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The Water-Babies by Charles KingsleyThe Water-Babies: A Fairy Tale for a Land Baby, Charles Kingsley (1863)

When I first read this as a child, I didn’t realize that it was one of the strangest books ever written. I do now. And the strangeness was heightened by the old edition I’ve re-read it in, because it came as a double volume that started with Kingsley’s The Heroes, or Greek Fairy Tales (1856).

No-one reading The Heroes would guess what awaited them in the second half of the book. The prose plods, the imagery is strictly conventional – “Then Aietes’ rage rushed up like a whirlwind, and his eyes flashed fire” – and Kingsley makes interesting stories dull. I quickly gave up when I tried to read them.

Maybe I was anticipating The Water-Babies too much. It starts almost conventionally, but it has an unconventional hero: “a little chimney-sweep” called Tom. He’s unwashed, unlettered, untaught, and unfairly treated by his master in “a great town in the north country”. But he accepts the hardships of his life, finds fun where he can, and thinks of “the fine times coming, when he would be a man, and a master sweep, and sit in the public-house with a quart of beer and a long pipe, and play cards for silver money, and wear velveteens and ankle-jacks, and keep a white bull-dog with one grey ear, and carry her puppies in his pocket, just like a man.”

That first long paragraph of The Water-Babies is already richer and more vivid than the whole of The Heroes. And the book hasn’t got strange yet. It starts to do so when Tom is taken into the country to sweep the chimneys of Harthover House, the grand home of the squire Sir John Harthover:

[It] had been built at ninety different times, and in nineteen different styles, and looked as if somebody had built a whole street of houses of every imaginable shape, and then stirred them together with a spoon.

For the attics were Anglo-Saxon.

The third door Norman.

The second Cinque-cento.

The first-floor Elizabethan.

The right wing Pure Doric.

The centre Early English, with a huge portico copied from the Parthenon.

The left wing pure Boeotian, which the country folk admired most of all, became it was just like the new barracks in the town, only three times as big.

The grand staircase was copied from the Catacombs at Rome.

The back staircase from the Tajmahal at Agra. […]

The cellars were copied from the caves of Elephanta.

The offices from the Pavilion at Brighton.

And the rest from nothing in heaven, or earth, or under the earth. (The Water-Babies, ch. 1)

That’s an early taste of the eccentric lists and juggling of ideas to come. Tom begins to sweep the chimneys of Harthover House, but accidentally comes down in the bedroom of the squire’s daughter as she lies asleep in bed. She’s the “most beautiful little girl Tom had ever seen”. And she’s completely clean. Then Tom notices someone else in the room: “standing close to him, a little ugly, black, ragged figure, with bleared eyes and grinning white teeth.”

He turns on it angrily, then realizes it’s his own reflection in a “great mirror, the like of which [he] had never seen before.” For the first time in his life, he understands that he is dirty. The knowledge startles and shames him, so he tries to flee up the chimney. But he upsets the fire-irons and wakes the little girl. She screams, thinking he’s a thief; and Tom’s adventures begin. He leaves the little girl’s bedroom by the window, climbing down the magnolia tree outside, and runs off.

Soon the whole house and its staff are chasing him, but he tricks them off his trail, “as cunning as an old Exmoor stag”, and makes off through a wood, then onto the hills of a moor. After the grand catalogue of architectural styles, Kingsley’s descriptions become detailed and naturalistic: “[Tom] saw great spiders there, with crowns and crosses marked on their backs, who sat in the middle of their webs, and when they saw Tom coming, shook them so fast that they became invisible.” But when he disturbs a grouse washing itself in sand, it runs off and tells its wife about the end of the world. Like Tom, the reader has entered a new world where animals think and talk.

