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Underwater Heaven

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All my life I have been deeply affected by the underwater world, by rock pools and streams and rivers. In 1949, when I was 10, my father gave me a book called The Sea-Shore, with 48 delicately coloured plates, which I would read again and again, gazing in wonder at the limpets and blennies and starfish and seaweeds and hermit crabs. We used to spend our summer holidays at Filey on the North Yorkshire coast, and enjoyed many hours of happiness exploring the pools on the Brigg, a rocky promontory that juts into the sea to the north of the curving sandy bay.

Each high tide submerged it, and its pools were replenished. The sense of renewal was mystical, purifying. ‘The moving waters at their priestlike task of pure ablution round earth’s human shores . . .’ I didn’t know those lines of Keats then, but I often say them to myself now. I still dream of the Brigg. Late in his life my father wrote a novel called Scawsby (1977) which is clearly set in Filey. He calls the Brigg ‘the Reef’, and his narrator says that it was the submerged ruins of a Roman jetty, but I’m not sure if that’s true. Even so we were all enthralled by it.

I can’t remember what age I was when I came across Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies. I must have read it earlier than my other childhood favourite, Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, which was a Christmas gift in 1948, but at that age I can’t have tackled the Kingsley tale in its full version. I must have read a shortened illustrated children’s text, of which there have been many. I loved the story of Tom’s adventures, first as a dirty chimney-sweep intruding on little Ellie in her fine white bedchamber, then when he went on the run through a landscape that strangely mixes Yorkshire and Devon, then as a water-baby, as he ventures down the rivers and into the sea. I sympathized with his loneliness and with his longing to find other water-babies, and rejoiced with h

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All my life I have been deeply affected by the underwater world, by rock pools and streams and rivers. In 1949, when I was 10, my father gave me a book called The Sea-Shore, with 48 delicately coloured plates, which I would read again and again, gazing in wonder at the limpets and blennies and starfish and seaweeds and hermit crabs. We used to spend our summer holidays at Filey on the North Yorkshire coast, and enjoyed many hours of happiness exploring the pools on the Brigg, a rocky promontory that juts into the sea to the north of the curving sandy bay.

