(1819 - 1875)
“Except a living man, there is nothing more wonderful than a book”

Posterity has been kinder to Charles Kingsley's novel The Water Babies than it has been to him. Born into a Devonshire clergyman’s family in 1819, Kingsley became first curate and then rector of Eversley near Reading. Unlike his father, for whom the Church was a necessary career choice, Kingsley went for ordination after a religious conversion. Heavily influenced (like Charles Dodgson) by the theologian F.D. Maurice, he became a leading Christian Socialist. This earned him the much-disliked label which contrasted with his ongoing poor state of health: “muscular Christian.” He preferred the term “militant Christian” with its overtones of political action and social change. His preacher’s voice was to come across loud and clear in the stories he went on to write.

Whereas Kingsley’s earlier novels, such as Alton Locke (1850), Hypatia (1853) and Westward Ho! (1855), show evidence of his wide range of historical and scientific interests, his best-received work The Water Babies (1863) integrated them into a fantasy tale that had a political edge. Prompted by his youngest child’s request for a story, Kingsley disappeared to his study and emerged later that day with the first chapter. There he introduced Tom the chimney boy, unwashed, unlettered and unpaid. Dropping into the world of the Water Babies, Tom's exploratory quest is ultimately a course of moral instruction and personal redemption combined. He emerges back into the world of the Land Babies as Kingsley’s kind of hero, a scientist, inventor and engineer. Kingsley’s interest in flora, fauna, all kinds of natural phenomena and the theory of evolution itself is evident in the text and made it ripe for the illustrations that have so powerfully added to its appeal across the decades. J. Noel Paton provided two in black and white for the first edition, with Warwick Goble, Jessie Willcox-Smith and Mabel Lucie Attwell all supplying subsequent ones.

A bitter and public battle with John Henry Newman - still capable of sparking heated arguments in modern history journals today - did Kingsley no favours: there is little doubt that the novel was the medium that best showed the exploratory and innovative sides of this quintessentially Victorian figure. After the Water Babies, he produced two more, Hereward the Wake (1865) and Madam How and Lady Why (1870) before his early death in 1875. 

Please scroll down to see our current stock of Kingsley's work, including rare first editions and illustrated examples.

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The Water Babies