But the truly big transformation is still to come. The sun is very hot as Tom climbs the limestone hills and starts down the other side. He grows thirsty and begins to suffer from sun-stroke. When he seeks help at a dame-school, he’s given some milk and a place to rest, but his head is ringing and he wants to be clean. He walks to a stream in a nearby meadow and bathes in it. Then he falls asleep in it:

Ah, now comes the most wonderful part of this wonderful story. Tom, when he woke, for of course he woke — children always wake after they have slept exactly as long as is good for them — found himself swimming about in the stream, being about four inches, or — that I may be accurate — 3.87902 inches long and having round the parotid region of his fauces a set of external gills (I hope you understand all the big words) just like those of a sucking eft, which he mistook for a lace frill, till he pulled at them, found he hurt himself, and made up his mind that they were part of himself, and best left alone. (ch. II)

He’s now a Water-Baby and can begin his amphibious adventures. As the title suggests, water is central to this book: it’s a protean, ever-changing medium, with the power to transform, transport and cleanse. And it has a lot in common with language, which is also protean and transformative.

So Kingsley plays with language as he describes water and its inhabitants. I thought he was making fun of scientific terminology – “3.87902 inches long and having round the parotid region of his fauces a set of external gills” is just the start – but apparently he was a friend of Charles Darwin and accepted Evolution. A lot of that goes on in this book: physical, intellectual and moral. Tom evolves from boy to Water-Baby, but he has a lot of bad habits to unlearn as he travels down the stream and the river into which evolves. He talks with all kind of animals:

And as the creature sat in the warm bright sun, a wonderful change came over it. It grew strong and firm; the most lovely colours began to show on its body, blue and yellow and black, spots and bars and rings; out of its back rose four great wings of bright brown gauze; and its eyes grew so large that they filled all its head, and shone like ten thousand diamonds.

“Oh, you beautiful creature!” said Tom; and he put out his hand to catch it.

But the thing whirred up into the air, and hung poised on its wings a moment, and then settled down again by Tom quite fearless.

“No!” it said, “you cannot catch me. I am a dragon-fly now, the king of all the flies; and I shall dance in the sunshine, and hawk over the river, and catch gnats, and have a beautiful wife like myself. I know what I shall do. Hurrah!” And he flew away into the air, and began catching gnats. (ch. III)

Tom also meets wicked otters and snobbish salmon. Then he reaches the sea, realm of the ever-changing god Proteus, and things get even stranger. He talks with hermit-crabs and lobsters as he searches for other Water-Babies. Words and ideas run and swirl through the story like currents, and so do emotions. Tom experiences both joy and sadness:

And then there came by a beautiful creature, like a ribbon of pure silver with a sharp head and very long teeth; but it seemed very sick and sad. Sometimes it rolled helpless on its side; and then it dashed away glittering like white fire; and then it lay sick again and motionless.

“Where do you come from?” asked Tom. “And why are you so sick and sad?”

“I come from the warm Carolinas, and the sandbanks fringed with pines; where the great owl-rays leap and flap, like giant bats, upon the tide. But I wandered north and north, upon the treacherous warm gulf-stream, till I met with the cold icebergs, afloat in the mid ocean. So I got tangled among the icebergs, and chilled with their frozen breath. But the water-babies helped me from among them, and set me free again. And now I am mending every day; but I am very sick and sad; and perhaps I shall never get home again to play with the owl-rays any more.” (ch. IV)

That’s a description of an oar-fish, I think. When Tom finds the Water-Babies of whom it spoke, he completes his moral education under the guidance of two mother-fairies, the ugly Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid and the beautiful Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby. But the ugly can become beautiful: Kingsley was a Christian and this is a moralistic story too. The dirt that Tom has to lose is spiritual, not just moral and physical: he saw a crucifix in the little girl’s bedroom and didn’t know what it was.

But there’s too much going on in The Water-Babies for any simple reading of Kingsley’s aims. Or perhaps I’m saying that because I’m not a Christian. Either way, the book certainly isn’t conventional in its Christianity. Like C.S. Lewis’s Narnia or J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, Kingsley’s world is big enough for non-believers. But it isn’t as coherent as Narnia or Middle-earth, or as easy to enter as Wonderland. That’s part of why The Water-Babies isn’t as famous or as widely read today. Lewis Carroll played with both logic and language; Kingsley plays with both life and language.

