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)
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 clerk-ship 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.
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.
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 Ōgai (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.
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.’”
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.
Responses to Literature
- How does Grahame portray the differences between children and adults in The Golden Age and Dream Days? Write a paper that outlines your findings.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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, http://www.kennethgrahamesociety.net/ (January 4, 2008).
Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2008. http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (January 4, 2008).
“Kenneth Grahame (1859–1932),” Books and Writers, http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/grahame.htm (January 4, 2008).