The Wild Wood and the Wide World

On this day, 8th October 1908, The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame’s classic children’s book was published.

In 1908, Kenneth Grahame retired from his position as secretary of the Bank of England. He moved to Berkshire, where he had lived as a child and spent his time by the River Thames doing much as the animal characters in his book do – “simply messing about in boats”. He elaborated on the bedtime stories he had earlier told to his son Alistair and created a children’s classic that has never been out of print.  It was into its thirty-first printing in 1929 when playwright A. A. Milne, creator of Winnie the Pooh, adapted the most raucous and rambunctious part of it for the stage as Toad of Toad Hall in 1929 – which in 1949 Walt Disney’s studio took to the highest heights of slapstick hilariousness with its animated featurette the same name.

This anthropomorphic of riverside animals was set in a pastoral version of Edwardian England, characterized by its mix of mysticism, adventure, morality, and camaraderie, and celebrated for its evocation of the nature of the Thames valley. It was an early precursor of late-century melodramatic morality tales such as Watership Down (rabbits) and Ducton Wood (moles) which contain none of its endearing magic and humour.

The Wind in the Willows is a strange book. It poses as an almost homoerotic Arcadian fantasy, and yet it is also an opaque upper middle-class tract preaching deference to and and support for the British class system and the established order. Mole looks up to Rat who looks up to Badger and they all kowtow to the ridiculous, pompous and self-indulgent Bullington Club Toad because he is the lord of the manor. The bad weasels and stoats, of course, were the socialist revolutionaries who wanted to wreck the joint. They had to be vanquished by the valiant – one could say vigilante –  forces of righteousness and order – the stout burgers of the riverbank – and violently ejected from Toad Hall. The rule of law is restored, and Mole and Ratty resume their bucolic idyll.

Six years later, this shuttered Edwardian dreamtime shuddered to a terrible end in the carnage of the Great War, and in a decade, Red weasels broke the wheel of history and reset the clock for the rest of the twentieth century.

When I first read The Wind in the Willows as a child, it was a fantasy. When I reread it again as a left-wing teenager, living not too far from where the story was set and indeed, often rambling by Thames water’s edge, it was a fable – and a lame one at that. But I really must’ve must’ve been stoned or tripping when I reached Chapter Seven because I fell in love with it. It has been a favourite of mine ever since despite its twee, self-conscious encounter with the “divine”. The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is a most magnificent chapter. No wonder Pink Floyd chose it as the title of their first album back in the day!

Critics have not been so smitten. As Rosemary Hill notes in her excellent centennial review (see below) , it is “one strange, unsettling chapter … that abridgers of the book have always been quick to drop, though Grahame himself thought it essential. In it, Rat and Mole, searching for the Otter’s lost child, are granted a vision of the great god Pan, a muscular, horned god, “the Friend and Helper”, before whom the animals, “crouching to the earth, bowed their heads and did worship”. Whether it is the latent homo-eroticism of the vision or simply the sudden change of tone that makes the scene so uncomfortable, it is certainly a failure. But while artistically it is the weakest part of the book, it is at the same time the key to it. Pan’s parting gift to Rat and Mole is “forgetfulness”. They will not remember the pure happiness of their vision because if they did the memory would grow until it overshadowed and spoiled the rest of their lives with the knowledge that it could never be regained. The “little animals” would never be “happy and light-hearted” again”.

Read it anew here: Chapter 7: The Piper at the Gates of Dawn

Reproduced in full below are two excellent reviews of a centenary annotated edition published in 2009. They place Grahame’s story in the context of its time – an idyllic last summer bathed in golden sunshine before the storm that hit Europe in August 1914, and an equally golden age of children’s books.  There is a certain consensus in both reviews – with which I concur: The Wind in the Willows is a above all a book about longing, but it also also a book about letting go, if only for a brief moment.

