
Naturally I have to focus on English river fish for Kingsley. Mrs Beeton supplies recipe and commentary. This dish is lifted from the ordinary by the addition of anchovy sauce. Nothing, I mean nothing, beats anchovy sauce on buttered toast at tea time on a wintry day.
THE PERCH.—This is one of the best, as it is one of the most common, of our fresh-water fishes, and is found in nearly all the lakes and rivers in Britain and Ireland, as well as through the whole of Europe within the temperate zone. It is extremely voracious, and it has the peculiarity of being gregarious, which is contrary to the nature of all fresh-water fishes of prey. The best season to angle for it is from the beginning of May to the middle of July. Large numbers of this fish are bred in the Hampton Court and Bushy Park ponds, all of which are well supplied with running water and with plenty of food; yet they rarely attain a large size. In the Regent’s Park they are also very numerous; but are seldom heavier than three quarters of a pound.
INGREDIENTS.—Egg and bread crumbs, hot lard.
Mode.—Scale and clean the fish, brush it over with egg, and cover with bread crumbs. Have ready some boiling lard; put the fish in, and fry a nice brown. Serve with plain melted butter or anchovy sauce.
Seasonable from September to November.
Note.—Fry tench in the same way.
ANCHOVY SAUCE FOR FISH.
INGREDIENTS.—4 anchovies, 1 oz. of butter, 1/2 pint of melted butter, cayenne to taste.
Mode.—Bone the anchovies, and pound them in a mortar to a paste, with 1 oz. of butter. Make the melted butter hot, stir in the pounded anchovies and cayenne; simmer for 3 or 4 minutes; and if liked, add a squeeze of lemon-juice. A more general and expeditious way of making this sauce is to stir in 1-1/2 tablespoonfuls of anchovy essence to 1/2 pint of melted butter, and to add seasoning to taste. Boil the whole up for 1 minute, and serve hot.
Time.—5 minutes. Average cost, 5d. for 1/2 pint.
Sufficient, this quantity, for a brill, small turbot, 3 or 4 soles, &c.