BORN: 1859, Edinburgh, Scotland
DIED: 1932, Pangbourne, England
The Golden Age (1895)
Dream Days (1898)
The Wind in the Willows (1907)
The Reluctant Dragon (1938)
Bertie’s Escapade (1949)
Kenneth Grahame. Frederick Hollyer / Getty Images
British author Kenneth Grahame established an early reputation as a writer with his short stories about children and their imaginative worlds, but he is remembered by succeeding generations primarily for the novel The Wind in the Willows (1907). Critics have counted Grahame among a special group of writers who have successfully created ‘‘unreal worlds,’’ including J. R. R. Tolkien, Lewis Carroll, and Nikolai Gogol.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Early Death of Mother. Grahame was born on March 8, 1859, in Edinburgh, Scotland. When he was about a year old, his family moved to Argyllshire, where his father had been appointed to the post of sheriff substitute. There, in 1864, his mother died from scarlet fever (an infectious bacterial disease common before the development of antibiotics in the twentieth century) following the birth of her third son, Roland. Grahame also caught the infection but recovered under the care of his maternal grandmother. Shortly after this the four children went to live with her at Cookham Dene in Berkshire. Their father stayed behind to mourn his wife and developed a dependency on alcohol.
Raised Primarily by Grandmother. Grahame would later recall these few years at Cookham Dene with affection in his two collections of reminiscences, The Golden Age (1895) and Dream Days (1898). ‘‘Granny’’ ingles may not have been the stereotypical doting grandmother—hard financial circumstances and a stern Presbyterian nature worked against that—but the happy memories of those years were also, in part, the foundation for The Wind in the Willows.
Grahame and his brothers and sister first moved with their grandmother in 1866 to a smaller cottage after repairs became necessary to Cookham Dene, and then back to their father’s house when he unexpectedly summoned them home. Their stay there lasted less than a year. in the spring of 1867, their father resigned his post and went abroad, and the children were sent back to their grandmother. It was the last time they were to live with their father. He died in France in 1887, and of the three surviving children only Grahame was present at the funeral in Le Havre.
Unfulfilling Banking Career. In 1868 both Grahame and his older brother, Willie, were enrolled in St. Edward’s School in Oxford, where Grahame excelled during the next seven years. However, in 1875, at the start of Grahame’s last year at St. Edward’s, Willie died from a severe inflammation of the lungs. The following year the family, refusing to support Grahame’s application for oxford, insisted instead that he apply for a clerkship in the Bank of England. He spent much of the next three decades working for the institution.
Moving to London, Grahame came in contact with writers. He published his first piece in the St. James Gazette in 1888, and spent 1891 to 1895 publishing in the National Observer. Some of the essays from the National Observer were collected in his first book Pagan Papers (1894). While Grahame tried to emulate Robert Louis Stevenson, the works were not as intellectually tough as Stevenson’s. They do, however, introduce themes that recurred in his later works, including the idea of the Pan myth that was part of The Wind in the Willows.
Writing for Children. The first edition of Pagan Papers contains six short stories about children as well. Grahame continued to publish short stories about children over the next year—some in the literary magazine the Yellow Book—which were collected in The Golden Age (1895). The book was embraced by both critics and readers when it was first published, in part because of its originality. Grahame wrote more stories about some of the characters, which were collected in Dream Days (1898). Both books were reprinted several times in the early 1900s. In 1898, he became the secretary of the Bank of England, one of its three highest executive officers.
Origins of The Wind in the Willows As Grahame was succeeding professionally as both a banker and a writer, his personal life was also being transformed. He married Elspeth Thomson in 1899, and the couple had their only child, Alastair, in 1900. The child was blind in one eye and had severe defects in the other. Though Grahame’s marriage was a failure, he enjoyed inventing tales for his son. Some of these bedtime stories became The Wind in the Willows, and were written down in book form by the author in 1907.
Grahame resigned from his high position at the Bank of England in June 1908, three months after his forty- ninth birthday and four months before the publication of The Wind in the Willows. Grahame may have seen retirement as preferable to continuing in a job that he had not chosen for himself. With the royalties that accrued from the unexpected and continuing success of The Wind in the Willows, he moved the family to Blewbury in 1910, put together The Cambridge Book of Poetry for Children (1916), and traveled extensively. Even World War I, which engulfed much of Europe from 1914 to 1918 and saw eight hundred thousand Britons lose their lives, had little effect on the author.
