Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies is a fundamentally unpleasant piece of Victoriana suffering from many of the vices of the era. It is preachy, condescendingly moralistic, racist and—as the following passage makes clear—sadistic as well. Our hero Tom has drowned and been reconstituted as a water baby, but he still has some lessons to learn before achieving grace. The fairies decide that one way to keep Tom on the narrow path is to allow him to witness hell—a kind of ‘scared straight’, water baby-style—administered by the vaguely fascistic Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid. She claims to dislike her job but the author enters into his description of that job with apparent relish, and carefully chooses the victims so that the child readers are inclined to cheer the business on. This is torture porn for children, as only a Victorian clergyman can offer.
Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid Is Coming
By Charles Kingsley
The other children warned him, and said, “Take care what you are at. Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid is coming.” But Tom never heeded them, being quite riotous with high spirits and good luck, till, one Friday morning early, Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid came indeed.
A very tremendous lady she was; and when the children saw her they all stood in a row, very upright indeed, and smoothed down their bathing dresses, and put their hands behind them, just as if they were going to be examined by the inspector.
And she had on a black bonnet, and a black shawl, and no crinoline at all; and a pair of large green spectacles, and a great hooked nose, hooked so much that the bridge of it stood quite up above her eyebrows; and under her arm she carried a great birch-rod. Indeed, she was so ugly that Tom was tempted to make faces at her: but did not; for he did not admire the look of the birch-rod under her arm.
And she looked at the children one by one, and seemed very much pleased with them, though she never asked them one question about how they were behaving; and then began giving them all sorts of nice sea-things—sea-cakes, sea-apples, sea-oranges, sea-bullseyes, sea-toffee; and to the very best of all she gave sea-ices, made out of sea-cows’ cream, which never melt under water.
And, if you don’t quite believe me, then just think—What is more cheap and plentiful than sea-rock? Then why should there not be sea-toffee as well? And every one can find sea-lemons (ready quartered too) if they will look for them at low tide; and sea-grapes too sometimes, hanging in bunches; and, if you will go to Nice, you will find the fish-market full of sea-fruit, which they call “frutta di mare”: though I suppose they call them “fruits de mer” now, out of compliment to that most successful, and therefore most immaculate, potentate who is seemingly desirous of inheriting the blessing pronounced on those who remove their neighbours’ land-mark. And, perhaps, that is the very reason why the place is called Nice, because there are so many nice things in the sea there: at least, if it is not, it ought to be.
Now little Tom watched all these sweet things given away, till his mouth watered, and his eyes grew as round as an owl’s. For he hoped that his turn would come at last; and so it did. For the lady called him up, and held out her fingers with something in them, and popped it into his mouth; and, lo and behold, it was a nasty cold hard pebble.
“You are a very cruel woman,” said he, and began to whimper.
“And you are a very cruel boy; who puts pebbles into the sea-anemones’ mouths, to take them in, and make them fancy that they had caught a good dinner! As you did to them, so I must do to you.”
“Who told you that?” said Tom.
“You did yourself, this very minute.”
Tom had never opened his lips; so he was very much taken aback indeed.
“Yes; every one tells me exactly what they have done wrong; and that without knowing it themselves. So there is no use trying to hide anything from me. Now go, and be a good boy, and I will put no more pebbles in your mouth, if you put none in other creatures’.”
“I did not know there was any harm in it,” said Tom.
“Then you know now. People continually say that to me: but I tell them, if you don’t know that fire burns, that is no reason that it should not burn you; and if you don’t know that dirt breeds fever, that is no reason why the fevers should not kill you. The lobster did not know that there was any harm in getting into the lobster-pot; but it caught him all the same.”
“Dear me,” thought Tom, “she knows everything!” And so she did, indeed.
“And so, if you do not know that things are wrong, that is no reason why you should not be punished for them; though not as much, not as much, my little man” (and the lady looked very kindly, after all), “as if you did know.”
“Well, you are a little hard on a poor lad,” said Tom.
“Not at all; I am the best friend you ever had in all your life. But I will tell you; I cannot help punishing people when they do wrong. I like it no more than they do; I am often very, very sorry for them, poor things: but I cannot help it. If I tried not to do it, I should do it all the same. For I work by machinery, just like an engine; and am full of wheels and springs inside; and am wound up very carefully, so that I cannot help going.”
“Was it long ago since they wound you up?” asked Tom. For he thought, the cunning little fellow, “She will run down some day: or they may forget to wind her up, as old Grimes used to forget to wind up his watch when he came in from the public-house; and then I shall be safe.”
“I was wound up once and for all, so long ago, that I forget all about it.”
“Dear me,” said Tom, “you must have been made a long time!”
