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Grahame, Kenneth

Kenneth Grahame

Scotland-born British writer Kenneth Grahame (1859-1932) remains known above all for a single work for children, The Wind in the Willows, with its perennially popular Toad, Ratty, Mole, Badger, and a host of subsidiary characters.

The Wind in the Willows originated in a set of stories Grahame told aloud to his son, Alastair, and part of its appeal lies in the way it brings the surprise of oral storytelling to the printed page. But there is more to the popularity of The Wind in the Willows than that. In many ways the book, published in 1908, inaugurated the modern era of literature for children. In contrast to earlier children's books, it was not particularly moralistic; one of its central plot developments, a car theft carried out by the irrepressible Mr. Toad, is presented in a spirit of adventure. And it seemed to define a realm akin to that of a child's imagination, one in which the real world of adults was kept at bay.

Contracted Scarlet Fever

Kenneth Grahame was born on March 8, 1859, in Edinburgh, Scotland. His father, James Cunningham Grahame, moved the family to Inverary in the western Scottish Highlands so that he could take up a judicial post as sheriff-substitute. Grahame's early years were happy ones, but the life of his family was completely disrupted in 1864 when both Grahame and his mother contracted scarlet fever. His mother, Bessie, died after giving birth to her fourth child. Grahame himself took months to recover from the disease, and his respiratory health remained fragile for the rest of his life. The episode sent Grahame's father into a tailspin; he began to drink heavily, and Grahame and his three siblings were sent to live with their maternal grandmother in England's Berkshire region, in a town called Cookham Dene.

Grahame's existence over the next few years set the pattern for many of his attitudes in later life. His grandmother was not an especially devoted foster parent; she discharged her duties but did little more. But Grahame loved her impressive old house and, even more, the gardens and woodlands along the nearby Thames River. The house burned down at the end of 1865, and Grahame was moved to a nearby town, Cranbourne, then briefly back to Inverary. However, by that time his father's alcoholism had progressed to a point where he was unable to care for the children. Grahame was sent back to Cranbourne, and when he was nine he entered St. Edward's preparatory school in Oxford, England.

In school, Grahame became more outgoing socially while maintaining an active inner life that he mostly kept hidden. He won several student prizes and became captain of the rugby team. Continuing on to Oxford University would have been the expected course for Grahame, but his uncle, who controlled the family purse strings, refused to finance his education any further. Grahame was forced to apply for a job with the Bank of England. His application involved an essay section on which he received a top score, an unprecedented accomplishment in the bank's history. In 1879 Grahame was offered and accepted the position of clerk at the bank's headquarters on London's Threadneedle Street.

The move to London was beneficial, for it put Grahame at the center of England's literary culture. He was steadily promoted (by 1898 he had reached the top executive rank of Secretary), giving him increasing amounts of free time in which to cultivate acquaintances with London writers and editors. He traveled to Italy, and he was the only one of the Grahame children to put in even a perfunctory appearance at their father's funeral in France in 1887. After a time, he began to write down poems, short stories, and especially essays, one of which appeared in the St. James's Gazette in 1888. The writings also became a frequent feature of the National Observer in the early 1890s. In 1894 Grahame collected some of his essays and stories into a book titled Pagan Papers.

Extolled Value of Nature

The Pagan Papers, written in a florid nineteenthcentury style, are rarely read today, but they pointed toward Grahame's future accomplishments in interesting ways. The title referred not to the pagan religion, but more generally to an appreciation of nature and natural forces, the themes of many of the essays. The book also included some fictional pieces in which a group of orphaned children operate under the radar of their guardians, whom Grahame called the “Olympians,” a scenario that both pointed backward to the circumstances of Grahame's own childhood and looked forward to his coming fictional efforts.

Grahame must have realized that he was moving in a new direction, because he removed the Olympians stories from subsequent editions of Pagan Papers and began accumulating a separate collection of stories about the children, some of which appeared in an innovative literary magazine called the Yellow Book. In 1895 Grahame published 18 short stories about these children in a book titled The Golden Age. The collection met with acclaim from Britain's literary establishment. It also found a wide readership in the United States, where future president Theodore Roosevelt was one of its many admirers.

The Golden Age was popular for several reasons. First, Grahame's youthful characters struck a sharp contrast with the obedient lesson-learners of Victorian children's literature of the day—literature which set out “patterns of conduct to which the young reader is invited to conform,” according to R.J. Dingley, writing in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. “Grahame's children, conversely, inhabit a world with largely autonomous values and regard the precepts of their elders (the ‘Olympians’) with puzzled disdain,” Dingley added. He noted that the children in the stories learn, not through “adult instruction,” but from “experience and observation.” Grahame's second innovation also foreshadowed modern works (The Simpsons would be one of many examples) with children as central characters, that could be enjoyed equally by children and adults, reading them in different ways. “The Argonauts,” for example, worked equally well as a story about a group of children who embark on a river trip and meet a strange woman when they debark, and as a retelling of the ancient Greek story of Medea.

