My father was an intellectually austere Cambridge academic, so we never had a copy of The Wind in the Willows in the house. No talking toads on this family syllabus, thank you! But Kenneth Grahame did feature on our bookshelves in the shape of two late Victorian bestsellers which would otherwise have escaped my notice, as they have done most readers’ of late: The Golden Age (1895) and Dream Days (1898). Neither was turned into a play by A. A. Milne or Alan Bennett, or filmed by Terry Jones. Yet without them there would have been no Toad Hall, no ‘poop-pooping’ motor cars, no escapes from prison and no epic battle with the stoats and weasels.
These earlier books made Grahame’s name. Among their countless readers was Kaiser Wilhelm II, who kept, apart for the Bible, only one book on his yacht: Dream Days. Kenneth Grahame was a highflier at the Bank of England when he wrote these two collections of short stories. They tell of five orphaned brothers and sisters in a rural household who are engaged in a low-level guerrilla war against the uncles and aunts attempting to keep them in order.
Grahame’s preface to The Golden Age concludes with the Latin tag ‘et in Arcadia ego’ and his two volumes were written during what could be called ‘Arcadia II’, as an unburdened bachelor messing about in boats and fields during long weekends. These realistic accounts of childhood’s ups and downs are bathed in the nostalgic glow of his own early years. It was the success of these stories that led directly to The Wind in the Willows. A female fan made overtures to the popular author and they entered into an unsuitable marriage; the Toad tales began as bedtime stories for their son, which Grahame was encouraged to turn into a book.
The Wind in the Willows is a novel for children which adults enjoy; The Golden Age and Dream Days are stories for adults which m
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