And here is the e-book:  The Wind in the Willows  

Wild waters are upon us

Rosemary Hill, The Guardian, 13 June 2009

If Kenneth Grahame’s riverbank idyll inspires nostalgia, it’s because The Wind in the Willows is itself saturated in longing. The tale of Ratty and Toad was, Rosemary Hill argues, a product of its own uneasy times

If the Edwardian age is not remembered as a decade of social discontent and growing international tension when the cracks in the British empire began to show, but as an the reason is largely to be found in children’s literature. It was the age, if not of innocence, then of Jemima Puddleduck, Peter Pan and Mr Toad. Most of what became the canon of English writing for children appeared in a mere nine years. The Tale of Peter Rabbit, the first of the stories that Beatrix Potter modestly referred to as her “little books”, came out in 1902 and was rapidly followed by six more. Peter Pan was first staged in 1904, E Nesbit’s The Railway Children was published two years later, and then, in 1908, came Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, soon to become one of the best loved of them all.

The riverbank adventures of Mole, Ratty and Badger have now taken their place among the earliest memories of four generations and seem timeless, while the impossible, irrepressible Mr Toad got his own stage show, written by AA Milne, as early as 1929 and is still going strong. Yet Grahame’s story and indeed the whole Edwardian renaissance of books for and about children were peculiarly the products of their own uneasy time. If The Wind in the Willows inspires nostalgia now, that is because it is itself saturated in longing for other times and other places.

A year older than JM Barrie and a year younger than E Nesbit, Grahame was, like them, middle-aged when he produced his most enduring work. He was 49 when the book appeared, and described himself, accurately, as a “mid-Victorian”. His was the generation that had known no other monarch than Victoria and that felt with her death in 1901 that they had lost “a sustaining symbol”, as Henry James put it, adding, “the wild waters are upon us now”.

The Wild Wood and the Wide World are the twin menaces that loom over The Wind in the Willows. The sensible Water Rat wants nothing to do with either; it is only the Mole’s naivety and Toad’s hubris that force him to encounter them from time to time. The Mole soon learns his lesson. He is a creature, as he comes to understand, of the “frequented pasture” and the garden plot. “Nature in the rough” is not for him. The life of the riverbank, of messing about in boats, of ample picnics and long rambles, is essentially the life of suburbia, a rapidly growing but not entirely benign sign of the Edwardian times. The railway, which facilitates Toad’s daring escape from prison, had by now brought the branch lines deep into the shires, but with them came the commuters and the red-brick villas that Grahame so disliked. His typically English ambivalence towards suburban life runs like the river through the book. On the one hand, there’s the love of comfort and security, on the other, the chafing at its limitations and the sense that the pursuit of rural bliss may destroy the very thing that it desires.

Grahame was himself part of the phenomenon. Having spent the happiest years of his childhood at Cookham Dene in Berkshire, he returned, shortly before he started work on The Wind in the Willows, with his family and took a house there, grumbling, like Ratty, about incomers and over-crowding. In the episode where Toad’s caravan is overturned by a speeding motor car, the new Norton edition tells us that Grahame’s original version had Ratty shouting after it: “Stockbrokers!” Grahame changed it later to “road hogs”. As a recently retired secretary of the Bank of England he may have felt he was on thin ice.

Other social nuances of home-counties life in the early 20th century are reflected along the river bank. Toad Hall, with its secret passages and Tudor mullions, was given up some time ago by the original family and sold to a Victorian magnate. It is now in the hands, like Britain itself, of a spendthrift, headstrong eldest son who indulges one fad after another and is treated with the respect his pretensions deserve by the older tenantry. Rat points out to Mole the place where they will moor their boat at Toad Hall, next to “That creek on the left, where the notice-board says, ‘Private. No landing allowed'”. Toad blithely sees his non-ancestral home as a desirable commercial property. He describes it as it might be advertised in the new magazine, Country Life, founded in 1897 in London to cater largely to the aspirations of the stockbroking classes: “an eligible self-contained gentleman’s residence … dating in part from the 14th century but replete with every modern convenience … Five minutes from church, post-office, and golf-links.”

Like Beatrix Potter, Grahame was a keen observer of his characters’ domestic arrangements. The opulence of Toad Hall contrasts with Mole End, where the humble collection of prints and popular plaster busts, the outdated Gothic lettering on the house sign and the peculiar garden ornament made of cockle shells, mark Mole out as the Mr Pooter of the riverbank. Badger’s arts and crafts interior, complete with English oak settles and plain brick floor, shows a more cultivated taste. Indeed his home, with its central hall surrounded by “stout oaken comfortable-looking doors”, is in the old English style of suburban country-house design pioneered by architects such as Norman Shaw and admired by connoisseurs at home and abroad.

