Excitement, Kenneth Grahame —author of The Wind in the Willows—once suggested, is the longing ‘to escape into the open air, to shake off bricks and mortar, and to wander in the unfrequented places of the earth’ and so it has proved for the generations of readers, adults and children alike, who, like mole, have ‘meandered aimlessly along… by the edge of [Grahame’s] full-fed river’ and shared the adventures of his remarkably human quartet of animal friends.
the desirability of escape is a defining feature of those stories that comprise the so-called Golden Age of British children’s fiction. this Victorian and edwardian efflorescence of unparalleled richness includes the work of Lewis Carroll, Charles Kingsley, George macdonald, Beatrix Potter, Grahame himself, e. nesbit, J. m. Barrie and A. A. milne. in novel after novel, these authors jettisoned everyday reality with something of the glee with which mole abandons his spring cleaning.
they suggested alternative worlds and fantasies that were often realistic in detail, but contemptuous of contemporary orthodoxies. Grahame (see page 58) insisted that ‘real life’ lay outside the drawing room and the scope of grown-up convention. As did Potter, Richard Jefferies, Henry Williamson and Richard Adams, he rooted reality in nature: animals and the landscape. it’s an imaginative leap that children easily take in their stride.
more than a century ago, Grahame had powerful personal motives for escaping into a rural idyll every bit as fantastical as Barrie’s never never Land or milne’s Hundred Acre Wood. His marriage was profoundly unhappy, his only child disabled, his working life at the Bank of england only partly rewarding. By denying reality and replacing it with a very english Arcadia, based on an amalgam of locations he knew well, he cauterised deep emotional wounds.
Like the creator of Peter Rabbit, Grahame was essentially lonely. His love of the natural world and its inhabitants, as in Potter’s case, brought him the emotional fulfilment that eluded him elsewhere. Unselfconsciously, he referred to his ‘friends’ the hares, plovers and water voles.
A nation of dog- and horse-lovers, of gardeners and ramblers, of farmers and fieldsports enthusiasts needs no reminding of the balm and inspiration of nature. Readers of British children’s fiction enjoy the richest literary heritage of its sort on earth. Golden Age children’s authors in this country were unique in their escapist fantasies that focused so often on natural idylls and anthropomorphic beasts.
We rightly continue to cherish their work, but we must equally cherish the countryside and the wildlife that inspired these jewels of childhood and literature.
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