The Scotsman who created the vision of English childhood
This month marks 160 years since the birth of Kenneth Grahame, author of The Wind in the Willows. 26 board member John Simmons reflects on this book which shaped his childhood, and the man who brought it to life.
Kenneth Grahame wrote the book that is
seen as the idyll
of English childhood. The Wind in the Willows
was written in the first decade of the 20th
century, in the ‘golden age’ of the Edwardians. It is very much of its period,
depicting what it was to be (or fail to be) a ‘gentleman’, yet its story continues to fascinate children through
the characters who are all animals: Toad, Mole, Ratty, Badger. What gives it
such enduring appeal?
Much of the answer lies in the life of
the author, yet there are many mysteries in the author’s life; a descendant of
Robert the Bruce who became a pillar of the English Establishment. Kenneth
Grahame was born in Edinburgh in 1859, the third of four children in a
well-to-do family living in Castle Street. Grahame’s mother died of puerperal
fever after giving birth to his youngest brother. His father was a troubled
man, unable to cope with the responsibilities of fatherhood; his children were
soon despatched to Cookham Dean in Berkshire, close to the River Thames, to be
brought up by their maternal grandmother. So the storing up of riverbank
With his finances controlled by his
uncle, Grahame was denied the university education he sought. Instead he was
enrolled as a ‘gentleman clerk’ in the Bank of England. Exceptionally clever,
Grahame rose higher and higher, eventually becoming the Bank’s Secretary. Yet
the job hardly taxed his intellect, and it seemed to allow him time to write
stories and essays at work on the Bank’s headed paper. He wrote books such as Dream Days, as well as shorter pieces that were
published in Scribner’s magazine in New York and The Yellow
Book infamously associated with Aubrey Beardsley and Oscar Wilde. He
was no conventional banker. He became a sergeant in the London Scottish
Volunteers regiment while also helping the East End poor through Toynbee Hall.
These contrasts found their way into
his most famous book The Wind in theWillows. Grahame wrote this originally as a series of
letters to his young son Alastair from holiday locations in Cornwall.
Frequently away from his son, as parenthood at that time deemed natural,
stories poured out of Grahame about Toad, Ratty and Mole.
These were published as a book partly
at the urging of important readers such as American President Theodore
Roosevelt. The Wind in the Willows is a story of
contrasting moods: the spiritual reflection of chapters like ‘The Piper at the
Gates of Dawn’ as well as the exuberant farce of ‘Toad’s Adventures’. It’s as
if there is playing out in Grahame’s mind a conflict between two different
attitudes, both based on nostalgia. Readers might choose between the buffoonish
bluster of Mr Toad (an early prototype for Boris Johnson) with his overweening
belief in his own importance and the kindly shyness of Mole, whimsical and
often fearful for his future. With historical hindsight we imagine the
imminence of the First World War, a shadow cast across the author’s imagination.
Reading the book now, and re-reading
it with such lingering memories of its first impressions from childhood, it
seems an idyll with a flaw: a beautifully crafted plate that is, on closer
inspection, cracked. The idyll has premonitions of a world that would change
from leisurely complacency to all-out conflict. There is the threat of
revolution, with the rising lower classes (weasels and stoats) taking over Toad
Hall, the sense of a society that was coming to its decadent end. Although
there is nothing quite as good as ‘simply messing about in boats’ there is a
cloud that keeps blotting out the sunshine: the lost otters, Mole’s terror in
the Wild Wood, Toad’s imprisonment, the threat of insurrection from the weasels.
“Beyond the Wild Wood comes the Wide
World,” said the Rat. “But don’t ever refer to it again, please. Now then! Here’s
our backwater at last, where we’re going to lunch.” Rat’s suppression of Mole’s
curiosity about a wider world becomes poignant with history. Within a decade,
hundreds of thousands of British soldiers experienced the Wide World for the
first time. Some never saw more of ‘abroad’ than the trenches of France.
Meanwhile the Suffragette movement, the rise of unions and the Labour Party,
technological developments such as the motor car, were starting to change the
world of privilege that was the foundation of The Wind in
Grahame’s time as Secretary of the
Bank of England also had its mysteries. There was an incident in 1903 when
Grahame was shot at three times inside the Bank by a man named as George
Robinson. Only the intervention of one of the Bank’s messengers saved Grahame.
A few years later the Royal children descended unannounced on the Bank and it
was Grahame who entertained them to an impromptu tea party. Yet Grahame was
soon after forced out of Bank, supposedly on the grounds of ill health. A whiff
of scandal, never explained, hung over his departure on a half pension; there
was talk of an acrimonious falling out with a fellow director.
Grahame’s wife expressed relief that
he could now live a happier life. He was becoming internationally known as a
writer, and The Wind in the Willows was
developing an impressive following after a quiet start. The other shadow that
was present in Grahame’s life was his son Alastair, a figure surrounded by deep
affection and anxiety. His happy childhood moments were represented by his
father’s stories written for him. But was he really Toad? He became unhappy,
deeply depressed as a teenager. In 1918 he threw himself under the oncoming
train outside Oxford. The suicide was kindly listed as an accident in the
official record. The boy with Toad-like qualities in childhood had none of Toad’s
ability to escape from misadventure.
The sense of sadness comes with
hindsight yet it is present in the book on reading it as an adult. Its
ambiguous feelings towards the world it describes and towards childhood itself
are qualities that drew me to it again when writing my novel The
Good Messenger. I adopted part of the structure and storyline of
Grahame’s book. The first part of the novel features a nine-year-old boy from a
poor background in London sent to a country house located in the woods. There
he reads TheWind in the
Willows, and his reading as well as the events that happen will
resound through his later life.
There is an autobiographical element
to this on my part. As a nine-year-old my reading had been confined to comics
until a teacher started reading daily from The Wind in the
Willows. Captivated I asked my mother for a copy of the book for my
birthday. That book led to a lifetime of reading and then the writing of a
novel many decades later. Layers of history add to the sense of depth that
Kenneth Grahame’s book has acquired. It has entranced generation after
generation, continuing to encourage reflection about the transient nature of
Good Messenger by
John Simmons is published by Urbane.
– John Simmons
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