The Water-Babies: A Fairy Tale for a Land-Baby, by the Cambridge history professor, the Rev. Charles Kingsley (1819–1875), was published as a book in 1863, but first appeared in serial parts from 1862–63 in Macmillan’s Magazine. The story deals with the moral education and Christian redemption of a young chimney sweep called Tom, who after drowning is transformed into a ‘water baby’. Taking up this ‘second chance’, he ‘evolves’ into a strong and worthy man capable of engaging with the modern world.
Though a Church of England priest, Kingsley was sympathetic to the views on evolution expressed by Charles Darwin (1809–1882), whose On the Origin of Species he had read and approved of on its publication in 1859. The Water-Babies satirises contemporary debates about inherited traits (and supports Darwin’s ideas), and also critiques child labour and mistreatment of the poor.
The first edition had just two black and white illustrations, though later editions featured a wide variety of artwork from many different artists. Some aspects of the book, such as its racial stereotyping, have dated badly. Others – the science of nature being as outlandish as any fairytale, or the interlinking of the fate of nature with moral issues – remain relevant.