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for Books and Writers
by Bamber Gascoigne

Kenneth Grahame (1859-1932)


English bank official, the author of The Wind in the Willows (1908). This Edwardian classic, set in the idyllic English countryside, established Kenneth  Grahame's international reputation as a writer of children's books and has deeply influenced fantasy literature. Its central characters are the shy little Mole, clever Ratty, Badger, and crazy, energetic Toad. They all converse and behave like humans, but have at the same time typical animal habits and human vices. Some animals are eaten for breakfast. It has been questioned whether this novel is a children's book at all. Grahame's personal life was not as idyllic as the world he created. 

"Beyond the Wild Wood comes the Wild World," said the Rat. "And that's something that doesn't matter, either to you or me. I've never been there, and I'm never going, nor you either, if you've got any sense at all..." (in The Wind in the Willows)

Kenneth Grahame was born in Edinburgh, the third of four children. His father, James Cunningham Grahame, was a lawyer from an old Scottish family, and mother Bessie (Ingles) Grahame, the daughter of John Ingles of Hilton, Lasswade. In the early years, he lived with his family in the Western Highlands, near Loch Fyne. Grahame's mother died of scarlet fever when he was five.

Due to the alcoholism of his father, who resigned his post as Sheriff-Substitute of Argyllshire and died of drink in Le Havre, Grahame was brought up by elderly relatives. He was sent with his sister to live with their maternal grandmother in the village of Cookham Dene, Berkshire. Her house and its large garden by the River Thames provided the background of The Wind in the Willows.

"As a rule, indeed, grown-up people are fairly correct on matters of fact; it is in the higher gift of imagination that they are so sadly to seek." (in The Golden Age, 1985)

From his childhood, Grahame was drawn to literature. Macaulay's The Lays of Ancient Rome (1842) was one of his favorites. In 1868-76 Grahame attended St. Edward's School at Oxford, where he succeeded in athletics (Rugby) and received prizes for Divinity and Latin Prose in 1874. "The education, in my time, was of the fine old crusted order, with all the Classics in the top bin - I did Greek verse in those days, so help me! But the elements, the Classics, the Gothic, the primeval Thames, fostered in me, perhaps, the pagan germ . . . " (Epic Echoes in the Wind in the Willows by Georgia L. Irby, 2022, p. 2) His desire for further education at Oxford University was thwarted by his stingy uncle, John Grahame, who was acting as his guardian. Between 1875 and 1879 he worked as a clerk for his uncle in a parliamentary agent's office and in 1879 he entered the Bank Of England, where his job was not unduly demanding. After a long, dutiful service, he was appointed in 1898 to the post of Secretary to the Bank.

While pursuing his career, Grahame began composing light nonfiction pieces as a pastime, but he never intented to become a writer for children. Grahame contributed articles to such journals as the St. James Gazette, W.E. Henley's National Observer, and The Yellow Book; its name was a reference to French publications with erotic and scandalous content.

All of Grahame's essays in National Observer, dealing with subjects from smoking a pipe to traveling and nature, were published anomymously. Struck by wanderlust, he also began to take trips away from London. At a community center called Toynbee Hall he played billiards with other members of the community. Grahame loved fishing.

In 1899 Grahame married Elspeth Thomson, a 37-year-old spinster. She and her sisters were well-educated. Elspeth's father, who had died when she was still young, had created the first pneumatic tire. And her mother knew a number of writers, inclunding Mark Twain. At the wedding she wore a common dress and did not have the engagement ring.

Grahame's early writing were collected in Pagan Papers (1893). The title of the book has been interpreted as an expression of his need to break away from the straitjackets of the time. The Golden Age (1895) was a collection of sketches of the lives of five orphaned late-Victorian children, Selina, Harold, Charlotte, Edward, and the unnamed boy narrator. Reviewers took it for granted that Grahame had drawn much from his own childhood reminiscences.

This work made Grahame world famous. It was said to be the favorite bedtime reading of Kaiser Wilhelm II on his royal yacht – alongside the Bible. President Roosevelt tried to persuade the author to visit the White House. Dream Days (1898), a sort of sequel, included 'The Reluctant Dragon', perhaps the first Western story, in which this mythical being is portrayed as benevolent and peace-loving (like in Chinese mythology). "Merkittävää on myös se, että Grahame tekee tarinassaan mielenkiintoisen uudelleentulkinnan vanhoista pyhimystarinoista, sillä hän ei kuvaa Pyhää Yrjöä keskiaikaisena pyhimyssoturina vaan ajan viktoriaanisen hengen mukaisesti sivistyneenä brittiläisenä herranmiehenä." (Lohikäärme maailman myyteissä ja tarinoissa by Otto Latva, 2024, p. 109) The Dragon, a lazy, poetry-loving Bohemian, wants to be left alone, but the villagers want it dead. Thanks to a wise young boy, the monster manages to keep its life. St. George, expected to be thirsting for its blood, changes his mind. The Saint and the Dragon stage a "jolly good fight", and the Dragon collapses as they had agreed beforehand. After refreshment St. George makes a speech and warns "against the sin of romancing, and making up stories and fancying other people would believe them just because they were plausible and highly-coloured."

