Kenneth Grahame wrote The Wind in the Willows. Most people know that. If you know me, you also know that I often cite The Wind in the Willows as one of my inspirations for The Princelings of the East. I know it’s considered old-fashioned (at the least) to use anthropomorphism. But that’s how I saw my Princelings world. It’s also why sometimes people feel there’s something odd about it. I write the characters as guinea pigs, thanks to the inspiration from Fred and George. But there was pressure to avoid the anthropomorphic bit, so I tried to make them creature-neutral.
What about Kenneth Grahame?
I suppose I should have guessed, but there is a Kenneth Grahame Society, which gives plenty of detail of his life and work.
Kenneth Grahame was born in March 1859 in Edinburgh. The family moved soon after to a cottage in Argyleshire, first Ardrishaig, then Lochgilphead before moving to a house built for them in Inveraray. Unfortunately, his mother died when he was five, and the family moved to their grandmother in Berkshire, first Cookham Dene and then Cranbourne. I first read that thinking they’d moved to Cranbourne in Wiltshire (my parents lived not far from there). That would also make sense for some of the WITW countryside, but the biography says ‘a few miles from Cookham Dene’.
It sounds like a troubled childhood, since his father obviously had problems. He abandoned the family not long after they’d spent a year in Argyll with him in 1866. Kenneth then went back to Cookham Dene and went to school in Oxford, but not to university, as nobody could finance his studies. Instead, he eventually joined the Bank of England, where his career rise was steady despite periods of ill-health; he became company secretary – an important and responsible regulatory post – at the age of 39. He remained until taking early retirement in 1908, after which he could spend more time writing.
Grahame published some short stories about a family of orphaned children. The Golden Age and Dream Days received critical acclaim when they were published in 1895 and 1898. After his retirement, he put together his ideas for the Wind in the Willows, based on stories he’d told to his son. His life near the river Thames in Oxfordshire comes through in every detail of the river, the woods, and the landscapes, not to mention the picnics! This book was published in 1908, eventually, being rejected by at least one publisher despite his earlier books. The critics didn’t like it, but the public, as always, knew best.
I always wondered why there were no more books. This seems to be due to the tragedy surrounding his son, who had his own difficult childhood and died in 1920 while at Oxford University. Kenneth died in 1932, at Pangbourne (Berkshire) where they then lived, and his wife Elspeth died in 1948. The family is buried in Holywell Cemetery in Oxford.
It’s all inspiration, from Wind in the Willows. I admit I don’t much like Toad, but he is a wonderful character. I wonder whether anyone else was like me in their youth—I used to skip “the Piper at the Gates of Dawn” because I found it boring. When I read it in my twenties, I was blown away by the beauty of it. It’s now my favourite part, although only just in front of “coldtonguecoldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkinssaladfrenchrolls cresssandwichespottedmeatgingerbeerlemonadesodawater—”
I have a very old, cloth-covered (rather tatty) version with illustrations by Ernest H Shepard. There is a beautiful map on the inside front and back, one of those 3-D types. It labels the roads and the Wild Wood and ‘Rat’s House’ and so on, and lovely tree-lined rivers and roads (which have finger signposts). I wonder if it will scan? Not well…
The book is the one hundred and first edition, Methuen 1951. That’s older than me, in case you wonder. My eldest brother wrote his name in it, so I’m assuming it was his before mine. He’s not claimed it back. I did have another smaller copy, complete with dust cover (but no illustrations). I think I handed it on to my niece when she confessed she didn’t have a copy; hopefully her girls are enjoying it now.
From Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Chapter VII of The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. I’m confidant it’s out of copyright. As I typed this I realised why it’s so perfect. The description is entirely point of view. It’s brilliant.
Breathless and transfixed, the Mole stopped rowing as the liquid run of that glad piping broke upon him like a wave, caught him up, and possessed him utterly. He saw the tears on his comrade’s cheeks, and bowed his head and understood. For a space they hung there, brushed by the purple loosestrife that fringed the bank; then the clear imperious summons that marched hand-in-hand with the intoxicating melody imposed its will on Mole, and mechanically, he bent to his oars again. And the light grew steadily stronger, but no birds sang as they were wont to do at the approach of dawn; and but for the heavenly music all was marvellously still.
On either side of them, as they glided onwards, the rich meadow-grass seemed that morning of a freshness and a greenness unsurpassable. Never had they noticed the roses so vivid, the willow-herb so riotous, the meadow-sweet so odorous and pervading. Then the murmur of the approaching weir began to hold the air, and they felt a consciousness that they were nearing the end, whatever that might be, that surely awaited their expedition.
Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Chapter VII of The Wind in the Willows; illustrations E H Shephard.