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Sue Gee on Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows | Slightly Foxed Issue 74

Voices from the Riverbank

‘Never read it?’ said the Rat in astonishment. ‘Never read it? Why, my dear fellow, you simply haven’t lived.’
‘Is it really as good as all that?’ the Mole asked humbly.
The Rat pulled up a fireside chair. ‘Sit down, and let me explain.’

This little passage comes not from The Wind in the Willows (1908) but from my own pen, written in homage, and the Rat’s sentiments echo mine entirely. I have loved and revisited Kenneth Grahame’s masterpiece since I was 8 when, in a school test, I read aloud the scene in which Toad, imprisoned for stealing a motor car, is brought hot buttered toast by the gaoler’s daughter. What bliss.

To this day, I often sort the laundry murmuring the words spoken by a passing fox to the furious Toad who, disguised as a washerwoman in order to escape from prison, is forced to keep up the deception by actually doing the work. ‘Half a pair of socks and a pillowcase missing this week,’ remarks the fox. ‘Mind it doesn’t occur again.’

As for ‘More speeches by Toad’, the line which appears several times in the programme Toad himself devises to celebrate his triumphant return: on how many occasions do these words come to mind as someone, quite possibly a man, Goes On?

Last year my bibliophile sister-in-law gave me for Christmas the one hundred and second edition (1951), with glorious colour plates by Arthur Rackham. It is this edition I have returned to now, with an introduction by A. A. Milne, whose theatre box was shared by Kenneth Grahame and his wife in December 1929, to the delight of all parties, on the opening night of Toad of Toad Hall.

‘When characters have been created as solidly as those of Rat, Mole, Toad and Badger, they speak ever after in their own voices,’ writes Milne, ‘and the dramatist has merely to listen and record.’

The kindly, river-loving Rat, ‘a poet of independent means’ as one critic has it, the cautious and endearing Mole, the impossibly arrogant Toad and reclusive, fatherly Badger: where did they come from, these beloved creatures, and what do we know of the man who created them?

Kenneth Grahame was born in Edinburgh in 1859, the eldest of four children. Their mother was connected by birth to the Duke of Argyll; their advocate father had been appointed sheriff to the county. Family life came to an end when their mother died of scarlet fever, and her husband sank into drink.

At the age of 5 Kenneth was sent with his siblings to stay with their maternal grandmother at The Mount, an old, patched-up house in Cookham Dean, Berkshire, whose gardens ran down to the Thames. As Matthew Dennison, Grahame’s most recent biographer, describes it, the atmosphere created by their grandmother was frosty, but the house itself, and the neighbouring fields, woods and peaceful stretch of river became places of enchantment.

Dennison sees Grahame as a man who never recovered from his early bereavement and remained in thrall to his childhood. Peter Hunt, author of The Making of The Wind in the Willows (2018), presents quite a different picture: of a ‘remarkable and surprising man’, successful, clubbable, at ease. It is an indication of Grahame’s complexity that he should inspire such different views; the fact remains that he was someone who, no matter how much of a lonely, bereaved little boy he was deep down, dealt manfully with disappointment and made the best of things.

The first disappointment came when his uncle refused to send him to Oxford. He was very bright; he longed to go; there was no money. Instead, he left St Edward’s School, Oxford, where he had begun to love the city, and sat the entrance exam for a gentleman clerk at the Bank of England, scoring 100 per cent. He arrived at the Bank at the age of 19 and never left, rising to become Secretary and an unequivocally Establishment figure.

But there was much about Grahame that was absolutely not Establishment. Feeling himself a writer from an early age, by the 1890s he was writing short stories for periodicals such as the National Observer, gravitating from there to the more outré Yellow Book, a quarterly associated with Aubrey Beardsley, its first art editor, and Oscar Wilde. At this point, alongside his sober life at the Bank, Grahame was very much the carefree bachelor about literary London. In 1895 his first collection of stories, for adults but featuring a group of children, The Golden Age, was published, followed by Dream Days (1898), which returned to the same childhood world. Both were extremely popular.

Charming, good-looking – his agent Curtis Brown described him as ‘the handsomest man I ever saw’ – and an established author, in 1897 he was introduced to a woman with her own literary ambitions: Elspeth Thomson, an heiress admired by Tenniel, unmarried and largely unpublished. She was determined to capture him; Grahame, who had so far avoided all romantic attachments, succumbed. They were married in 1899, he aged 40, she not much younger. Both were virgins.