Both of these works gained such a huge popularity that The Wind in the Willows was at first a real disappointment to readers. The Times wrote that, "For ourselves we lay The Wind in the Willows reverently aside and again, for the hundredth time, take up The Golden Age." ('Introduction' by Jackie C. Home and Donna R. White, in Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows: A Children's Classic at 100, edited by Jackie C. Horne, Donna R. White, 2010, p. xxi)

The work at the bank was in tune with Grahame's quiet and reserved appearance, but he did not give up his bachelor ways and writing, which some of his  more conservative colleagues did not approve. Soon after her wedding Elspeth he wrote to Emma Hardy, asking her for any advice on being married to a writer. The reply was that "I can scarcely think that love proper and enduring is in the nature of men . . . There is ever a desire to give but little in return for our devotion and affection - theirs being akin to children's . . ." (Thomas Hardy: A Biography Revisited by Michael Millgate, 2006, p. 367)

Parts of The Wind in the Willows Grahame composed from the letters he had written for his young son Alastair, nicknamed Mouse. He was born blind in one eye and with severe squint in the other. Originally Grahame did not intend to publish the stories; they were partly educational for Alastair and had a very personal dimension. Constance Smedley, writer of Woman: A Few Shrieks! (1907) and the European representative of the American magazine Everybody's, persuaded Grahame to adopt the letters in the form of a book. However, the result was rejected by Everybody's.

Alastair's behavior had similarities with the reckless and selfish Toad, who nevertheless wins the sympathy of the reader. When he was away from home, Grahame continued the Toad stories, filling the the gaps. One of the extra parts (Chapter 7), 'The Piper at the Gates of Dawn,' introduced the Greek god Pan. He is taking care of Otter's missing son Portly, whom Mole and Rat are searching for in a kind of spiritual quest. The psychedelic 1967 debut album of the British rock band Pink Floyd takes its title from this chapter. The Wind in the Willows was perhaps the most important childhood book of Syd Barrett, the guitarist and at that time the driving force behind the group.

Grahame's manuscript was rejected by The Bodley Head, the publisher of his earlier books, and Everybody's magazine, but eventually the book was published by Methuen and Co. in 1908 in England in plain text. First it was received with mild enthusiasm, but E.H. Shephard's illustration and Grahame's animal characterizations started soon gain fame. A copy of the Methuen edition was sent to President Theodore Roosevelt, who said that Wind was "such a beautiful thing that Scribner must publish it." ('Introduction' by Jackie C. Home and Donna R. White, in Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows: A Children's Classic at 100, edited by Jackie C. Horne, Donna R. White, 2010, p. xx) In 1929 A.A. Milne dramatized the story as Toad of Toad Hall. Milne focused on the animals, cutting out most of Grahame's romantic fantasy. The play became an institution in its own right. It was first perfomed at the Lyric Theatre, London, in December 1929, and continued to be produced on the London West End stage as part of the Christman season.

The Wind in the Willows reflected the author's unhappiness with the real world - his idyllic riverbank woods and fields were ''clean of the clash of sex,'' as he insisted. (Artful Dodgers: Reconceiving the Golden Age of Children's Literature by Marah Gubar, 2009, p. 214) The main tale tells about Mr. Toad's obsession with motorcars.

"'Glorious, stirring sight!' murmured Toad, never offering to move. 'The poetry of motion! The REAL way to travel! The ONLY way to travel! Here to-day--in next week to-morrow! Villages skipped, towns and cities jumped--always somebody else's horizon! O bliss! O poop-poop! O my! O my!'" Mr. Toad's motoring leads him into imprisonment. Meanwhile Toad Hall is invaded by stoats and weasels. Toad escapes dressed as a washerwoman. He sells a horse to a gypsy and returns into the Wild Wood. With the help of his companions, Toad recaptures his ancestral home. "The superficial scheme of the story is so childishly naive, or so daringly naive, that only a genius could have preserved it from the ridiculous," said Arnold Bennett in his review. "The book is an urbane exercise in irony at the expense of the English character and of mankind. It is entirely successful." (Books and Persons; Being Comments on a Past Epoch, 1908-1911 by Arnold Bennett, 2016, p. 14)

Grahame retired from his work in 1908, officially because of health reasons, but perhaps also under pressure from his employees, who were unhappy with his short working hours. "Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats," Grahame crystallized the philosophy of leisure in The Wind.

