Sifting through GoodReads the other day, I came across a section of reviews about a book I loved as a child — Charles Kingsley’s fantasy story The Water-Babies (1863). About half of the reviewers were people like me who remembered this book fondly from childhood. The rest were new to the story. From the comments, it’s clearly very dated and the reviews were mixed to say the least. It was good to see that the magic had remained for quite a few of the second timers and somewhat surprisingly caught the heartstrings of some of the newbies. “A load of smug, moralistic old twaddle,” would be a synthesis of the remainder.
Water-Babies is one of those gloriously stentorian and self-righteous Victorian tales known as a didactic moral fable. It is full of the era’s upper class, Anglican prejudices against just about anyone who did not qualify as “one of us”; Catholics, Irish, Jews, the poor, blacks … even Americans. Because of its now very non-PC attitudes, the book has largely fallen out of favour, but it was a mainstay of British children’s literature for decades after its publication. It was one of my childhood favourites and my sister and I listened wide-eyed as our mother read it to us and breathed magic into this story of aquatic adventure full of fantastical creatures.
Semi-satirical in form, the over-arching theme is one of Christian redemption. Kingsley, an Anglican minister, used pertinent character names like Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby to put his points across. Her antithesis was Mrs Bedonebyasyoudid who demonstrated in very tangible ways the consequences of doing bad stuff. All very hellfire and brimstone! Sitting under this primary theme were several others: the wrongness of child labour, the atrocious treatment in England of the urban poor and also the narrow-minded thinking of many of the scientists of the day. Kingsley was a contemporary of Darwin whose Origin of the Species he somewhat surprisingly (being God-squad) strongly supported.
The plot focuses on a young chimney sweep Tom, who meets upper class girl, Ellie whilst sweeping the chimneys in her house, is chased away for his presumption in talking to her, falls in a river and seemingly drowns. He is then changed into a Water-Baby and begins a journey which serves as a moral education. Ellie becomes a Water-Baby shortly after Tom and joins him on this journey which concludes as he helps his cruel former master Mr Grimes (who is being punished for his mid-deeds, including beating Tom) achieve redemption. By showing willingness to do ‘right things’ he doesn’t like or want to, Tom earns himself a return ticket to life and human form. Back in the ‘real’ world he becomes a great man of science. He and Ellie (similarly redeemed) are re-united although the book states they never marry. So, the upshot is that they lived sort of happily ever after. Disney would have hated it — no love’s true kiss for this pair!
However, I didn’t start writing with the intention of producing a synopsis or critique of Water-Babies. While the story of the book has faded into little other than fondness in my mind, Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby, left a lasting imprint, and has been something of a guiding light in my life since. The concept of doing as I would be done by has always seemed a very simple aspiration. The question, ‘would I like it if someone did this to me?’ is a sure-fired way of identifying whether an action I’m thinking about is supportable or not. A sort of moral litmus test. I’ve lived my life in the general belief that it doesn’t much matter what you do as long as you don’t hurt others, or yourself, along the way. Having said that, I’m not a saint by any means. I’ve lived a full and varied life. But I do care how my actions affect the people around me and I do my best not to create collateral damage as I skip my merry way through life.
Seriously, it’s been a no-brainer. When I follow the do as you would be done by principle, I feel good. When I don’t, it disturbs me and I feel bad, sometimes even sick. Let me quickly add that you don’t have to be a doormat to do as you would be done by; there are always options and choices which allow us to achieve our own objectives without trashing other people along the way. Of course, doing as you would be done by doesn’t in any way guarantee that other people will do the same.
It often feels that common decency and respect for others have become ‘old hat’. Yet they are the ingredients that make societies civilized. Courtesy and manners are about acknowledging the kindnesses, cleverness and care of the people around us. But they’re also about restraint. About not just saying the first thing that comes to mind. Not responding in kind to other people’s rudeness or anger. Respect allows us freedom of expression without fear, providing there is understanding that rights also come with responsibilities. Respect for the law allows us to live in peace and safety instead of anarchy. Respect for ourselves is a vital part of leading happy fulfilling lives. Respect for others and for our environment also allows families, social groupings, organisations, countries and our much vaunted ‘international community’ to flourish. This respect includes having at least a nodding acquaintance with the concept of a common good instead of the cult of me that has become the bedrock of modern life.
Clearly, respect has to be earned. but if we lose respect for the people and things around us, we cease to care about our world and become uncivilized. Disrespect in the conventional sense is everywhere; noisy neighbours whose booming stereos spoil our weekends, boy racers grinding their gears and revving the hell out of their cars at 2am, people walking five-abreast along a pavement who force you into the gutter … and those are just the tip of the iceberg.
Coming back to Water-Babies, the reviews I read didn’t inspire me to re-read it. I was tempted, but decided to keep my memories as they are. However, I do think it’s a pity that we can’t ignore the bigotry of the time such books were written in and take the eternal currency of their messages on board. The world would be a better place if more people embraced the do as you would be done by creed so individuals start being nicer and less self-obsessed people who understand that working towards the greater good is, in fact, good.
 Despite several recent attempts to find redemption for the book itself — a 2013 update for BBC 4 brought the tale to a newer age with Tom having been trafficked from Nigeria as a child labourer — it’s attitudes don’t resonate with the sensitivities of contemporary audiences (well at least some of them … step away from the ‘Trump bashing moment’).
 As a totally useless piece of trivia, Kingsley is credited with inventing the word ‘cuddles’ which first appeared in Water-Babies.