“I never was made, my child; and I shall go for ever and ever; for I am as old as Eternity, and yet as young as Time.”
And there came over the lady’s face a very curious expression—very solemn, and very sad; and yet very, very sweet. And she looked up and away, as if she were gazing through the sea, and through the sky, at something far, far off; and as she did so, there came such a quiet, tender, patient, hopeful smile over her face that Tom thought for the moment that she did not look ugly at all. And no more she did; for she was like a great many people who have not a pretty feature in their faces, and yet are lovely to behold, and draw little children’s hearts to them at once; because though the house is plain enough, yet from the windows a beautiful and good spirit is looking forth.
And Tom smiled in her face, she looked so pleasant for the moment. And the strange fairy smiled too, and said:
“Yes. You thought me very ugly just now, did you not?”
Tom hung down his head, and got very red about the ears.
“And I am very ugly. I am the ugliest fairy in the world; and I shall be, till people behave themselves as they ought to do. And then I shall grow as handsome as my sister, who is the loveliest fairy in the world; and her name is Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby. So she begins where I end, and I begin where she ends; and those who will not listen to her must listen to me, as you will see. Now, all of you run away, except Tom; and he may stay and see what I am going to do. It will be a very good warning for him to begin with, before he goes to school.
“Now, Tom, every Friday I come down here and call up all who have ill-used little children and serve them as they served the children.”
And at that Tom was frightened, and crept under a stone; which made the two crabs who lived there very angry, and frightened their friend the butter-fish into flapping hysterics: but he would not move for them.
And first she called up all the doctors who give little children so much physic (they were most of them old ones; for the young ones have learnt better, all but a few army surgeons, who still fancy that a baby’s inside is much like a Scotch grenadier’s), and she set them all in a row; and very rueful they looked; for they knew what was coming.
And first she pulled all their teeth out; and then she bled them all round: and then she dosed them with calomel, and jalap, and salts and senna, and brimstone and treacle; and horrible faces they made; and then she gave them a great emetic of mustard and water, and no basons; and began all over again; and that was the way she spent the morning.
And then she called up a whole troop of foolish ladies, who pinch up their children’s waists and toes; and she laced them all up in tight stays, so that they were choked and sick, and their noses grew red, and their hands and feet swelled; and then she crammed their poor feet into the most dreadfully tight boots, and made them all dance, which they did most clumsily indeed; and then she asked them how they liked it; and when they said not at all, she let them go: because they had only done it out of foolish fashion, fancying it was for their children’s good, as if wasps’ waists and pigs’ toes could be pretty, or wholesome, or of any use to anybody.
Then she called up all the careless nursery-maids, and stuck pins into them all over, and wheeled them about in perambulators with tight straps across their stomachs and their heads and arms hanging over the side, till they were quite sick and stupid, and would have had sun-strokes: but, being under the water, they could only have water-strokes; which, I assure you, are nearly as bad, as you will find if you try to sit under a mill-wheel. And mind—when you hear a rumbling at the bottom of the sea, sailors will tell you that it is a ground-swell: but now you know better. It is the old lady wheeling the maids about in perambulators.
And by that time she was so tired, she had to go to luncheon.
And after luncheon she set to work again, and called up all the cruel schoolmasters—whole regiments and brigades of them; and when she saw them, she frowned most terribly, and set to work in earnest, as if the best part of the day’s work was to come. More than half of them were nasty, dirty, frowzy, grubby, smelly old monks, who, because they dare not hit a man of their own size, amused themselves with beating little children instead; as you may see in the picture of old Pope Gregory (good man and true though he was, when he meddled with things which he did understand), teaching children to sing their fa-fa-mi-fa with a cat-o’-nine-tails under his chair: but, because they never had any children of their own, they took into their heads (as some folks do still) that they were the only people in the world who knew how to manage children: and they first brought into England, in the old Anglo-Saxon times, the fashion of treating free boys, and girls too, worse than you would treat a dog or a horse: but Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid has caught them all long ago; and given them many a taste of their own rods; and much good may it do them.
And she boxed their ears, and thumped them over the head with rulers, and pandied their hands with canes, and told them that they told stories, and were this and that bad sort of people; and the more they were very indignant, and stood upon their honour, and declared they told the truth, the more she declared they were not, and that they were only telling lies; and at last she birched them all round soundly with her great birch-rod and set them each an imposition of three hundred thousand lines of Hebrew to learn by heart before she came back next Friday. And at that they all cried and howled so, that their breaths came all up through the sea like bubbles out of soda-water; and that is one reason of the bubbles in the sea. There are others: but that is the one which principally concerns little boys. And by that time she was so tired that she was glad to stop; and, indeed, she had done a very good day’s work. From Charles Kingsley, The Water Babies (1863)