[Hawley is an American educator and critic specializing in Victorian and Modern British literature. In the following essay, he examines The Water Babies as a vehicle for instruction designed by Kingsley to address nineteenth-century social concerns as well as the Darwinian theory of evolution. Hawley notes that Kingsley's treatment of adult themes in this children's fantasy served as a model for such later fiction writers as Lewis Carroll and J. R. R. Tolkien.]
Does not each of us, in coming into this world, go through a transformation just as wonderful as that of a sea-egg, or a butterfly? and do not reason and analogy, as well as Scripture, tell us that transformation is not the last? and that, though what we shall be, we know not, yet we are here but as the crawling caterpillar, and shall be hereafter as the perfect fly. (The Water-Babies)
Tutor to the Prince of Wales and first Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University, Charles Kingsley (1819–75) was well-known in his own day as an educator and as a strong advocate for Thomas Arnold's educational reforms. Kingsley became especially vocal as a proponent of the Greek ideal of forming a sound mind in a sound body—so vocal, in fact, that his suggestion that sports should play a major role at Eton, Harrow, and the other training grounds for the leaders of the Empire became caricatured as “muscular Christianity.”
As the tag suggests, however, the goal of education for Kingsley, whether it was to be education of the mind or of the body, was ultimately religious. He was, after all, an Anglican clergyman and chaplain to Queen Victoria, and the emphasis in his pedagogy is highly moral: while granting that any knowledge, even religious, must be based on observation, he writes that the principal aim of education is to “enable us hereafter to make ourselves and all around us, wiser, better, and happier.” If more empirical knowledge does not produce a better human being, it comes under Kingsley's attack.
Furthermore, like Dickens in Nicholas Nickleby (1839) and Hard Times (1854), he worries that schools have been taken over by the “reforming,” statistics-minded educators—the Gradgrinds and the M'Choakumchilds. What is required to reverse this deadening trend, he feels, is not more “facts” but a love of learning, and this can best be nurtured by exploiting the child's natural inclination for the fanciful. At the same time, in preparation for the highly moralistic goal that Kingsley sets for education, the student must first be taught to see. While encouraging the development of the imagination, therefore, Kingsley did not conceive of children's literature as a refuge from the real world. It was to be a non-threatening, imaginative preparation for the assumption of one's Christian responsibilities in a world of real, complex, and sometimes fearsome adult problems. “Correct” perceptions in childhood—that is, perceptions that had been coached and clarified by the narrator—would prompt strong emotions in the young reader; these emotions, in turn, would compel moral actions in the same readers...