When I was a boy I lived on the coast, and I went to sleep every night with my mind peacefully roving toward the dark water of the bay. The bay was murky, but in my dreams the water became so clear I could feel my eyes straining from the effort to extend their range, to locate some finite point in that endless crystal void. The creatures I saw gliding about underwater were always mys-teriously benevolent. They were not fish usually, but half-glimpsed amalgams of real and imagined animals, adapted—as I apparently was—for underwater life. They had been waiting for me to appear. The water’s sudden clarity seemed to have roused them, as if until now they had been physically entrapped in their gloomy element like prehistoric animals in a peat bog. I felt released too, beyond the reach of wakeful caution, beyond the jurisdiction of physical laws. I could breathe, I could range wherever my will would take me, soaring along the contours of the sea bottom or spiraling up toward the surface, into the high altitudes of the ocean atmosphere.
All my life I have dreamed one variant or another of that dream. I have had a passion to be underwater. How this passion developed I’m not sure, but I remember the longing I felt—the brutal, unappeasable longing of a very young child—when my mother used to read to me, night after night, a story called The Water Babies.
The Water Babies is a novel for children written in 1862 by a strange, sex-tormented Victorian cleric named Charles Kingsley. According to his biographer, Susan Chitty, Kingsley “could only accept the idea of carnal relations with his wife once he had convinced himself that the body was holy and the act of sex a sacrament in which he was the priest and his partner the victim.” Kingsley sorted through his obsessions by writing verse and best-selling novels and by producing a series of disturbing drawings that depicted him and his wife, Fanny, in rapturous postures of self-mortification—drawings that, in the words of Nathaniel Hawthorne, “no pure man could have made or allowed himself to look at.”
And yet purity was Kingsley’s lifelong ideal. The Water Babies is the story of a poor and abused boy named Tom, whose work as a chimney sweep has left him habitually covered with grime. While servicing the chimneys of a country gentleman’s estate, he finds himself in the presence of a sleeping girl whose angelic cleanliness makes him quake with desire and shame. When she awakes and sees him by her bed, she screams, and he flees from the house. Finally he comes to a clear brook and tells himself, “I must be clean, I must be clean.” Entering the water, he falls into “the quietest, sunniest, cosiest sleep that ever he had in his life” and wakes up reborn as a water baby, a little naked human form four inches long, “with a pretty lace collar of gills.” In this form Tom goes through a series of adventures involving a courtly salmon, a ferocious mother otter, and a dim-witted lobster. The story grows increasingly weird as its author’s great throbbing themes of purgative redemption and “muscular Christianity” crowd out any hope of narrative coherence.
The version of The Water Babies that was read to me as a child was much simplified, a heavily illustrated condensation of the story in rhyming quatrains, which appeared in a popular series of children’s literature called My Book House. I still have that volume, and when I open its mildewed pages to “Verses on Kingsley’s Water Babies,” I can recall the wondrous sense of possibility that held me spell-bound for so many childhood evenings. Perhaps my mother, who never learned to swim and who has had a lifelong terror