The Wind in the Willows
by Kenneth Grahame
The wife was worried--deservedly so--about the reception of the volume of stories her husband had written for their disabled son, a little boy whose name in the family was “Mouse.” It’s true, the father had once been famous for his short story collections. But a decade had passed since his last successful publication. And the newest book, with its gentle satire and anthropomorphic animals, was unlike anything else he had written. So unlike, that several publishers turned it down, the one who finally published it refusing to pay the author anything in advance.
Most critics panned it, a reviewer at The Times of London writing that “Grown-up readers will find it monstrous and elusive. Not until praised by U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt, a fan of the author’s, did the book get widespread notice.
It was The Wind in the Willows, now a perennially popular seller more than a century after its 1908 publication. Despite its ultimate popularity, author Kenneth Grahame never wrote a sequel, never, in fact, wrote anything else. (The separately-published short story entitled “Bertie’s Escapade,” was written in 1907.)
If not for his unhappy marriage to former society hostess Elspeth Thomson and the birth of their physically and emotionally disabled son Alistair, “In all probability (Grahame) would have gone to his grave a gentle, fantastic bachelor,” reported Peter Green in Kenneth Grahame: A Biography, published in 1959, the centennial of Grahame’s birth.
A strong-willed woman with literary ambitions of her own, “Elspeth firmly convinced herself in a very short time (after meeting Grahame) that here was a man who shared her own private world of childish sentimentalism: more disastrously, she convinced Grahame as well,” Green wrote.
When they married in 1899, Elspeth was thirty-seven, Grahame forty. It was a first marriage for both, the marriage of two people hopelessly set in their separate ways. Their son Alistair was born prematurely, blind in one eye and with other disabilities. Improbably nicknamed “Mouse,” Alistair developed the personality that inspired the headstrong but strangely loveable character of Mr. Toad in The Wind in the Willows.
“One day in 1904, (Grahame) wrote to a friend, ‘Mouse had a bad crying fit on the night of his birthday, and I had to tell him stories about moles, giraffes and water-rats (he selected these as subject) till after twelve,’” children’s author Susan Cooper cites in her introduction to a 1999 edition of The Wind in the Willows. The giraffes soon dropped from sight, but the mole and the water-rat, as well as their friends Mr. Badger and Mr. Toad, soon became staples of the stories Grahame told his son.
By the time the stories were published, Grahame had added two “grown-up” additions, “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” and “Wayfarers All.” Cooper recommends that children reading the book skip these chapters, which jarringly interrupt the misadventures of Mr. Toad, a spendthrift addicted to the next new thing, from the horse drawn gypsy cart episode pictured in the illustration for this post, to expensive motor cars which he drives both badly and too fast.
Eluding the watchfulness of his friends Mole, Rat and Mr. Badger, Toad takes one joyride too many and lands in jail. Escaping, he returns to find his ancestral home, Toad Hall, overrun by squatters. With the help of his friends, all ends well, but readers must have hoped the reformation of the loveable scoundrel Toad would be short lived.
It was not. Having poured so much of his own “agony and joy” into the book, Grahame had no more to say. Alistair’s death in early adulthood, a possible suicide, would stop the fount of his father’s stories forever.
Grahame’s masterpiece is widely available. For a child, or the child in you, indulge in the many illustrated versions. Or download free copies from Project Gutenberg, www.gutenberg.org/catalog/world/readfile?fk_files=3273801/.
(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics ends a November of fantasy with Tanith Lee’s Black Unicorn.)