That’s what I like about this book. You’ll find vivid little naturalistic touches like spiders shaking in their webs and words like “Necrobioneopalaeonthydrochthonanthropopithekology”. If Charles Dickens and Lewis Carroll had collaborated on a book, it might have ended up something rather like The Water-Babies. And James Joyce would have been good as a collaborator too. I don’t know if he was influenced by The Water-Babies, but he could have been. He too was obsessed with language and water. Both of them are at the heart of this Fairy Tale for a Land Baby.

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Colouring the ChameleonOlivier, Philip Ziegler (MacLehose Press 2013)

Paper-DeepTreasure Island (1883) and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1885), Robert Louis Stevenson

Fins and FangsThe Fresh and Salt Water Fishes of the World, Edward C. Migdalski and George S. Fichter, illustrated by Norman Weaver (1977) (posted @ Overlord of the Über-Feral)


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

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Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson (French)Treasure Island (1883) and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1885), Robert Louis Stevenson

These two books contain two of the greatest stories ever written. But they’re curiously different in style, despite the brief time that separates them. Treasure Island has deep pages, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has shallow ones – paper-thin, you might say. In the former, the prose vividly evokes the sounds, sights and smells of the eighteenth century: there’s a three-dimensional world beneath the words and you read almost as though you’re looking into an aquarium. When you’ve finished the story, you feel as though you’ve lived it, as though you’ve really met the characters who moved through it, really had the adventures that Jim Hawkins describes. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde isn’t like that. I read it, I don’t live it, because the words don’t transcend language and I don’t forget the printed page as I do in Treasure Island. The closest the story comes to conjuring a moment of reality is perhaps here:

They mounted the stair in silence, and still with an occasional awe-struck glance at the dead body, proceeded more thoroughly to examine the contents of the cabinet. At one table, there were traces of chemical work, various measured heaps of some white salt being laid on glass saucers, as though for an experiment in which the unhappy man had been prevented.

“That is the same drug that I was always bringing him,” said Poole; and even as he spoke, the kettle with a startling noise boiled over.

This brought them to the fireside, where the easy-chair was drawn cosily up, and the tea-things stood ready to the sitter’s elbow, the very sugar in the cup. (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, “The Last Night”)

It’s a clever domestic touch amid the horror that has gone before and the horror that is to come. But Treasure Island is full of touches like that, bringing the world of the story before the mind’s eye or ear or nose: the notch in the “big signboard of Admiral Benbow”, left by Bill’s cutlass as he aims a blow at Black Dog; the “five or six curious West Indian shells” in Bill’s sea-trunk and the “piece of pigtail tobacco bitten away at the end” in his pocket; the “smell of sodden leaves and rotting tree trunks” at the Hispaniola’s first anchorage; the death-shriek that sends marsh-birds whirring aloft when a loyal sailor is murdered; O’Brien’s red cap floating on the surface and the baldness of his bare head beneath the rippling water; Long John Silver’s parrot’s “pecking at a piece of bark” in the dark; the “wood ash” on the black spot handed to Silver, which soils Jim’s fingers; the “heavy-scented broom and many flowering shrubs” on Spy-glass Hill; the grass sprouting on the bottom of the “great excavation” where Flint’s treasure had been; the “strange Oriental” coins “stamped with what looked like wisps of string or bits of spider’s web”; and many more.