His son Alastair, who appears to have been psychologically disturbed and was troubled with health problems, committed suicide while an undergraduate at Oxford, by laying on train tracks at Oxford, two days before his 20th birthday. His obituary stressed the accidental nature of the tragedy. On the evening of his death, Alastair had been in good spirits.

After the family tragedy, Grahame stopped writing almost completely. Most of the following years he spent traveling with his wife in Italy. Elspeth sold all of Alastair's belongings. They returned in 1924 to Britain as their principal residence but kept on traveling. Grahame died from a massive stroke in Pangborne, Berkshire, on July 6, 1932. William Horwood's sequel The Willows in the Winter (1993), which followed Grahame's lyrical prose and phraseology, received mixed reviews. Toad Triumphant, the second sequel, came out in 1996. The trilogy was finished with The Willows and Beyond (1998). Horwood has also written the internationally acclaimed Duncton trilogies.

For further reading: Kenneth Grahame by Patrick R. Chalmers (1933); First Whisper of 'The Wind in the Willows' by Elspeth Grahame (1944); Kenneth Grahame 1859-1932 by Peter Green (1959); Kenneth Grahame by Eleanor Graham (1963); The Wind in the Willows: A Fragmented Arcadia by Peter Hunt (1994); Kenneth Grahame: An Innocent in the Wild Wood by Allison Prince (1994); Inventing Wonderland: The Lives and Fantasies of Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, J. M. Barrie, Kenneth Grahame and A. A. Milne by Jackie Wullschlager (1996); Beatrix Potter to Harry Potter by Julia Eccleshare (2002); Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows: A Children's Classic at 100, ed. Jackie C. Horne and Donna R. White (2010); Eternal Boy: the Life of Kenneth Grahame by Matthew Dennison (2018); The Man in the Willows: The Life of Kenneth Grahame by Matthew Dennison (2019); The Real Kenneth Grahame: The Tragedy Behind The Wind in the Willows by Elisabeth Galvin (2021); Epic Echoes in the Wind in the Willows by Georgia L. Irby (2022) 

Selected works:

  • Pagan Papers, 1893
  • The Golden Age, 1895
  • Dream Days, 1898
    - Vastahakoinen lohikäärme (suom. Mikko Vuorinen, 2007)
  • The Headswoman, 1898
  • The Wind in the Willows, 1908
    - Kaislikossa suhisee (suom. Eila Piispanen, 1949; Kaija Pakkanen, 1993)
    - Dramatized in 1929 by
    A.A. Milne as Toad of Toad Hall; black-and-white film in 1946; Walt Disney animation The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad in 1949, presenting cartoon versions of stories by Washington Irving and Kenneth Grahame, narrated by Bing Crosby; Monty Python team's version in 1996, written and directed by Terry Jones, starring Steve Coogan, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Antony Sher, Nicol Williamson, John Cleese; live-action/animatronic film in 2012, prod. RG Entertainment, dir. Ray Griggs, with Ricky Gervais (as Mole). TV adaptations: 1970, dir. Daphne Jones; 1983, dir. Mark Hall, Chris Taylor; and 2006, directed by Rachel Talalay, starring Matt Lucas, Mark Gatiss, Lee Ingleby, Bob Hoskins, Imelda Staunton.
  • The Cambridge Book of Poetry for Children, 1916 (ed.)
  • Kenneth Grahame: Life, Letters and Unpublished Work, 1933
  • The Reluctant Dragon, 1938
  • First Whisper Of The Wind In The Willows, 1944 (ed. E. Grahame)
  • Bertie's Escapade, 1949
  • Paths to the Riverbank, 1983 (ed. Peter Haining)
  • The Penguin Kenneth Grahame, 1983 (with an introduction by Naomi Lewis)
  • The River Bank: And Other Stories from The Wind in the Willows, 1996 (illustrated by Inga Moore)
    - Joen rannalla ja muita tarinoita teoksesta Kaislikossa suhisee (suomentanut Raija Viitanen, 1997)
  • The Wind in the Willows: An Annotated Edition, 2009 (edited by Seth Lerer)
  • The Wind in the Willows, 2010 (new ed.; edited with an introduction and notes by Peter Hunt)
  • The Wind in the Willows, 2012 (illustrated by Nancy Barnhart)
  • The Wind in the Willows, 2013 (illustrated by David Roberts)
  • The Wind in the Willows: the Classic Edition, 2014 (illustrated by Don Daily)
  • The Wind in the Willows: an Illustrated Classic, 2017 (with illustrations by Arthur Rackham)
  • The Wind in the Willows and Other Stories, 2019 (illustrations by Arthur Rackham)
  • The Reluctant Dragon, 2020 (third edition; illustrated by Ernest H. Shepard; with introductions written by Leonard S. Marcus and Sophie Blackall)

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