Like several classics penned during the golden age of children’s literature, The Wind in the Willows was written with a particular child in mind.
Alastair Grahame was four years old when his father Kenneth — then a secretary at the Bank of England — began inventing bedtime stories about the reckless ruffian, Mr Toad, and his long-suffering friends: Badger, Rat, and Mole.
Alastair, born premature and partially blind, was nicknamed “Mouse”. Small, squinty, and beset by health problems, he was bullied at school. His rapture in the fantastic was later confirmed by his nurse, who recalled hearing Kenneth “up in the night-nursery, telling Master Mouse some ditty or other about a toad”.
The Wind in the Willows evolved from Alastair’s bedtime tales into a series of letters Grahame later sent his son while on holiday in Littlehampton. In the story, a quartet of anthropomorphised male animals wander freely in a pastoral land of leisure and pleasure — closely resembling the waterside haven of Cookham Dean where Grahame himself grew up.
In peaceful retreat from “The Wide World”, Rat, Mole, Badger, and Toad spend their days chatting, philosophising, pottering, and ruminating on the latest fashions and fads. But when the daredevil, Toad, takes up motoring, he becomes entranced by wild fantasies of the road. His concerned friends must intervene to restrain his whims, teaching him “to be a sensible toad”.
Unlike Toad’s recuperative ending, however, Alastair’s story did not end happily. In the spring of 1920, while a student at Oxford, he downed a glass of port before taking a late night stroll. The next morning, railway workers found his decapitated body on tracks near the university. An inquest determined his death a likely suicide but out of respect for his father, it was recorded as an accident.
Kenneth Grahame, by all accounts, never recovered from the loss of his only child. He became increasingly reclusive, eventually abandoning writing altogether.
In his will, he gifted the original manuscript of Willows to the Bodleian Library, along with the copyrights and all his royalties. Upon his death in 1932, he was buried in Oxford next to his first reader, Mouse.
A ‘gay manifesto’?
Biographical readings are a staple in children’s literature, and the criticism surrounding The Wind in the Willows is no exception. First published in 1908 — the same year as Anne of Green Gables and Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz — the novel was initially titled The Mole and the Water-Rat. After back and forth correspondence with Grahame, his publisher Sir Algernon Methuen wrote to say he had settled on The Wind in the Willows because of its “charming and wet sound”.
Today, one of the mysteries surrounding the novel is the meaning of the title. The word “willows” does not appear anywhere in the book; the single form “willow” appears just twice.
When Willows was first released in Britain it was marketed as an allegory — “a fantastic and whimsical satire upon life”, featuring a cast of woodland and riverside creatures who were closer to an Edwardian gentlemen’s club than a crowd of animals. Indeed, the adventures structuring the novel are the meanderings of old English chaps nostalgic for another time.
The four friends, though different in disposition, are bound by their “divine discontent and longing”.
Restless enough to be easily bewitched, they are rich enough to fill their days with long picnics and strolls. Most chapters are sequenced in chronological order, but the action revolves around different types of wandering – pottering around the garden, messing about in boats, rambling along country lanes.