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by Bamber Gascoigne

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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 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. Some animals are eaten for breakfast. Grahame also published essays, stories, and collections of sketches. Grahame's personal life was not as happy as the fictional world he created. It has been questioned whether this novel is a children's book at all.

"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)

Grahame was educated at St. Edward's School, Oxford. 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. While pursuing his career, Grahame began composing light nonfiction pieces as a pastime. He contributed articles to such journals as the St. James Gazette, W.E. Henley's National Observer, and The Yellow Book. In 1898 he was appointed to the post of Secretary to the Bank.

Grahame's early essays and stories, collected in Pagan Papers (1893), were praised by Swinburne. The Golden Age (1895), a collection of sketches, was said to be the favorite bedtime reading of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Its sequel Dream Days (1898) included Grahame's most famous short story, 'The Reluctant Dragon'. 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 peaceful monster manages to keep its life. St. George, supposed to be thirsting for its blood, doesn't want to hurt it. The Saint and the Dragon give a good performance, "a jolly fight", and the Dragon collapses as they had agreed beforehand. After refreshment St. George makes a speech and warns "them against the sin of romancing, and making up stories and fancying other people would believe them just because they were plausible and highly-coloured."

In 1899 Grahame married Elspeth Thomson, a 36-year-old spinster, but did not give up his bachelor ways. Soon after her wedding Elspeth Grahame 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 . . ." Grahame wrote parts of The Wind in the Willows in a letter form to his young son Alistair, nicknamed Mouse, who 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 his son, whose behavior had similarities with the reckless and selfish Toad, who nevertheless wins the sympathy of the reader. When Alastair was away from home, he continued the Toad stories in letters to his son. Grahame's manuscript was rejected by The Bodley Head, the publisher of his earlier books, and an American periodical, but eventually the book was published by Methuen in 1908 in England. 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." 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 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 said to Theodore Roosevelt. 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 of the book in 1908. "The book is an urbane exercise in irony at the expense of the English character and of mankind. It is entirely successful."

Grahame retired from his work in 1908, officially because of health reasons, but perhaps also under pressure from his employees. His son Alastair, who appears to have been psychologically disturbed, committed suicide while an undergraduate at Oxford, by laying on train tracks at Oxford, two days before his 20th birthday. Grahame stopped writing after WW I. He died 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)

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 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)

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