Loss of Son. While Grahame’s literary endeavors were limited as he pursued a life of leisure, his life did suffer one significant tragedy. When his son entered Oxford University, he started to develop mental problems. In 1920, after his problems involving a religious crisis worsened, his decapitated body was found on the railroad tracks near the university. An inquest ruled it an accidental death, but the circumstances make it more likely that Alastair committed suicide
Following Alastair’s death, the Grahames went to Italy for an extended stay and then moved to Pangbourne in 1924. Grahame suffered from circulatory problems while he was there, and he died on July 6, 1932, of a cerebral hemorrhage.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Grahame's famous contemporaries include:
Marcel Proust (1871-1922): A French realist novelist who wrote the seven-volume Remembrance of Things Past (1913-1927).
Eugene O'Neill (1888-1953): An American playwright whose expressionistic psychological explorations were influenced by Freud and Nietzsche and included A Moon for the Misbegotten (1943) and A Long Day's Journey into Night (1956).
Mori Ogai (1862-1922): A Japanese army physician, writer, and translator of Western literature. His works include The Dancing Girl (1890).
Georges Seurat (1859-1891): A French painter who was an originator of pointillism, a technique where the picture is made up of very small dots of pure color on a white canvas, as seen in his large masterpiece Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1886).
William Tecumseh Sherman (1820-1891): An American army officer who served during the Civil War. He captured Atlanta in 1864 and began his famous ''March to the Sea,'' a campaign that effectively cut the Confederacy in half and precipitated the end of the war.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
In Grahame's early works, he wrote about animal protagonists living in a world that was at once both real and wholly unreal. Here are some other works that share the same rich fantasy theme:
The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902), a story collection by Beatrix Potter. Potter's classic tales and elegant water- color illustrations use the animals of the countryside she observed around her home in the English Lake District to convey simple domestic morals.
Winnie-the-Pooh (1926), a novel by A. A. Milne. Milne was a dramatist, novelist, and satirist, but he will always be remembered best for the books he wrote for his son, Christopher Robin. What the adult sees as a shelf of stuffed animal toys, the child sees as a fully formed community of distinct personalities: the gloomy Eeyore, the excitable Tigger, the fussy Kanga, the shy Piglet, and the rest.
The Complete Calvin and Hobbes (2005), a collection of comics by Bill Watterson. While Calvin is certainly more badly behaved than the creatures of Toad Hall, Watterson captures all of the rebellious creative energy of childhood in these comic strips. Along with his best friend and conscience Hobbes, whom everyone else sees as just a stuffed tiger, Calvin lives in a richly imaginative world where nagging teachers are ghoulish space aliens, angry fathers are snarling dinosaurs, and friendly girls are conspirators aiming at world domination.
Works in Literary Context
Evolution of Writing for Children As an author, Grahame was very much of his time, the golden age of children’s literature. It was the period when classics such as Peter Pan, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Pinocchio, The Secret Garden, and Winnie the Pooh, appeared. Scholars of children’s literature have determined that the definition of what is appropriate reading for children changes with cultural notions of what it means to be a child, a concept that changed considerably during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Eighteenth-century popular views of children, dominated by religion and the doctrine of Original Sin, gave way to a literature dominated by moral tales and instruction in the early nineteenth century. Children were seen as rational but imperfect. By mid-century, the trend was shifting again, as romantic perceptions of unblemished purity, beauty, and innocence in children began to prevail. As a result, children’s literature began to be characterized by more playful poems, stories, and entertainment based on fantasy or adventure.
Merging Fact and Fiction. In 1859, when Grahame was born, the two dominant trends in children’s literature, didacticism and entertainment based on fantasy, were blended to a certain extent. This meant that stories tended to offer a ‘‘sugared pill’’—a lesson taken in through entertainment. But the trend to incorporate a moral lesson into a work otherwise dedicated to fantasy was already beginning to recede. In 1865, Lewis Carroll published Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, an extreme fantasy for its time. The more realistic children’s works of Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, and Louisa May Alcott began to look out of date.
Grahame’s works were finely tuned to a young child’s mind, not least in the merging of outward facts with the inward fictions of fantasy. Such Industrial Revolution icons as motors and trains exist alongside medieval dungeons in his stories. And in The Wind in the Willows, the very size of the creatures varies from scene to scene. ‘‘The Toad was train-size; the train was Toad- size’’ was how Grahame answered questions about this.
English Pastoralism. Much that is characteristic in The Wind in the Willows was foreshadowed in Grahame’s two earlier books. The Golden Age and Dream Days feature the camaraderie, the food and feasts, the secret haunts, the obsession with boats and water, the long days of summer, the pantheism, and the woods under winter snowas as well as the literary ambiences. In these earlier books, the wide world is always near, however. In The Wind in the Willows, the days are always carefree and the clock is stopped. Its potent English pastoral dream— reflected too in much eighteenth-century poetry—remains unchanged.
