I was a very late baby and naturally, all my cousins were adult and rather boring to the kid I was. It really wasn’t much fun being dragged over to go to supper with them except for one small and wondrous reason. My elderly aunt had given my cousin and his wife the book ‘Waterbabies’ by Charles Kingsley and illustrated by Linley Sambourne. This was a book to lift a child out of a boring adult world into one of fantasy and delight, sorrow and battles. The whole miserable cousin visit was worth it just for the brief glance I got at this book each time.
I say brief glance as that is all it was. Once I had seen two illustrations or read three paragraphs my cousin’s wife took it away as ‘I might damage it, being only a child’. Actually, I was very careful with my things, which are still in good enough condition for my grandsons to play with, but there it was, a wicked tease and I never did get to see all of it.
The problem was psychological of course. My cousin’s wife had wanted kids and my cousin did not and would not alter his stance. My appearance rubbed salt in those wounds that became apparent to me when I had my own dear little daughters. My cousin and his wife developed convenient colds/flu at the event of each of the girl’s baptisms and therefore didn’t come to even one of them. They were busted on the last occasion when my French aunt decided to go visit after the celebration of our third daughter as she thought she would get some sort of evening refreshment, not that she wanted much as we had laid a good spread. Well, they didn’t have colds, or they had been cured by a miracle by the time she got there and my aunt didn’t get any refreshment offered aside from a hot beverage. She had to take herself to a restaurant after waiting in vain for some sandwiches and cake. Did I mention my cousin and his wife were mean, too? Anyhow, they never once got to see my girls while we lived close by, not that I considered it a great loss in light of the book tease that I feared would be repeated. We were simply told it wasn’t convenient to visit. Fair enough.
Naturally the book was not passed down to me in their will. It went to my cousin’s wife’s family, who had no small children. Not really fair when it came from our side of the family, but there it is. Anyhow, now I have found a copy and it is on its way. Printed in 1908, it is the unabridged version; in other words it hasn’t been hacked to death by Puffin, who are offering their modern copies for sale.
A writer’s work is very much an essence of the writer and essentially a writer’s voice. Altering words and taking out whole phrases because they are ‘politically incorrect’ is to desecrate the book and its original intention. Kingsley was a Victorian moralist, who thought to teach life lessons to children through his work, which was also a swipe at some of the things he found to be objectional in his place in time. Bits poking gentle fun at America have been cut, as have a lot of references to the social inequality in the UK. I believe the book was even banned at one time as the little chimney sweep was referred to as ‘black’. Well, he swept chimneys by climbing up inside them. What color would he be? But someone decided it was derogatory to black people and so it was banned. Personally, I happen to think the real offense was done by the person making such a decision, comparing clean black people to a dirty little sweep. But whatever, the book, warts and all is on its way to me and I shall finally get to read it all the way through and see every illustration. For a short time a child’s sense of wonder will be returned in full measure.