Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 10, 2019

Rare Book Week 2019: The Medieval Darwin, presented by Dr Anne Holloway

The Spouse and I made a rare trip to the CBD today for a Rare Book Week event.  There are no trains running from our side of the city into the CBD and roads are blocked off all over the place because of Victoria’s Big Build so getting there was every bit as horrible as we had expected, but it was definitely worth it.

The session was called The Medieval Darwin, presented by Dr Anne Holloway from Monash University, and I loved every minute of it.  This was the blurb:

Charles Kingsley paved the way for twentieth-century fantasists such as C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. He is equally well known for his enthusiasm for Darwin, and his role in the professionalisation of History. Through his works held at Monash Special Collections, Anne Holloway will explore the re-purposing of medieval ideals developed during the crusades to frame and communicate Darwin’s ideals of evolution.

Dr Holloway began by telling us about Charles Kingsley (1819-1875).  Yes, the one who wrote The Water Babies. Now if you look it up at Wikipedia today, you will see from the first paragraph that it was written as part satire in support of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species.  But if like me you read it as a child, that satire probably passed you by entirely and you will not have noticed either that it is a scientifically accurate fairy tale

My copy, inscribed ‘To Lisa, with best wishes from Sheila, Shaun and Andrew, Christmas 1963’ lost its cute dustjacket long ago.   I haven’t read it since 1963 but what I remember of it was that it was a typical 19th century didactic tale, replete with characters like Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby and her counterpart Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid.  Tom, the dirty little chimney-sweep is transformed into a dear little water baby, learns to be good, helps his old Master Grimes to repent, and it all ends up more or less happily ever after (though when Tom is restored to being a human because of his Good Works, he and his friend Ellie never marry because no one ever marries in a fairy tale, below the rank of a prince or princess).

Little did I know! There is much more to The Water Babies than that, and its background is a story in itself…

Charles Kingsley was a pillar of the church, and enjoyed access to the higher echelons of Victorian society (including the Royals) while also doing practical things like forming workers’ cooperatives to alleviate poverty.  But he was also, like other gentlemen of his era, a geologist and naturalist and was made a Fellow of the Royal and Linnean Societies.  And because of his correspondence with Charles Darwin, he received an advance copy of The Origin of Species (1859)…

Kingsley recognised that Darwin had ushered in a new Science era, and a new area of science as well. And although he was a conservative chap in lots of ways, and was (to put it mildly) constrained a little by his profession in the sense that as a Preacher of Note he could hardly choose not to believe in God, he was a fervent supporter of Darwin’s theory.  Along with Thomas Huxley (who was known as The Other Bulldog) he defended Darwin from his critics, and his help was particularly useful because he was a member of the Church Establishment.

The Water Babies illustration (anon)  p141 (Blackie & Son, undated)

And one of the ways he defended Darwin was to write The Water Babies.  It was serialised in Macmillan’s Magazine from 1862-63 and published as a book in 1863.  On display at the session at Tonic House were some beautiful old editions that showcased the vivid illustrations from Dr Holloway’s slideshow.  As you can see at right in my mid-century edition published by Blackie and Son,  20th century editions tend to have more line drawings, and don’t feature Tom looking like a little black ape.  (In fact, my edition has only three illustrations, and none of them show him as a dirty little chimney sweep).

The real intention behind The Water Babies was to popularise Darwin’s theory in a palatable form.  The book depicts Tom’s physical and moral evolution and within its pages the story mocks aspects of the contemporary debate, asserting that getting bogged down in obscure details missed the point entirely, which was, Kingsley thought, about the evolution of proper behaviour through science.  In this respect, he actually went further than Darwin, exploring both the opportunities for advancement through good behaviour and the possibility of regression through bad behaviour.  Apparently Kingsley shared his thoughts about the risk of ‘degeneration’ with Darwin, who then went on to write The Descent of Man in 1871.  (And they quarrelled over it).

