The Victorians really knew how to write children’s books. Admittedly, there was a fair amount of ‘cautionary tale’ literature, for example “Foolish Matilda played with matches/Fell in the fire and burned to ashes”, but serious literature for children in those times usually involved a spiritual journey and a lot of astonishing metaphor. Even if you’re not a child, and don’t have one to read to, you might want to take a look at George Macdonald’s “The Princess and the Goblin”. His books were a primary inspiration for C.S. Lewis when he wrote the Narnia books.
But tonight I’m thinking about “The Water Babies”, by Charles Kingsley. It’s a strange, difficult, convoluted book, and children (and their parents) will make different things of it at different times of their lives. I read it when I was a very little boy, and read it over and over as I grew older. It was the book that built me, that got me ready for the life I had to lead. It is beautiful, profound, and unsparing. It’s the story of a chimney sweep, Tom, who becomes a Water Baby, and travels a long way to find healing and grace for himself, and for the man who, before he was a Water Baby, tormented him. It is also a story of the sea, and of running water and living creatures. And, central in it, in disguise, is the Triple Goddess.
Through one part of the book she takes the form of Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby. She is loving and generous. Water babies climb over her, play with her hair, and love her. She pops sweets (we didn’t know about sugar in the nineteenth century) into their mouths. She is a focus of perfect maternal unconditional love. The mystery of Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby, is that you have to do exactly as her name implies. Love has its own inexorably logic, and cruelty, which Tom learned in his previous life, demands the intervention of Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby’s sister, Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid. You might see the two sisters as the Queen of Pentacles and the Queen of Swords. At the centre of the Garden is the Queen of Love. She welcomes all living creatures into unconditional love and joy. Act with malice or cruelty, and the garden disappears.
The book is not preachy. It is utterly engaging, eccentric, a little prickly. Read it to a nine-year old. Or read it to yourself. Those Victorians didn’t pull their punches. They knew that children have hard lives, and that children need to hear the hard things and be ready for them. The book probably (no exaggeration) saved my soul.