Introducing Children's Literature: From Romanticism to Postmodernism

By Deborah Cogan Thacker; Jean Webb | Go to book overview

Chapter 5

Reality and enigma inThe Water-Babies

Brian Alderson states in his preface to Charles Kingsley's The Water-Babies (first serialised in Macmillan's Magazines 1862-3), that it 'remains one of the most enigmatic of all children's classics' (Kingsley 1995). There are two reasons for this. First, Charles Kingsley, who was a renowned clergyman, social activist and keen naturalist, was endeavouring to place his own thinking in the turbulent religious, social, and scientific debates of the mid-nineteenth century. Second, the interrelationship between content and narrative form in The Water-Babies reflects Kingsley's attempts to control the turmoil of the intellectual quest for resolution through a combination of realism and fairy tale.

Kingsley identified the enigmatic nature of his text in his epigraph which asked his reader to 'Come read me my riddle, each good little man:/If you cannot read it, no grown-up folk can' (Kingsley 1995). Kingsley is asking for his text to be read back to him with a male voice, and by so doing he becomes both the author and the desired recipient of his own text. The writing, therefore, becomes a way of listening to his own voice, a way of considering the intellectual puzzles which he formulates in language. If a child is able to read, and therefore make some comprehension of his text, then Kingsley has a hope of working out his puzzles.

Kingsley uses a frame of realism to contain the text. Beginning with realism is rather like beginning a challenging jigsaw puzzle by sorting out the straight edge pieces in order to set the frame. The realist story of Tom, the boy chimney sweep, evolves into a fairy tale, the narrative then becomes increasingly surreal and concludes with a realist closure with Tom as an adult, 'a great man of science' (Kingsley 1995:182). The overall structure, therefore, is that of the Bildungsroman, that is, a novel in which the subject is:

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