Monday, April 23, 2007

Water Babies Swim in My Dreams

I haven't just been surfing the web this week. I have been deep-diving for pearls. Pears otherwise known as free electronic format books to either read online or download. It began as part of my project to find substitutes for at least some of the resources I lost when our libraries closed earlier this month. Then the search itself became fascinating in its own right. I will be sharing some of my finds either in posts or in my sidebar.

I'm going to begin with a book that I stumbled upon which sent me into a nostalgia daze. That is The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley. I have vivid memories of this book from childhood. It wasn't mine but a cousin's and I remember not only being in awe of the story and its illustrations but in awe of the privilege of borrowing such a treasure from an older cousin whom I adored.

I remembered the story of a little boy covered in soot because he worked cleaning out rich peoples chimneys all day for a boss who was a bully. Then one day he fell in a river and became a water baby--naked, having "nothing on but himself" and about the size of an adult's hand He proceeded to have adventures with talking animals and fairy godmothers and a very special little friend.

I stumbled on these ebook editions first at Project Gutenberg. There is a choice between HTML and plain text downloads. I was thrilled and a tad sad at the same time. It just wasn't the same without those dreamy illustrations I remembered. I immediately thought of the Google full view books I had discovered several weeks ago in my search for online reading when I was preparing that TT about substitutions for library resources. I knew that Google Books was in the process of providing both online reading and PDF downloads of a great deal of public domain literature. So I headed over there and soon found this version, which said it was illustrated. I was quite pleased with this one once it was open, but not completely charmed as the illustrations were not one bit familiar to me and I was just yearning to gaze on those ones once more.

So I did a Google search for The Water Babies and somewhere on the first page or two of it, there was this link to some pages on the Library of Congress site, purporting to celebrate an exhibition of the twelve "lavish drawings Jessie Willcox Smith produced as color plates for The Water-Babies in 1916." That sounded very promising so I headed on over there and as soon as I was on the first page, I knew I was in the right place. The pages had been created to promote a 1999 exhibition of the original drawings at the Swan Gallery. Moments later I had found this page, displaying all twelve of the drawings in JPG format. I checked carefully for any warning that they were copyrighted in anyway or forbidden for download and found this page clarifying the law and etiquette of use of the pictures found on the LOC site. So I think I am safe to post a couple here.

This is the one I remember the clearest:

I just couldn't get over how tickled I was to be gazing upon them once again. Ah, the power of nostalgia. But it is more. It is the power of nostalgia coupled with the power of story and imagination. It is the memory of the way a book like this could take me out of this world. I am a bit afraid that the cloying, Victorian morality ambience of this story is going to rub the adult me a bit wrong but I have determined not to let that stop me from enjoying emersing myself in the water baby world again.

As I look at these pictures I am left wondering just how much influence this book and these illustrations had on the strong baby motif infiltrating my dreams from those early days. I cannot remember a time when I was not remembering vivid dreams nearly every night of my life. One of the strongest themes running in my dreams was that of infants and baby dolls. They can range in size from as small as my thumb to as big as a large watermelon. But the two most common sizes are that of a typical newborn and that of my hand. Oddly enough these are the sizes of my two most favorite dolls in childhood. I had the newborn sized doll from about age three so it is hard to know whether the doll or the dreams came first. But I know that I had been having the dreams for years before I ever got my Cheerful Tearful doll in the late sixties.

Babies about that size, swimming in water, speaking with import if not wisdom, needing rescue, offering comfort, have proliferated in my dreams for decades. I don't know which came first--the dreams of babies or my fascination with them. But my mom tells me that I exhibited an extremely strong fascination with my newborn baby brother at 22 months, pulling him off the couch onto his head in an attempt to kiss him and another time nearly tipping the buggy over by pulling down on the handle until I could get a good view of him inside. I know I was still in a crib when I began having dreams of babies and living baby dolls but I suspect I was already sharing my nursery with my baby brother.

For a bonus: In my explorations of Jessica Wilcox Smith's work, I ran across these pages offering prints and posters for sale. Here. Here. And here. From them I discovered that I had seen Ms. Smith's illustrations in many more of my favorite childhood books. Many of you may recognize some of them yourselves.

This could have been me except that this 1920 Good Housekeeping cover was published about forty years before I was old enough to hold a book that size by myself.

0 tell me a story:

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