The trouble with Edwardian suburbia was that it was, as Grahame knew, an optical illusion. With its need for the golf club and the water closet as well as nature and history, it could best be found in the pages of Country Life where Gertrude Jekyll’s artfully planned landscapes dissolved the garden boundaries, while Edwin Lutyens’s houses turned newspaper magnates and mill-owners into county gentry. Great gusts of longing for something wilder and wider, whatever the risk, blow through The Wind in the Willows, as they stirred among many of Grahame’s contemporaries.

The fantasy of the “open road”, which troubles Toad and even sometimes Ratty, found expression in a fashion, which Grahame followed, for long cross-country walks. “Tramping”, as it was sometimes called, suggested a possible temporary change of class as well as scene. The poet WH Davies’s The Autobiography of a Supertramp was published in the same year as The Wind in the Willows and was also a great success. It told of Davies’s travels across thousands of miles of America, living rough and doing menial jobs, as he later recollected them in the tranquillity of Sevenoaks. For the riverbankers, however, there is no such possibility. Their caravan trip ends abruptly when they collide, literally, with modernity in the form of the car. Later, when Ratty is tempted by the sea rat to yield to the call of the Mediterranean, Mole rapidly talks him out of it.

England itself in the early 20th century was suffering from a similar timidity or failure of nerve – what Hermann Muthesius, the shrewd German observer of English life and architecture, called in 1904 “a certain hardening of the arteries”. The 1890s had been very different. Then it was possible briefly to belong to both suburbia and bohemia, and Grahame had. While rising smoothly through the ranks at the Bank of England to become its youngest ever secretary, he was also part of the literary set surrounding Aubrey Beardsley and Oscar Wilde. He had written regularly for The Yellow Book, a magazine devoted to modern decadence in the persons of Max Beerbohm, Walter Sickert and WB Yeats. It was in its second issue that he published the story that made his name, “The Roman Road”, a narrative cast as a conversation between a child and an adult, its message that only the artist and the child are imaginatively free.

Reviewing Grahame’s collection of stories The Golden Age, which was about, but not for, children, the arch-aesthete Algernon Swinburne found it “too praiseworthy for praise” in its lack of sentimentality about its subject. Then came the arrest of Oscar Wilde, the demise of The Yellow Book and a change of mood. Grahame’s Dream Days, another collection of stories published in 1899, was followed by nine years of silence before The Wind in the Willows, which, when it appeared, disconcerted some critics who had admired his earlier work and were not expecting a children’s book.

The editors of the latest editions are not the first to detect a comic echo of Wilde’s tragedy in the rise and fall of Mr Toad. Grahame’s Berkshire home was not far from Reading Gaol, George Gilbert Scott’s turreted Gothic revival prison, where Wilde was incarcerated. Reading is undoubtedly where Toad is taken from court, loaded with chains, having been sentenced to 20 years for being rude to a policeman. “Across the hollow-sounding drawbridge, below the spiky portcullis, under the frowning archway” Toad recedes.

He is disappearing, though, not only into prison but into the Victorian fiction of the past that Reading Gaol represents. As he passes them, the prison warders sprout medieval halberds, there is a rack-chamber and a thumbscrew-room, and the police sergeant suddenly starts to talk in impenetrable Walter Scott Gothic: “Oddsbodikins … and a murrain on both of them!” Toad finds he is immured in the darkest dungeon in “the stoutest castle in all the length and breadth of Merry England”. Merry England, Grahame knew, was a fiction, and it was finished. It could no longer offer a resort for the imagination as it had to the writers of the early 19th century who sought respite from their own times in the pious middle ages. The Edwardians knew much more about history and they were much less sure about God.

Those of them who went on searching for the divine often found it enveloped in clouds of pantheism and neo-paganism, spiritualism and theosophy, the faiths of the doubtful. It is this diffuse but potent supernaturalism that appears in The Wind in the Willows in one strange, unsettling chapter, “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”. It is a section that abridgers of the book have always been quick to drop, though Grahame himself thought it essential. In it, Rat and Mole, searching for the Otter’s lost child, are granted a vision of the great god Pan, a muscular, horned god, “the Friend and Helper”, before whom the animals, “crouching to the earth, bowed their heads and did worship”.

