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The Making of The Wind in the Willows reviewed in the Guardian

on Thu, 11/23/2017 - 11:50

It turns out that being a juvenile muse is no guarantee of a happy ending. Peter Llewelyn Davies, JM Barrie’s inspiration for Peter Pan, grew up only to kill himself. Christopher Milne AKA Christopher Robin was estranged from his mother.

Alice Liddell of Wonderland fame seems to have been permanently cross. And then there was Alastair Grahame, for whom The Wind in the Willows was written in 1908. Twelve years later, and still in his teens, he stumbled out of his Oxford college, lay down on the railway line and waited for a train.

There’s one difference, though, between Grahame and the others. While Peter, Alice and Christopher appeared as characters in “their” books, he doesn’t.

The Wind in the Willows grew out of bedtime stories that the banker Kenneth Grahame, his father, told him about a quartet of anthropomorphised animals who lived by the rural Thames.

Yet this absence of a child protagonist should come as no surprise, since the world of Grahame’s riverbank is hardly a place for kids. It is, rather, an Edwardian gentlemen’s club, or perhaps a club for Edwardian gentlemen who have failed to get into the institution of their choice and are obliged to improvise.

The adventures of Toad, Mole, Ratty and Badger are those of grown men sufficiently rich and leisured to spend their days messing about in boats and their evenings muttering darkly about the scoundrels in the Wild Wood.

Scholars have long speculated about the identity of those scoundrels. The literal answer is that they’re the weasels and stoats who in chapter 11 swarm out of their dank, rooty realm, break into Toad Hall and trash the place.

Reading biographically, it’s impossible to overlook the fact that in 1903 Grahame was ambushed in his office at the Bank of England and shot at by a madman with a gun.

The fact that the would-be assassin identified himself as a socialist placed him firmly on the side of chaos, along with the anarchists, suffragettes and the increasingly belligerent Kaiser. For a mid-Victorian like Grahame, it must have felt as if the world was coming undone.

Yet, as Peter Hunt stresses in this elegant account of the genesis of The Wind in the Willows, Grahame’s life had always been more precarious than you might think.

Read full review here

The Making of The Wind in the Willows
Peter Hunt
The Bodleian Library
ISBN 9781851244799
Paperback, £12.99

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