The characterization is excellent too. Treasure Island is full of memorable figures, cleverly seen from (mostly) a boy’s perspective: Bill, Blind Pew, the Squire, Ben Gunn, Israel Hands and, most memorable of all, Long John Silver, the charming backstabber and affable rogue. They’re good, evil, pathetic, frightening, cunning, stupid, murderous, brave and more. Hands’ mind and motives are captured in a single line: “I want their pickles and wines, and that.” And here’s Ben Gunn’s long exile evoked in tragicomic dialogue: “Well, many’s the long night I’ve dreamed of cheese — toasted, mostly — and woke up again, and here I were.”
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
The characters in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde don’t live on the page like that: Hyde is described as evil, but he isn’t frightening like Blind Pew. Hyde is words on a page; Pew wrenches arms and skips nimbly from the parlour of the Admiral Benbow. His stick goes “tap-tapping” on a “frozen road”. He lives, and dies, before the mind’s eye. But one thing the characters of the two books have in common is that they’re almost all male. There’s a cook and a housemaid in Jekyll and Hyde, Jim’s mother and Silver’s “old Negress” in Treasure Island, and that’s it, unless you count the Hispaniola, Silver’s parrot and the sea.

This paucity of female characters links Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) and Herman Melville’s Billy Budd (1924). Those two books also have shallow pages. Billy Budd, in fact, is the shallowest book I’ve ever come across. All I found in it was words conjuring nothing: there were no sounds, sights or smells to the story:

The lieutenants and other commissioned gentlemen forming Captain Vere’s staff it is not necessary here to particularize, nor needs it to make any mention of any of the warrant-officers. But among the petty-officers was one who having much to do with the story, may as well be forthwith introduced. His portrait I essay, but shall never hit it. This was John Claggart, the Master-at-arms. But that sea-title may to landsmen seem somewhat equivocal. Originally, doubtless, that petty-officer’s function was the instruction of the men in the use of arms, sword or cutlas. But very long ago, owing to the advance in gunnery making hand-to-hand encounters less frequent and giving to nitre and sulphur the preeminence over steel, that function ceased; the Master-at-arms of a great war-ship becoming a sort of Chief of Police, charged among other matters with the duty of preserving order on the populous lower gun decks. (Billy Budd, chapter 8)

I found the book boring and a chore to read. That’s not true of Stevenson’s and Wilde’s stories, which are both about temptation and damnation. But the reality conjured by those two authors is almost a theatrical one, as though the characters are on a stage surrounded by props and special effects:

It was a wild, cold, seasonable night of March, with a pale moon, lying on her back as though the wind had tilted her, and a flying wrack of the most diaphanous and lawny texture. The wind made talking difficult, and flecked the blood into the face. It seemed to have swept the streets unusually bare of passengers, besides; for Mr. Utterson thought he had never seen that part of London so deserted. (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, “The Last Night”)

The wind shook some blossoms from the trees, and the heavy lilac-blooms, with their clustering stars, moved to and fro in the languid air. A grasshopper began to chirrup by the wall, and like a blue thread a long thin dragon-fly floated past on its brown gauze wings. Lord Henry felt as if he could hear Basil Hallward’s heart beating, and wondered what was coming. […] “How horribly unjust of you!” cried Lord Henry, tilting his hat back and looking up at the little clouds that, like ravelled skeins of glossy white silk, were drifting across the hollowed turquoise of the summer sky. […] There was a rustle of chirruping sparrows in the green lacquer leaves of the ivy, and the blue cloud-shadows chased themselves across the grass like swallows. (The Picture of Dorian Gray, chapter 1)

Lord Henry ponders the “subtle magic” of language and asks himself: “Was there anything so real as words?” Yes, I would say, and things more real too, but the attempted paradox is a reminder that Wilde is not striving for realism. I don’t think he could have achieved it as Stevenson could and often did. Stevenson was a better writer, but The Picture of Dorian Gray is a more fully realized book. It’s longer, after all. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is as short as the dream or nightmare it resembles: it offers the ingredients for horror, but you have to cook some of them for yourself. Treasure Island isn’t a dream: it’s an aquarium or a magic mirror. All three are books to return to again and again over a lifetime, but for me Stevenson’s literary stature seems to grow, Wilde’s to shrink, each time I do so.

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