Looking at The Water Babies today, I wonder at my ten-year-old self reading it.  It is very cleverly done, because the sly allusions and the satire don’t get in the way of the story from a child’s point of view, but still, some of it would challenge most readers of that age and I can’t fathom now how much of it I understood.

…the great fairy Science, who is likely to be queen of all the fairies for many a year to come, can only do you good, and never do you harm; and instead of fancying, with some people, that your body makes your soul, as if a steam engine could make its own coke; or, with some other people, that your soul has nothing to do with your body, but is only stuck into it like a pin into a pin cushion, to fall out with the first shake; — you will believe the one true,

orthodox,                         inductive,
rational,                           deductive,
philosophical,                   seductive,
logical,                             productive,
irrefragable,                     salutary,
nominalistic,                    comfortable,
and on-all-accounts-to-be-received

doctrine of this wonderful fairy tale; which is, that your soul makes your body, just as a snail makes his shell.  (p.58)

LOL If I looked up ‘irrefragable’ in the dictionary back then, it certainly didn’t lodge in the brain and I had to look it up now.  (It means irrefutable, see here for how to pronounce it).

So where does the Medieval fit into all of this? Well, amongst his other accomplishments, Kingsley was also an historian, at a time when history was not studied as an academic discipline.  Historians were not academics, they were politicians and novelists using history for their own purposes, and Kingsley (who also wrote historical novels) was one of the first to think about history in empirical way.  And he, Dr Holloway told us, was a medievalist who revolutionised the study of the Middle Ages.

The problem with studying the Medieval period in stuffy old Anglican England was that the Middle Ages was indisputably Catholic.  It didn’t resonate.  The period was barbaric: Inquisitions, endless brutal wars, and everyday violence which did not sit well with the dominant Protestant world view of the 19th century.  The Middle Ages needed a makeover, and Kingsley supplied it with his novel Hereward the Wake (1866). He did this by reframing the Catholic past of a rebel who fought William the Conqueror as an evolutionary step towards the Protestant present.  In fact, Hereward’s transformation is not unlike Tom’s evolution in The Water Babies.  An outlaw makes peace with William the Conqueror, chivalry evolves to create a good man — and lo! Proper Protestant Civilisation is the result. (Clearly I need to read this book.  It’s available at Project Gutenberg, if you want to beat me to it.)

Dr Holloway was an entertaining presenter so this was a great start to Rare Book Week.  Many thanks to the organising team!

Ouch! There’s an impressive thunderstorm happening outside and I’d better shut down before the power goes out again…

PS: One of the sessions I had planned to go to this week, was Scattered Leaves, Medieval manuscript fragments in Australian and New Zealand collections presented by Dr Rose Faunce.  The session was to have been about how new technologies are allowing scholars to reconstruct digitally the thousands of medieval manuscripts which today survive in fragmentary form, offering tantalising glimpses of lost works.  Participants were to have been able to see some of the manuscript fragments from collections in Australia and New Zealand, and to learn about the links made to related fragments in collections around the world. The event, however, was cancelled due to the sudden death of the presenter’s husband, Professor Thomas Faunce, and I want to acknowledge his passing.  He was an expert in health law, bioethics, nanotechnology, the environment and international trade, and held joint appointments in the ANU College of Law and the ANU Medical School, while also practising medicine and law.  The winner of five Australian Research Council Discovery Grants, his research reflects his incredibly diverse background and was at the leading edge of health, science and law.  His research tackled some of our biggest challenges, including climate change and food security, so his passing is a great loss to the ANU and the research community.



  1. As a lapsed medievalist I found this post intriguing. I too read TWB as a child, and was unaware of its Darwinian elements – thanks for revealing all this, Lisa


  2. I’m certain I never appreciated all those subtleties when I read this as a child. Thanks Lisa for discovering this fascinating background


  3. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.