Alastair, their only child, always known as Mouse, was born ten months later, the product of what seems to have otherwise been an almost sexless marriage. Certainly Elspeth was soon writing to her friend Florence Hardy of her disappointment in that regard (something poor Florence understood only too well). It has been conjectured that Grahame was essentially homosexual, but if so it never found expression, unless you choose to read The Wind in the Willows as code. Certainly for much of the marriage he was living and working in London, and Elspeth was in the country, but they also spent time together travelling, leaving Mouse, a half-blind but spirited little boy, in the charge of a governess.

It was on a trip to Cornwall that Grahame wrote to his son, then aged 7, an affectionate letter which recounted Toad’s theft of a motor car from ‘The Red Lion Hotel’ in ‘a town called Bugglestone’. A later letter tells of Toad’s encounter with the bargee who realizes he is not a washerwoman at all, and hurls him into the canal – ‘Splosh!!’

It was all there in embryo, and it developed when in 1908 Grahame left London and retired with his wife and child to Cookham Dean, the gentle English village which had so captivated him as a little boy. Here, the letters became bedtime stories, and the stories found their setting in the places of his childhood: the riverbank, and the woods that became the Wild Wood, where Ratty and Mole get lost on a snowy winter’s night. Here, within six months, Kenneth Grahame wrote the book of his life.

With more time to write than he had enjoyed for years, perhaps he was recapturing his carefree bachelor days, and gently satirizing a few old friends. ‘For animals read chaps,’ as the critic Margaret Blount has written. He drew on Hilaire Belloc, whose Thameside house probably inspired Toad Hall; on Arthur Quiller-Couch, with whom he went sailing in Cornwall. The bewhiskered W. E. Henley, his first publisher, was a possible model for Toad. He had, you sense, enormous enjoyment in the writing.

And appealing to both children and adults, The Wind in the Willows is as near perfect as any book could be. It’s immensely energetic and it has a huge emotional range. The prose is immaculate, the dialogue sings. The structure is that of a classic epic, contrasting wild adventure with cherished home, whose last chapter is entitled ‘The Return of Ulysses’. The authorial voice, often very funny, speaks with immense affection of every aspect of the natural world – ‘hedgerows . . . copses . . . everywhere birds building, flowers budding, leaves thrusting, everything happy, and progressive, and occupied’, as Mole finds it when he flings down his whitewash brush and sets out across country one fine spring morning.

This is the book’s first adventure; many are to come, including car crashes, the famous escape from prison and the most fantastic train ride; the terror of the Wild Wood and the violent – really violent – recapturing of Toad Hall.

Set against all this activity is a great deal of domestic life (and a very great deal of good food). Whether Rat’s ‘bijou riverside residence’, shabby but beloved Mole End, Badger’s rambling underground retreat or the magnificent Toad Hall, each of these homes is so described as to make the reader long to step inside – to live there, even.

The Wind in the Willows is loved, now, all over the world. Italians read it as Il Vento nei Salici; in Afrikaans it becomes Die Wind in die Wilgers. Grahame’s own working title was Mole and His Mates. At Methuen, where Curtis Brown finally placed the book – other publishers had turned it down as too eccentric a departure from Grahame’s well-loved stories of the past – it went through various incarnations, including The Wind in the Reeds. We shall never know which inspired employee hit upon the alliteration which makes that title now as much a part of English literature as Hamlet or The Secret Garden.

What is the book really about? Grahame is so very good on happiness and contentment, and a large part of its popularity is surely due to the fact that it makes you happy. But although he wrote it before the tragedy of Mouse’s suicide at the age of 19, he also understands sorrow, and loss, and above all the deep meaning of home and belonging. Yes, it is a profoundly conservative book, whose values were overturned in Jan Needle’s Wild Wood (1982), retelling the whole story from the viewpoint of what Grahame would have regarded as the lower orders. But in the descriptions of Mole’s sudden longing for Mole End, and Toad’s despair at the loss of Toad Hall, Grahame shows himself acutely aware of what it means to lose your whole identity, to be cast adrift.

For all its jollity, escapades and fun, The Wind in the Willows is essentially about loss and recovery. Perhaps, above all, Grahame was writing not just to Mouse but to himself as a child, creating the kind of book he would like to have read then, while drawing on all parts of himself as a man.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 74 © Sue Gee 2022

About the contributor

Sue Gee’s book of essays, Just You and the Page: Twelve Writers and Their Art, is published by Seren Books (2021). You can also hear her discuss the art of editing on our podcast, Episode 3, ‘Stet’. The illustrations in this article are by Ernest H. Shepard.

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