Imagine – no death, discomfort or women
‘The Wind in the Willows’ is a strange fantasy that says a lot about Kenneth Grahame, discovers Anne de Courcy
the bluff male companionship of Mole and Ratty, the gravitas and reassurance of Badger, the cheerful log fires and the large solid meals. For Mole and Ratty’s first picnic on the river, Ratty brings a fat wicker luncheonbasket. “‘What’s inside it?’ asked the Mole, wriggling with curiosity. ‘There’s cold chicken inside it,’ replied the Rat briefly; ‘coldtonguecoldhamcoldbeef pickledgherkinssaladfrenchrolls…’”
As for the need for adventure felt by most children – and inside his mind Grahame was a child – there is the conceited ebullience of Toad, the leather-gauntleted hero of the road, always getting out of scrapes that only he would have got into, and given to childish obsessions. Who can forget the image of Toad, eyes fixed on the dust cloud of a departing motor car as he dreamily mutters “Poop-poop!”
Grahame was born on
March 8 1859. A mere five years later, his 27-year-old mother Bessie died after giving birth to her third son. His father, punch-drunk with grief and already given to tippling, took refuge in alcohol, his career trickling down the drain along with the dregs of the numerous bottles he emptied. Soon he departed for Normandy, where he stayed for the rest of his life. The young Grahames – the three boys had an older sister, Helen – were given into the care of Bessie’s mother Mary Inglis, a sternly competent widow of 67 encased in black silk moire, her mouth set in a dour grimace. Their father’s brother John took financial responsibility for them and, as Dennison notes, in one of the vivid phrases scattered through the book, “took pains that liberality never overmastered prudence”.
The loss of his parents, and the warmth and love that went with them, was to colour Grahame’s whole life. As a child, his way of coping with it was to tunnel into – there is no other word – a world of make-believe that would always remain with him. Fields, the river, toys, places rather than people, cast their spell over this imaginative child and helped blot out the overwhelming feeling of grief and loss. Boarding school at nine, with its overcrowded dormitories, rudimentary sanitation and infestations of rats, only encouraged the withdrawal into this interior world.
His school was in Oxford, where he won scholastic prizes and absorbed the beauty of the city’s magnificent college buildings, so that it was to the university of Oxford he longed to go. But his future had been decided years earlier by a conclave of his Scottish uncles; almost needless to say, it was to be one of respectability, probity and sobriety. Nothing could fulfil those criteria more successfully than the Bank of England, into which he was inserted. Oxford would remain a dream, longed for as he worked his way through the surprisingly rowdy lower echelons of the Bank – passbooks were hurled through the air around him, there were bets on illicit dog fights and employees were regularly so drunk that they had to lie down on tables to recover. And at the Bank he stayed, for year after relentless year, slowly climbing up the ladder of clerkdom until after 30 years he reached the dizzy heights of secretary, one of the Bank’s three senior positions. All the while, though, his real life was continuing, where it had always been, inside his head.
By 1882, aged 23, he had begun to write, steadily sending handwritten essays to various editors. Finally, in 1887, one was accepted. Then, in 1890, Ernest Henley, the editor of the Scots Observer (later the National Observer), published the first piece Grahame sent him, Of Smoking.
It was the breakthrough. Over the next four years, Henley published 20 more of Grahame’s essays; and he began to contribute