  4. Simon, Karen, the fact that we as child readers didn’t grasp any of the Darwinian elements suggests that the book may have missed its mark, and been more of an ‘in-joke’ for the intellectual circles that Kingsley moved in. OTOH if the book was mostly read by parents to their children, they may have recognised what was going on. Apparently the book includes references to famous names who were publicly debating Darwinism at the time, and adults probably would have recognised those.
    A bit like the sub-texts in Alice in Wonderland that are best appreciated by older readers.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I really enjoyed reading this Lisa, thank you!


    • I’m just off to the next event now.
      I have a different strategy for bypassing the works, fingers crossed that it works, because if it’s just too hard I’ll give up and come home again, the weather is too arctic to be heroic about it!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I don’t like extreme navigating to get to an event, so I can relate! I had a chuckle at your phrase, we are having a MountIsabigbuild at present too. It’s a nightmare, there’s only so many detours in a town this size. There are bridges demolished and being rebuilt, round abouts being installed and our main double lane thoroughfare through town entirely down to one lane each way from May through to December just so they can change the centre garden curbing. All of those road trains alongside cyclists and regular traffic! It’s a bit stressful driving here at present as people are very annoyed and impatient and this is our peak tourism season so lots of vans and 4wds meandering through to the Territory. I am astonished we actually have enough road crew workers to accomodate all of this digging up and choatic rearranging. Maybe they flew some in?
        Anyway, I hope you make it there and I’ll look forward to reading about it!


  6. I read The Water Babies when I was nine or ten. I found it very moving, but I would find it difficult to explain how it worked for me. I was just so pleased that Tom was transformed. I’m not sure that I would have seen this as evolution in a Darwinian sense: if I’d read it a year or two later I might have done.


    • Yes, it’s fascinating to look at it now and realise that it was read by so many of us at that age. Were we better readers in those days? I really think most 10 year olds would struggle with it today.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think that many of us were better readers then. There were fewer distractions (we did have television then, but I wasn’t very interested) and there were none of the electronic devices that have become so central to many lives.


        • I don’t know… I ‘tested’ this myself in the 1990s when I taught at Springvale West, where the majority of our students were recent arrivals in Australia. (Mainly Vietnamese, Cambodian and Bosnian refugees). I was worried about whether they were ‘up to standard’ (there was no national testing back then) so I assessed their reading of The Drover’s Wife which was in the old Victorian Readers that we read when I was in Grade 5. They coped just fine with that, many of them better than my memories of the strugglers in my own class all those years ago.
          That was before screens, of course. We had some computers, but we only used them for writing with, and because we only had half a dozen between five classrooms, they were mostly used just for students ‘publishing’ their final versions of stories they’d already hand-written.
          It would be interesting to try the same assessment today…


  7. That was quick! I am glad you enjoyed the paper, and thank you for the very kind write up. There would have been no paper without the research of Prof. Andrew Lynch and Michael Knightley. Standing on the shoulders of giants, and all of that!

    The blog has been a great pleasure to read, I am glad you gave me the details.


    • Hello, how nice of you to comment… it gives me an opportunity to thank you again for a mot enjoyable talk. Rare Book Week is one of my favourite calendar events because I make all sorts of serendipitous discoveries, thanks to the good will and expertise of all concerned in bringing the program together.
      (And I do love those paintings at Tonic House!)


  8. I have that dust jacket still. Dad spent some time in the Burwood Teachers College library and used the opportunity to put protective covers on all our dust jackets. I read TWB myself as a child, and to my youngest daughter when she was maybe 7, so 30 years ago, and didn’t pick up any of the references intended for adults. But I do still try to do as I would be done by
    And no, Anne H is not a rello (I don’t think!)


    • Well that is a treasure, then:) I didn’t treat dustjackets with any respect when I was young. I hate the way they slide around while you’re reading, and then as now I used to take them off. But whereas now I put them back carefully afterwards, I can’t answer for what I did back then.


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