The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
The Wind in the Willows is normally considered to be a children’s novel. It was written by Kenneth Grahame and first published in 1908. As a children’s book, I was surprised that it was the subject of study at Anne Scott’s summer literature class. However, apparently Grahame himself said that it was not a book for children. Ms Scott certainly brought a new thoughtfulness to the novel.
It was interesting to learn about the author who, although Scottish born, lived much of his life in England.The Wind in the Willows is the work of a writer who found success in the 1890s as a young contemporary of Oscar Wilde. Grahame was also an admired contributor to the literary quarterly The Yellow Book. Although employed by the Bank of England, Grahame, still in his 20s, was publishing stories in literary magazines, work that became collected in Dream Days (1895) and an even more successful publication, The Golden Age (1898).
In 1899, Grahame married. It was not a happy marriage. He and his wife, Elspeth,had one son, Alastair, who was troubled with health problems and a difficult personality. When Grahame finally retired from the Bank in 1908, he concentrated on the stories he had told his son, the stories of the Thames riverbank on which Grahame himself had grown up. The Wind in the Willows began as bedtime stories and letters addressed to Grahame’s troubled son, a sickly boy known as “Mouse” (a nick name the boy loathed) who possibly inspired the wilful character of Mr Toad and who eventually committed suicide, aged 20, while at Oxford. The Wind in the Willows is a far more interesting book than its popular and often juvenile audience might suggest. The story is alternately slow moving and fast paced, it focuses on four anthropomorphised animals in a pastoral version of England.
Throughout The Wind in the Willows two tales are tightly interwoven. There are the adventures of Mole, Ratty, Badger and Toad of Toad Hall with his canary-coloured caravan, the succession of motor cars, and the climactic battle for Toad Hall. At the same time, there are Grahame’s lyrical explorations of home life (“Dulce Domum”), river life (“Wayfarers All”) and childhood itself (“The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”). The Wind in the Willows also makes a powerful contribution to the mythology of Edwardian England through its evocation of the turning seasons of the English countryside, from the riverbank in summer to the rolling open road, and through its hints of an imminent class struggle from the inhabitants of the Wild Wood illustrated by the stoats and the weasels.
The Wind in the Willows deserves recognition as a novel in which adult readers will find wisdom, humour, entertainment and meaning, as well as many passages of great literary power, together with characters who live on in the unconscious knowledge contained in English literature. It is a book I have always loved. Thanks to Anne Scott’s marvellous course, I now understand it better too.