Each high tide submerged it, and its pools were replenished. The sense of renewal was mystical, purifying. ‘The moving waters at their priestlike task of pure ablution round earth’s human shores . . .’ I didn’t know those lines of Keats then, but I often say them to myself now. I still dream of the Brigg. Late in his life my father wrote a novel called Scawsby (1977) which is clearly set in Filey. He calls the Brigg ‘the Reef’, and his narrator says that it was the submerged ruins of a Roman jetty, but I’m not sure if that’s true. Even so we were all enthralled by it. I can’t remember what age I was when I came across Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies. I must have read it earlier than my other childhood favourite, Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, which was a Christmas gift in 1948, but at that age I can’t have tackled the Kingsley tale in its full version. I must have read a shortened illustrated children’s text, of which there have been many. I loved the story of Tom’s adventures, first as a dirty chimney-sweep intruding on little Ellie in her fine white bedchamber, then when he went on the run through a landscape that strangely mixes Yorkshire and Devon, then as a water-baby, as he ventures down the rivers and into the sea. I sympathized with his loneliness and with his longing to find other water-babies, and rejoiced with him when he discovered that the sea was full of them. Most readers first come across the story in a children’s version, as I did, and today there are several editions on sale, including one with sentimental illustrations by Mabel Lucie Atwell and another with W. Heath Robinson’s quirky drawings. I didn’t read the whole text until late middle age, when I was writing a novel about a marine biologist, a project that allowed me to indulge my longstanding interest in aquaria, deep-sea diving and aquatic ape theories. I was attracted by the evolutionary hypotheses of Elaine Morgan (1920–2013) who argued persistently and to me plausibly that human life originally evolved from the water, not from the savannah. Why else would we be naked and hairless, like seals and hippopotami? Why else do we sit lined up in deckchairs, gazing with longing at our primeval home? Of course we come from the water, and long to return to it. In 2005 I was astonished by my first encounter with the original text of The Water-Babies, and I have just reread it in 2019 with more care and even more astonishment. It is one of the strangest stories ever written allegedly for children, even stranger than Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which it predates by a couple of years. Ever since it first appeared, published by Macmillan in 1863, with two illustrations by the popular Scottish ‘fantasy’ artist Joseph Noel Paton, critics have debated as to whether it was intended for children (Kingsley claimed to have written it for his little boy Grenville Arthur) or whether it was really aimed, in a knowing way, at adults. It’s interesting to note that Noel Paton’s thumb-sucking water-babies are naked and mildly erotic, whereas in the story they are discreetly clothed in ‘the neatest little white bathing-dresses’. The book is packed with interesting information about river life and marine life, and with thrilling first-hand observations of fish and animal behaviour, all of which fit happily with the Victorian obsession with the seashore. Marine biology was a fashionable amateur pursuit in the 1850s and 1860s, and seaside resorts attracted adults and children to hunt for crabs and dabs. Philip Gosse, a pioneer in the field and author of the influential A Naturalist’s Ramble on the Devonshire Coast (1853), was much admired by Kingsley, though they were to disagree fiercely about the Darwinian concept of evolution, which Gosse could not countenance but which Kingsley wholeheartedly embraced. To Kingsley, a devout clergyman and a passionate preacher and lecturer, there was no conflict between religion and evolution, and he believed that the myriad forms of life were a witness to the glory of God. He rejoiced in the oddities and eccentricities of creation. The Water-Babies, in the person of the mysterious Mother Carey, presents perhaps the strangest and most eloquent personification of evolution in literature. Tom finds her in the arctic regions, towards the end of his long journey of purification. She is blue-eyed, whitehaired, immensely aged, and she sits on a white marble throne, making her children out of sea water. Tom had expected to find her busy ‘snipping, piecing, fitting, stitching, cobbling, basting, filing’ but she sits still, with her chin upon her hand. Tom addresses her politely, apologizing for interrupting her, as he knows she is busy ‘making new beasts out of old’. But she tells him that she is never busy. ‘I am not going to trouble myself to make things, my little dear. I sit here and I make them make themselves.’ It is a powerful image. I wonder what Richard Dawkins would make of her. Some critical interpreters of The Water-Babies are repelled by what they see as its Victorian emphasis on guilt and punishment and its neurotic insistence that clean hands make pure minds. (Maureen Duffy, in The Erotic World of Faery (1972), provocatively sees Tom as a little questing penis.) Nobody could like Kingsley’s jokes about the Irish, for he portrays them as an under-evolved race, and makes crude comments about apes and white gorillas and poor potato-eating Paddies. As the prototypical ‘muscular Christian’, he is very hard on any species he considers ‘lazy’. Some critics take against his intrusive political agenda, his satirical onslaughts on current educational theory and practice, his Rabelaisian page-long lists and rollickingly inventive vocabulary – his coinages and usages are frequently cited in the Oxford English Dictionary. His references to contemporary debates about evolution and sanitation require a good many footnotes, which are helpfully provided by the Oxford World’s Classics 2013 edition, admirably edited by Brian Alderson, with an excellent introduction by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst. The jumble of scientific information and fantasy is undeniably odd, and Gillian Avery, the distinguished scholar of children’s literature, found the book ‘an inchoate mass’. And so it is, but to me it is also a rich cabinet of curiosities. Kingsley’s evocations of animals and fish life and insects, seen from tiny Tom’s eft-like point of view, are masterly, and are based on many hours of first-hand observation from the riverbank or the shore. We meet the vain dragonfly, the proud and aged lobster whom Tom rescues from a lobster pot, the cruel otters, and the brave, dignified salmon who looks down on the lazy, cowardly, greedy trout, who choose ‘to stay and poke about in the little streams and eat worms and grubs’ instead of going down to the sea every year ‘to see the world’. I even like the lists. One may be tempted to skip them on the page, but they could have been very entertaining when read aloud with brio to a fireside family audience. And some of the scenes are very funny. There is a fine moment when the kindly but pedantic Professor Ptthmllnsprts is out beach-combing with little Ellie, who has been longing to see a water-baby, although assured by the professor that they do not exist. Even when he catches Tom in his net, he refuses to believe the evidence of his eyes, and classifies Tom, to Tom’s great indignation, as ‘a large pink Holothurian, with hands’ or ‘a Cephalopod’. Tom escapes the fate of being kept in an aquarium or pickled in a jar of spirits by biting the professor’s finger until he lets him go. The story navigates between the scientific observation of natural phenomena and a world of make-believe: as Kingsley says, ‘this is all a fairy story, and only fun and pretence; and, therefore, you are not to believe a word of it, even if it is true’. At its best, it enters a mythic realm. Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby and Mrs Bedonebyasyoudid are well remembered and have become part of our folklore, but to me the finest passages are those that evoke the beauties of St Brandan’s Isle, the home of the water-babies. Imagining a desirable Christian heaven has proved notoriously difficult, but Kingsley sidesteps the issue by creating a semi-pagan underwater heaven-haven, an Isle of the Blessed beneath the sea. Kingsley’s version of the legend tells us that St Brandan, having failed in his mission to convert the Irish, sailed away to the west to an earthly Paradise in the Atlantic, linked by Celtic mythology to Plato’s lost Atlantis, where he preached to sea birds and fish and waterbabies. Kingsley describes the flowers that come from the island – ‘the Cornish heath, the Cornish moneywort, and the delicate Venus’s hair, and the London-pride which covers the Kerry mountains, and the little pink butterwort of Devon . . .’ Even more wonderful than the flora are the rocks, for Tom found that
the isle stood on pillars, and that its roots were full of caves. There were pillars of black basalt, like Staffa; and pillars of green and crimson serpentine, like Kynance; and pillars ribboned with red and white and yellow sandstone, like Livermead . . . all curtained and draped with sea-weeds, purple and crimson, green and brown; and strewn with soft white sand, on which the water-babies sleep every night.
This is indeed very heaven. We can get quite close to it by visiting the Natural History Museum in Oxford, itself a cabinet of curiosities, where the cloisters and the carved stone piers and the pillars of alabaster and serpentine also bear witness to the Victorian love of the natural world, and sing to the glory of creation. The magnificent building belongs to exactly the same historical period as The Water-Babies and housed important debates on evolutionary biology. It is a Victorian wonderland, a brave new world of discovery.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 66 © Margaret Drabble 2020 The illustrations in this piece are by W. Heath Robinson


About the contributor

Margaret Drabble DBE is a novelist and critic. After a brief, inglorious career as an actress with the Royal Shakespeare Company she became a full-time writer. She is the author of nineteen novels, most recently The Dark Flood Rises (2016), and has also edited the Fifth and Sixth editions of the Oxford Companion to English Literature.

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