*** ONCE AGAIN SPOILER ALERT – IF YOU HAVEN’T FINISHED THE BOOK AND WISH TO REMAIN UNSPOILED, PROCEED NO FURTHER ***
At the end of the book, the drowning of Robbie Weedon and the overdose of Krystal galvanize the town into some semblance of repentance. Rowling speaks of the dead Robbie as a “water baby,” a term I was unfamiliar with. Here’s the moment in the book:
The dirty and foul-mouthed little boy, of whose existence few had been aware, and of whom nobody but his mother and sister had been especially fond, had undergone such a transformation in Pagtford’s collective mind by his drowning, that he was spoken of everywhere as a water baby, a cherub, a pure and gentle angel whom all would have embraced with love and compassion, if only they could have saved him. (p. 488)
The term “water baby” comes from a children’s book written by Rev. Charles Kingsley, published in 1863, a popular book in England for many years, titled The Water Babies, A Fairy Tale for Land Babies.
The story of The Water Babies follows Tom, a young boy who drowns in the river after encountering an upper-class girl named Ellie. Once drowned, he is transformed into a water baby, where his moral education begins for his purification. Ellie too later drowns in the story, and they are permitted weekly visits to one another.
The connection to The Casual Vacancy is rather obvious. A young boy and older girl who die, the boy drowning in the river as Robbie did. His sister Krystal is an obvious reference to Ellie, the girl who later drowns after Tom.
The allusion is clear enough. But what does it mean? According to the Wikipedia entry, the story of The Water Babies is
thematically concerned with Christian redemption, though Kingsley also uses the book to argue that England treats its poor badly, and to question child labour, among other themes.
These two points are what should interest us. 1) Christian redemption and 2) a critique of England’s treatment of the poor. Those of us that have been following the discussion of Rowling’s work over the last decade are all of us aware of its near-universal focus on some aspect of Christian redemption. Within the context of The Casual Vacancy, little Robbie’s death in the river acts as a catalyst that transforms Pagford as a whole, and in particular draws them all to the church of St. Michaels (even if only for a funeral).
Robbie’s death also serves to shed light on the conditions of poverty, and their consequences. It serves also to highlight the willful ignorance and self-absorption of Pagford (a stand-in for England’s middle class) as three Pagfordians walk past Robbie as he plays near the river, each of them too concerned with their own squabbles and petty concerns to even really take much notice of the dirty little boy on the river bank.
In this way, the connection between The Casual Vacancy and The Water Babies is made complete, both in the surface events and thematic meaning.