Whether it is the latent homo-eroticism of the vision or simply the sudden change of tone that makes the scene so uncomfortable, it is certainly a failure. But while artistically it is the weakest part of the book, it is at the same time the key to it. Pan’s parting gift to Rat and Mole is “forgetfulness”. They will not remember the pure happiness of their vision because if they did the memory would grow until it overshadowed and spoiled the rest of their lives with the knowledge that it could never be regained. The “little animals” would never be “happy and light-hearted” again.

At Edward VII’s coronation in 1901 Kipling’s great fin-de-siècle poem, “Recessional”, was read with its tolling refrain “Lest we forget – lest we forget”. But for Grahame and his contemporaries the problem was that they couldn’t forget. The enemy without, the stoats and the weasels from the Wild Wood, might be driven from Toad Hall with sticks, but memory, the foe within, haunted them along with all that they had lost or might be about to lose. And so they turned aside, as one view of history has it, from modernism and went back to the nursery. What they found there, though, was not so much a second childhood as the first, the ideal one, which they preserved forever for their readers – childhood as we may all remember it and as it never was.

Second Wind for a Toad and His Pals

Charles McGrath, New York Times, July 9th 2009

The years between 1900 and the outbreak of World War I, it has often been remarked, were a golden age in Britain for the writing of children’s books. Among the books published then are most of what we remember of Beatrix Potter; several of E. Nesbit’s novels; Kipling’s “Jungle Book” and “Just So” stories, J. M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens,” which became the basis for the stage play; Kenneth Grahame’s “Wind in the Willows”; and “A Little Princess” and “The Secret Garden,” by Frances Hodgson Burnett, who eventually became an American citizen but was born in Manchester, England. In hindsight these books seem to reflect the long, sunny afternoon of Edwardian England, a moment of arrested innocence before the outbreak of the Great War. Many of them also yearn for a rural, preindustrial England that was already vanishing. Part of their appeal is that they’re nostalgic, as we are, for childhood itself, or for a simpler past that seems to embody childhood virtue.

Of all these books “The Wind in the Willows” may be the oddest and most endearing. Too late for the centennial of its original publication in 1908, but a century and a half after the birth of the author, it has been reissued in two large-format annotated editions — one edited by Seth Lerer and published by the Belknap imprint of Harvard University Press, the other edited by Annie Gauger and published by Norton as part of its well-established series that already includes “Alice in Wonderland,”“The Wizard of Oz,” and three volumes of Sherlock Holmes.

“The Wind in the Willows” is probably most famous for a single line, Rat’s remark to Mole: “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” But the boating adventures, charming as they are, are the least of what makes the book so singular. “The Wind in the Willows” is a children’s book that, unlike most, doesn’t describe a world without grownups; instead, it parodies the grownup world. The characters — Rat, Mole, Badger, Otter, Toad — aren’t just woodland creatures with a few anthropomorphic traits. They’re of indeterminate scale — Toad is toad-size in some scenes but in others big enough to disguise himself as a human — and they have full-blown adult personalities, more nearly Edwardian clubmen than rodents, burrow-dwelling mammals or amphibians. Toad, who has certain traits in common with the overweight, fun-loving King Edward, even parts his hair in the middle, a detail that Beatrix Potter famously took exception to. “A frog may wear galoshes,” she wrote. “But I don’t hold with toads wearing beards or wigs!”

The adventures depicted in the book include the famous riverine idylls and a couple of almost equally well-known scenes of cozy underground bachelor life, which Mr. Lerer says owe something to Ruskin’s ideal of British domesticity. There are also the much wilder episodes of Toad’s manic car theft and car smashing; a Bolshevik takeover of Toad’s great manor house, Toad Hall, by the lower-class stoats and weasels; and, most bizarre of all, a moment of sexual and religious ecstasy when Mole and Rat behold, in the silvery, creeping light of dawn, no less than a naked, shaggy-flanked goat god, Pan himself, taking a break from his piping.

This scene is so charged that Ms. Gauger detects an element of homoeroticism. But then she, by far the more extensive and detailed of the two annotators, is quick to find an erotic subtext throughout a work that Grahame declared to be “free of the clash of sex.” After Toad and Mole companionably spend the night together, she notes, “If this were a novel for adults, Mole and Rat would perhaps consummate their relationship amorously.”