Grahame's sole work unconnected with children, a satire called The Headswoman, was published in the Yellow Book in 1894 and issued in book form in 1898. It was not a success with audiences, and Grahame decided to focus again on his trademark children. He wrote eight more long stories in the same vein as those in The Golden Age, and they were published in 1898 as Dream Days. That book included one of Grahame's most acclaimed short stories, “The Reluctant Dragon,” a reworking of the St. George and the Dragon tale in which dragon and saint agree to stage a battle in order to fulfill the expectations of villagers. In 1899 Grahame married Elspeth Thompson. The marriage was never a happy one, but it produced a child, Alastair, who was born prematurely in 1900.

Raised Child with Disabilities

Alastair was born blind in one eye and with impaired vision in the other, but his late-marrying parents doted on him and predicted a great future for him. Grahame began telling him stories about animals that posssessed human qualities, and these gradually evolved into the stories featured in The Wind in the Willows. This novel took another step toward completion when Alastair was sent on vacation with relatives, and Graham continued the stories in written form, as letters to his son. Grahame polished the book as he cut back his activities at the bank (he retired completely in 1908), but it still retained the qualities of a loose, episodic collection of stories in its finished form—which was perhaps one of its strengths.

Despite Grahame's previous success, he had difficulty finding a publisher for The Wind and the Willows. Several publishers turned it down before it was accepted by Methuen Publishing, partly as the result of a campaign by U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt, who asked to meet Grahame when he came to Oxford University to deliver a lecture. The book was published in 1907 and was immediately recognized as a classic. A.A. Milne, the author of Winnie-the-Pooh, later wrote that he loved to read the book aloud to guests (presumably of all ages), and he adapted it into a play called Toad of Toad Hall. The book received a fresh lease on life when it was republished with illustrations, the most famous of which are by E.H. Shepard, in an edition that appeared in 1931, although there have been many editions illustrated by different artists.

The story of The Wind in the Willows, although it holds no great complexities, is action-packed. The opening chapters introduce some principal members of a settled community of animals, such as Ratty (actually a vole), Mole, and Badger; they are friends and join together to try to reform the more reckless Mr. Toad, who likes cars but has a tendency to both crash them and steal them. One of Mr. Toad's misadventures lands him in prison, and to make things worse, his mansion, Toad Hall, is taken over by weasels and stoats. But he escapes from prison and begins to change his ways. As with The Wizard of Oz, various interpretations, each adding to the fun of the tale for adult readers, have been proposed: the animals' mini-society has been said to resemble the rural England of the nineteenth century in its outlines, or to allegorically represent class conflict, among other analyses.

Grahame edited The Cambridge Book of Poetry for Children in 1916 and furnished introductions for other books, but in general he wrote very little after the publication of The Wind in the Willows. His inactivity was partly the result of domestic problems. Alastair Grahame struggled in school despite several moves from one institution to another, and he was increasingly plagued by what would now be called depression. In 1920 he walked in front of a train in Oxford and was killed. The death was ruled accidental, but many of Grahame's biographers have suggested that he committed suicide.

Grahame died on July 6, 1932, after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage at his home in Pangbourne, England. He was free of financial worries in his later life, for The Wind in the Willows had become one of the best-loved children's books in the world. Its fame only increased in the years after his death. It was made, among many other adaptations, into a film (The Adventures of Mr. Toad, 1949); a television musical (1985); a series of comic books published in France as well as England; the animated The Adventures of Toad (Disney Channel, 2000); and a live-action (non-animated) version broadcast on both British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) television and the U.S. Public Broadcasting System (PBS) in 2007.


British Fantasy and Science-Fiction Writers Before World War I, Darren Harris-Fain, ed. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 178, Detroit: Gale Research, 1997.

British Novelists, 1890-1929: Traditionalists, Ed. Thomas F. Staley. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 34, Detroit: Gale Research, 1984.

Green, Peter, Beyond the Wild Wood: The World of Kenneth Grahame, Webb & Bower, 1982.

Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, 2nd ed., 8 vols., Gale Group, 2002.

Milne, A.A., Not That It Matters, Methuen, 1927.

Prince, Alison, Kenneth Grahame: An Innocent in the Wild Wood, Allison & Busby, 1994.


“Biography,” Kenneth Grahame Society, (January 4, 2008).

Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2008. (January 4, 2008).

“Kenneth Grahame (1859–1932),” Books and Writers, (January 4, 2008).

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Grahame, Kenneth

Kenneth Grahame (grā´əm), 1859–1931, English author. He was a secretary in the Bank of England from 1908 until 1918. His works, noted for their humor and charm, include The Golden Age (1895) and Dream Days (1898), scenes of his childhood in England, and the children's classic The Wind in the Willows (1908). Grahame also compiled the Cambridge Book of Poetry for Young People (1916).

See his biography, with letters and unpublished work by P. R. Chalmers (1933, repr. 1971); Inventing Wonderland (1995) by J. Wullschläger.

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"Grahame, Kenneth." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 12 Dec. 2017 <>.

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"Grahame, Kenneth." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved December 12, 2017 from

Grahame, Kenneth

Grahame, Kenneth (1859–1932) Scottish writer of children's books. He created Mole, Rat, Badger and Mr Toad in the classic Wind in the Willows (1908), which formed the basis for the A. A. Milne play Toad of Toad Hall (1929).

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