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 stories began.

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 the Willows. 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 the Willows.

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 The Wind 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 childhood.

The Good Messenger by John Simmons is published by Urbane.

– John Simmons

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