This kind of observation is indicative of the problems inherent in annotating a classic text, even one as well known as this. On the one hand, parts of the cultural landscape that inspired the book are already lost to us, and there are echoes and allusions that we remain deaf to even after having them pointed out, others that we are apt to misinterpret from our habit of seeing sex everywhere. On the other hand, the book is still perfectly readable without pedantic notes or explanations, and Ms. Gauger’s edition, in particular, is so laden with commentary that it sometimes resembles the Talmud, with more commentary than text on the page.

Both editors devote vast amounts of space to defining words like “panoply,” “repast,” “provender,” “vouchsafe,” “sniffy,” “fusty,” “hummocky” that are all in the dictionary and whose meaning hasn’t changed much, if at all, since 1908. And neither is entirely reliable: both think that a “well-metalled road” is one literally paved with metal when a glance at Google would have told them that the term is a synonym for what we think of as tarmac.

Both editors, to be fair, are very good at picking up echoes of Romantic poetry, huge chunks of which were clearly swirling inside Kenneth Grahame’s head while he was writing “The Wind in the Willows,” and both illuminate the text by suggesting, among other things, that Toad — blusterer, aesthete, jailed prisoner — was inspired in part by Oscar Wilde. He probably also owes something to Horatio Bottomley, a flamboyant, gasbag journalist and politician of the time. Mr. Lerer further suggests that Toad’s mania, his grandiosity, his compulsive lies and self-deceptions may derive from Grahame’s reading in Krafft-Ebbing’s “Textbook of Insanity.” A simpler explanation of Grahame’s understanding of wild, unpredictable personality may be that he grew up with an unreliable, alcoholic father who eventually abandoned his two sons.

In general Ms. Gauger is more willing than Mr. Lerer to find the roots of “The Wind in the Willows” in Grahame’s biography, and though she sometimes overdoes it, or explains the parallels at tedious length, her commentary nevertheless provides a sad and illuminating subplot of sorts. In many ways Grahame resembles A. A. Milne, who in 1929 dramatized the Toad sections of “The Wind in the Willows,” which always remained his favorite book. Both, though they had little use for women, were married to remote, difficult wives (Grahame courted his by writing to her in baby talk), and each had a single son whom he both doted on and neglected.

“The Wind in the Willows” began as a bedtime story and evolved over a series of letters (reproduced in the Gauger edition) that Grahame wrote to his son, Alastair, during the long months when he was farmed out to a nanny. Alastair Grahame was born part blind (an inspiration for Mole?) and appears to have been emotionally disturbed. After a miserable experience at school he lay down on some train tracks while an undergraduate at Oxford and was decapitated.

Kenneth Grahame’s own early life was scarcely much happier. His mother died when he was 5, his father ran off, and he was raised by relatives who were too stingy to send him to university. Like P. G. Wodehouse, another aspiring writer with a blighted childhood, Grahame went into the banking business. Unlike Wodehouse, he stuck it out, and by the age of 39 had risen to become secretary of the Bank of England, a post that doesn’t seem to have required him to do a whole lot.

His ostensible life was that of a proper Edwardian gent, with lots of male bonding and messing about in boats, and yet privately he burned to write, to live in his imagination. For all its apparent celebration of neatness and domestic orderliness “The Wind in the Willows” is really a book about letting go. It begins with Mole, tired of spring cleaning, putting aside his whitewash brush and taking to the road, and its true hero is Toad, who is anarchy incarnate.

Officially the text seems to disapprove of him: vain, swaggering and boastful, Toad is reprimanded and briefly chastened, and at one point the other characters even stage what we would call a full-scale intervention to confront him with his car-wrecking addiction. But he nonetheless runs away with the book, just as he runs away from prison disguised as a washerwoman, and supplies most of its narrative energy.

Though Rat is supposed to be a poet, Toad’s Song of Himself, sung to an imaginary audience near the end, is the novel’s most exuberant creation. To say that he is Grahame’s alter ego is too simple. More likely he’s the alter ego Grahame wished he could have but was also a little afraid of. Like a surprising number of stuffy-seeming Edwardians, Grahame was half in love with, and half terrified of, the idea of Pan, who never grows old, never goes to the office, never even bothers to put on clothes, and yet embodies all that is magical about the world we imagined we grew up in.

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s