It was only after reading ‘The Wind in the Willows’ to my four year-old daughter over Christmas that I realised it isn’t, properly speaking, a children’s book at all. I’ve loved the story, its picture of comfortable domesticity and wild adventure, since I was a child myself, but there’s enough in the book at a formal and stylistic level to hint to the interested adult reader that there’s more going on than meets the eye. The two chapters commonly excised from abridged versions, ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ and ‘Wayfarers All’, are the most obvious signposts to more enduring concerns than the everyday trials of small, anthropomorphic woodland creatures. The former sees Mole and the Water Rat drawn into a hallucinatory encounter with the god Pan, while the latter recounts the Water Rat’s meeting with a Sea Rat, who intrigues him with tales of the high seas and distant, dusty Mediterranean ports, to the point where Ratty is about to give up the river bank for good.
But enough has been written about ‘The Wind in the Willows’ in the century since its publication, and I doubt I could contribute much else of interest. It’s an enduring classic of children’s literature that repays adult discovery, and if anyone reading this hasn’t glanced at it since they were small, then scare up a copy of the Oxford Classics edition, which has an excellent introduction and notes. What I’m really interested in now is the ‘forgotten’ Kenneth Grahame, the deeply reserved and eccentric bohemian who spent his career in the Bank of England; the children’s writer whose son savagely killed himself, and who preceded his best known book with a curious, whimsical collection of essays and two arch, superbly ironic books about (not for) young children. The cosy Edwardian had in fact been a late Victorian aesthete in many ways, publishing articles and stories in the notorious ‘Yellow Book’ and forging a style of paradoxical exuberance and precision that would go on to influence Kipling, PG Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh and (I would argue) Vladimir Nabokov.
Grahame’s first book, ‘Pagan Papers’, was a compilation of his earlier sketches, essays and articles, a composite portrait of the artist as a young bohemian. Musings on pipe smoking and pints of ale in country pubs share space with more considered reflections on book collecting, marginalia, ‘loafing’, and a wonderfully evocative sketch of ‘The Rural Pan’. It was Grahame’s second book, ‘The Golden Age’ (1895), that was his real breakthrough, a critically and commercially successful collection of stories and reminiscences about childhood that counted amongst its many unlikely fans both Theodore Roosevelt and Algernon Swinburne. In a series of linked stories, the narrator and his siblings play their childish games with deadly seriousness and muse on the mystery of the ‘Olympians’, the adults that provenance has put in charge of them, and whose motives remain utterly inscrutable. Grahame’s stylistic breakthrough here was to narrate the stories from the necessarily limited moral and intellectual perspective of a child, but to give him the language and the sinuous, elevated register of a gifted prose stylist. He uses this high, rhetorical style to present the everyday games and trials of middle-class Victorian children in way that both gives them an ironic distance, and frames them with all the resonance and power that the children in question would have experienced.
These are of course taken out of context, and perhaps don’t illustrate what I mean as forcefully as could the book entire, but here are a couple of examples, picked literally at random from the page. In one scene, sneaking down to the kitchen at night, the eldest child Edward togs himself up as a bold cavalier: “Whatever the audience, Edward, if possible, always dressed for his parts with care and conscientiousness; while Harold and I, true Elizabethans, cared little about the mounting of the piece, so long as the real dramatic heart of it beat sound.” Or, being sworn at by the farmer whose rowing boat they have stolen, the children wonder “where Farmer Larkin, who was bucolically bred and reared, had acquired such range and wealth of vocabulary.”
Sometimes the prose leaps gorgeously into the intimation of higher things; in my favourite chapter ‘The Secret Drawer’, pausing while he investigates an old bureau in a spare room, the narrator looks out of the window: “Westwards the clouds were massing themselves in a low violet bank; below them, to north and south, as far round as eye could reach, a narrow streak of gold ran out and stretched away, straight along the horizon. Somewhere very far off, a horn was blowing, clear and thin; it sounded like the golden streak grown audible, while the gold seemed the visible sound.” It is that far off golden note that rings through all of Grahame’s work, the pagan call of distant adventure, and a long road in the getting of it.
All this seems to raise further questions on the nature of ‘voice’ in narrative fiction. Not to name names, but I have always hated novels where the narrator’s perspective governs the language; in other words, books narrated by children that read as if they were written by children hold no immediate appeal. Rather than the objectively patronising approach of writing with one hand tied behind your back, Grahame’s style seems the most rewarding and the most sincere to me. Nothing other than ultimate meaning is held back from the children in ‘The Golden Age’ (and its sequel, ‘Dream Days’), and they are allowed to express their inner lives with all the vigour of a great talent reaching at full stretch, relishing his command of the language. A direct line can be drawn from this to, for example, Martin Amis’s ‘Money’, where the slobbish, ignorant and inarticulate John Self can narrate his own story with all the acuity of a writer pushing himself to his best achievement.
It’s incredible to think now, but Grahame had tremendous problems getting ‘The Wind in the Willows’ published. After the great success of his earlier books, no one could quite understand this woodland whimsy, and it’s rumoured that an American edition was only secured through the direct intervention of Roosevelt himself, who revered ‘The Golden Age’ and thought its author a genius. The adventures of Mr Toad, Mole, Rat and Badger will remain in print as long as books are read or stories told, but it’s something of a scandal that these three earlier books are currently out of print. Of course, in the infinite bazaar of the internet old copies can be found, but how much more of a tribute to their author would be a decent Oxford or Penguin Classics edition, available in all good bookshops etc, and set to introduce a new generation to one of the most beguiling and near-forgotten talents of the age?
The glove is thrown down; publishers, take up the challenge.