Influences. Grahame’s influence, especially through The Wind in the Willows, can be seen in animal fantasy writings of authors from Alison Uttley (1884-1976)— whose first books were a series of tales about animals, including Little Grey Rabbit, the Little Red Fox, Sam Pig and Hare—to Richard Adams, author of Watership Down (1972), a fantasy novel in which rabbits search for the promised land.
Works in Critical Context
While Grahame’s short story collections have receded into obscurity over the years, The Wind in the Willows has proven highly popular with readers of all ages since its initial publication in 1907 and has received increasing critical attention for its satire, social commentary, and treatment of rural life.
The Wind in the Willows. The modest literary success of Pagan Papers was eclipsed by the reception of The Golden Age and Dream Days, which were so successful both in England and America that the initial reception of The Wind in the Willows was colored by the disappointment contemporary readers and reviewers felt when Grahame apparently abandoned his realistic, if poetic, evocations of childhood for a fantasy involving animal characters. Some even thought Grahame had forfeited his credentials as a serious writer of children’s literature.
‘‘For ourselves,’’ one of the earliest critics wrote, ‘‘we lay The Wind in the Willows reverently aside, and again, for the hundredth time, take up The Golden Age.’’ Another early critic took a bolder view, writing, ‘‘The author may call his chief characters the Rat, the Mole, the Toad—they are human beings, and are meant to be nothing but human beings.... The book is an urbane exercise in irony at the expense of the English human character and mankind. It is entirely successful.’’
Despite the book’s nostalgic appeal, many commentators—such as Lois Kuznets—have accused The Wind in the Willows of displaying misogynistic tendencies due to its recurring dismissals of female characters and occasional lapses into negative language when speaking about the opposite sex. Claire Welsh asserted that ‘‘it can also be viewed as undermining its own apparent misogyny with a playful theatrical approach to gender construction.’’
Neil Philip believes that The Wind in the Willows has been able to retain its wide appeal because it ‘‘possesses in abundance that quality which Ezra Pound defined as the true classic: ‘a certain eternal and irrepressible freshness.’’’
Responses to Literature
1. How does Grahame portray the differences between children and adults in The Golden Age and Dream Days? Write a paper that outlines your findings.
2. Discuss the tension between the love of adventure and the nostalgia for home in The Wind in the Willows. Create a presentation with the results of your discussion.
3. Critics have drawn parallels between The Wind in the Willows and Homer’s ancient Greek epic The Odyssey. Do some research on The Odyssey and describe any parallels you see to Grahame’s story in a paper.
4. Describe the different social classes to which the animal characters in The Wind in the Willows belong. Do you think the story may be seen as an endorsement or criticism of class hierarchies in English society? Create a visual presentation with your conclusions.
5. Why do you think Grahame chose not to include any female animal characters in The Wind in the Willows? In a group setting, stage a debate using your findings.
Bingham, Jane M., ed. Writers for Children. New York: Scribner’s, 1988.
Blount, Margaret. Animal Land: The Creatures of Children’s Fiction. New York: Morrow, 1975.
Carpenter, Humphrey. Secret Gardens: A Study of the Golden Age of Children’s Literature. London: Allen & Unwin, 1985.
Chalmers, Patrick R. Kenneth Grahame: Life, Letters and Unpublished Work. London: Methuen, 1933.
Graham, Eleanor. Kenneth Grahame. London: Bodley Head, 1963.
Green, Peter. Introduction to The Wind in the Willows. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983.
________. Beyond the Wild Wood: The World of Kenneth Grahame. Exeter, U.K.: Webb & Bower, 1982.
Kuznets, Lois R. Kenneth Grahame. Boston: Twayne, 1987.
Philip, Neil. ‘‘The Wind in the Willows. The Vitality of a Classic.’’ In Children and Their Books: A Celebration of the Work of Iona and Peter Opie. Oxford: Clarendon, 1989.
Prince, Alison. Kenneth Grahame: An Innocent in the Wild Wood. London: Allison & Busby, 1994.
Sale, Roger. Fairy Tales and After: From Snow White to E. B. White. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978.
Silvey, Anita, ed. Children’s Books and Their Creators. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1995.
DeForest, Mary. ‘‘The Wind in the Willows: A Tale for Two Readers.’’ Classical and Modern Literature 10 (Fall 1989): 81-87.
Poss, Geraldine D. ‘‘An Epic in Arcadia: The Pastoral World of The Wind in the Willows’ Children’s Literature 4 (1975): 80-90.
Ray, Laura Krugman. ‘‘Kenneth Grahame and the Literature of Childhood.’’ English Literature in Transition (1880-1920) 20 (1977): 3-12.
Walsh, Claire. ‘‘Gender Trouble in Arcadia or a World of Multigendered Possibility? Intersubjectivity and Gender in The Wind in the Willows.'' Papers: Explorations into Children’s Literature 16, no. 2 (2006): 162-67.