Monday, May 14, 2012

Matthew Kerr on The Water-Babies

Matt, a final-year D.Phil. candidate in the English Faculty, came to CLYCC from a slightly different angle than many speakers: his interest in Charles Kingsley's The Water-Babies (1862–63) stems not from research into children's literature per se, but research into the sea in the nineteenth-century novel. Matt's paper provided some marine contexts for Kingsley's 'fairy tale', as well as associated comments on the relationship between adult and child therein. It is indicative, for example, that the dynamic between disbelief and belief which is so crucial to Kingsley should be incarnated by Professor Ptthmllnsprts (is this the thorniest name to pronounce in the whole of literature in English?—Matt handled it valiantly) and the little girl Ellie, and that the pair's exchange should take place at the archetypal littoral zone of the shoreline. The fantastic rewriting of Tom's drowning in The Water-Babies was positioned by way of drowning motifs in Tennyson's 'In Memoriam A. H. H.' and divers other Victorian sources, with Matt noting that pseudo-scientific writings about drowning at this time (in the British Medical Journal, for instance) relate to psychoanalytical paradigms for both memory and childhood. One's life flashing before one's eyes entails a crystalline recollection of childhood events, a watery version of Susan Stewart's statement that '[w]e imagine childhood as if it were at the other end of the tunnel: distanced, diminutive, and clearly framed’.
W. Heath Robinson's illustration of Professor Ptthmllnsprts and Ellie, taken from the 1915 Houghton Mifflin edition of The Water-Babies.

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