Tuesday, 24 April 2012


Today was Little Bean’s first proper swimming lesson. Despite being on high alert for tears and tantrums I’m happy to say it passed rather…er…swimmingly. Everyone got wet, kicked, splashed and had a giggle. Tick.

On the way home my mind wandered and I started thinking about the old children’s classic: The Water- Babies: A Fairy Tale for a Land Baby, which I remember being read to during storytime when I was 9 or 10. 

At the time I thought it was an epic book and I would never have attempted to read it on my own. I’m an instant gratification kind of girl and if I know I won't be able to finish it within a few days I’m not interested. Probably why (shockingly) I’ve never finished Shantaram. I do recall loving The Water-Babies though – and it not being an entirely comfortable read – but that’s all I could remember. Thank goodness then for Google, Wikipedia and Amazon, who furnished me with this blurb.

Tom, a poor orphan, is employed by the villainous chimney-sweep, Grimes, to climb up inside flues to clear away the soot. While engaged in this dreadful task, he loses his way and emerges in the bedroom of Ellie, the young daughter of the house who mistakes him for a thief. He runs away, and, hot and bothered, he slips into a cooling stream, falls asleep, and becomes a Water Baby. In his new life, he meets all sorts of aquatic creatures, including an engaging old lobster, other water babies, and at last reaches St Branden's Isle where he encounters the fierce Mrs Bedonebyeasyoudid and the motherly Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby. After a long and arduous quest to the Other-end-of-Nowhere young Tom achieves his heart's desire.

Of course the villainous chimney sweep is called Grimes!

Queen of the Fairies.
Illustration by Warwick Goble.
Published in 1863 it is described by one reviewer as ‘Alice in Wonderland under water’ which is probably not too far off.

This all rang bells and I’ve now ordered a copy to see if it’s still as wonderful as I remember. I'm also heartened to see that it's not quite as epic as my 9 year old self thought at the time.

What surprised me in my quick search though was learning that, in the style of most Victorian-era novels, the book reflects common prejudices of the time,  including dismissive and insulting references to Jews, blacks, Catholics, the Irish etc.

Clearly, I don’t remember any of these references but it did get me thinking to other classics, many of which must contain similar bigotries.

Have you come across any glaring prejudices when reading books to your little ones? Enid Blyton, for instance, came under a considerable amount of criticism for some of her books (Noddy aside) which is such a shame because I loved reading her when I was little. Do kids pick up on the inferences, do you think? Perhaps subliminally it affects them? Or are we as adults reading too much into it? 

And if you do have an ancient-looking copy of The Water-Babies gathering dust on your bookshelves,  it might be worth getting it valued. Some editions are selling for over £2000.

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