An­i­mal magic

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

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.

Pine­hurst II, Pine­hurst Road, Farn­bor­ough Busi­ness Park, Farn­bor­ough, Hamp­shire GU14 7BF Tele­phone 01252 555072 www.coun­trylife.co.uk

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