Reverend Richard Coles on The Water Babies: how a vicar saved a chimney sweep

Richard Coles on how Charles Kingsley’s 1862 novel combined God, science and social outrage to make the world a better place

The Water Babies, the Reverend Charles Kingsley’s 1862 novel about the young chimney sweep, Tom, who finds redemption from the horrors of his work by means of becoming an aquatic creature, is one of those perennial children’s classics that is not so perennial any more. In parts political tract, scientific satire, Christian parable as well as children’s fantasy, it is a moving and uncomfortable book when read as child, and is even more unsettling when read as an adult. It emerged from a sense of social outrage, took on the big questions of belief and biology, and is eye-catching for a work by a 19th-century vicar in that reveals a world created and ruled not by gods, but by goddesses. Not only did it have a huge effect on young readers,

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