Where have you gone Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby?

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[1], 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[2] 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.


[1] 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’).

[2] As a totally useless piece of trivia, Kingsley is credited with inventing the word ‘cuddles’ which first appeared in Water-Babies.

8 thoughts on “Where have you gone Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby?

  1. Thank you so much for this piece, which I came across while googling “Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby” – a character who had stuck with me since first hearing about her in assembly at Junior School. Like you, I’d forgotten so much of the rest of the story, and your advice has now spared me from rereading it!

    1. Ha thanks for the feedback. Despite, the current views about Water Babies, I’m grateful for the early assimilation of the concept of doing as you would be done by, a focus for living that I really still believe in. All the best. Frances

  2. I was fortunate enough to live in a mixed-religious household, CoE, RC, Methodist, only grandmother went to church mainly to take me to Sunday School. However my Methodist father was very much Mr. Doasyouwouldbedoneby, and his mantra has stuck with me for decades (I’m 73 and learnt this when of infant-school age). The family were veracious readers, so I became one too, we each had book club subscriptions – though I’m paying the price of not having enough shelves for all the books I inherited plus ones bought over the years. The Water Babies story was read to me as a youngster, and later I could of course read it for myself. I had in fact forgotten that Mrs D was from the Water Babies – just remembered the two opposing characters. Ah such memories. Thank you.

    1. Lovely to get your comments. Feel your pain about the accumulation of books. I recently moved into a small apartment and had to make some difficult choices on the book front. Donating them to Rotary for their book sale took some of the pain away. Glad to have revived some happy memories. Best wishes. Frances

  3. Well! For decades I thought Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby was an Enid Blyton character! I remember reading about her as a young child (obviously at the time of reading numerous Enid Blyton books!) and although details were vague, the sentiment has stayed with me. My apologies to many school pupils for referencing her incorrectly in my lectures after they had been unkind on the playground….ooops!

  4. Here is an amazing thing…

    Today I and my close friend Dawn for over ten years were walking around a National Trust venue of house and garden at ‘Nymans’ at Handcross near Horsham. They usually have a small second-hand bookshop where donated books are sold a low prices to supplement the Trust’s income.

    I noticed a copy of “Water Babies”; it was in poor condition, and I already have a good illustrated copy in my bookshelves so didn’t buy it.

    Pointing it out to Dawn, who had never read it and only knew a couple of snippets about it as a children’s book; I said in conversation:-
    “Water Babies” was one of the first books I read when I learned to read, and it had a profound impression on me that has persisted all my life. It gave me a clear insight into an important moral principle… that you should never do things others that you wouldn’t like done to yourself”. I went onto say that this was the reason I cannot understand the despicable things humans can and will do to others. I explained very briefly the story line about Tom, and Ellie, his rushing away from chastisement, and drowning falling into the water, then the fantasy life as a ‘water baby.
    . . . and that the moral principle I mentioned that had such a deep effect upon me was enshrined in the character of Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby.

    Now here’s the amazing bit… I couldn’t remember the name of other lady who taught Tom that _retribution_ was the result of doing bad things to others: so looked it up on my mobile phone… and clicked on the above article of yours!!
    I was so amazed I read most of it out to Dawn being,.. my so pleased to find that someone else said practically verbatim what I had just explained!
    It’s nice to know someone else was affected by, and taught, and put into practise the same moral principle, from the same children’s book, at the same early age in life. . . amazing coincidence too!

    Douglas Denny. Chichester. UK.

    1. Hi Douglas — thanks for your lovely feedback and for the commonality of thought! I really love the idea of do as you would be done by as a life philosophy and I believe that if one does apply that in life, it is an incredibly effective moral compass. I just wish that the be done by as you did piece slotted in just as neatly.
      Co-incidentally, although I live in New Zealand now, I know Chichester and area very well. My mother’s parents lived there for years, firstly in South, then North Muhdham and eventually they moved into Chichester. I grew up in the Highlands near Aviemore and we used to make bi-annual migrations south. At Christmas, we all went and drove through the snowy nights, spotting trees in people’s windows (before all the bypasses or motorways took travelers around the towns). In summer, it was usually just mum and two kids. We’d get the sleeper train to Euston, spend a day in London doing the sights, then a blissful and what felt very exotic couple of weeks in the extreme (after a village in the Highlands) sophistication of Chichester. The market, the Chinese chop, the Witterings, Bognor, Hickstead, Winbledon on COLOUR TV (stawbs of course) etc etc. So many happy memories. Thanks for reminding me and all the best for the new year.

  5. Dear Frances,

    Thank you for your charming reply.

    Charles Kingsley has proven that the pen and word (and an idea of fundamental moral principle) can indeed be mightier than the sword: and is ubiquitous, affecting perhaps millions across the globe!
    So you know of Chichester and area. I was born and brought up in Barrow at the foot of the Lake District which I know well.
    By a circuitous life’s route… I am now lucky to live in Bosham, and practically daily walk to the oystershed slipway, can look East into the harbour, or watch the sunset in the West across towards Chidham and see the yachts and small boats moored along the creek, relax and breathe-in the sea air.
    It is always different – every time – practically minute to minute – changing like a kalidoscope. . . the sky colour, cloud formations; the tidal state in the creek; the seasonal changes looking across to Chidham; the wind in your face (SW as usual for the South coast of Britain); with the sea birds calls on the harbour mudflats as a background chorus . . . it never fails to be uplifting and give cause to be grateful to be alive. I know where to walk when Churchill’s black dog is on your shoulder!

    I count myself very lucky indeed to have found myself in life living in Bosham.

    With best regards for the New Year,

    Douglas Denny.

    P. S. One of my best friends who lives in Fishbourne is a New Zealander called Bruce Munn. He married his English wife Alison when she was travelling / staying in NZ, I think in the 1960s but came to live over here. He’s the most trustworthy and rock solid person I know. He can also fix anything: tractors; cars; machines of any description with a pair of pliars and Number 5 bailing wire! 😄.

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