The Wind in the Willows is a hymn to Old England. But for its author, it meant much more than that. A hundred years after its publication, John Preston explores the private torments that inspired Kenneth Grahame to write his classic
At around 11 o’clock on the morning of 24 November, 1903, a man called George Robinson, who in newspaper accounts of what followed would be referred to simply as ‘a Socialist Lunatic’, arrived at the Bank of England. There, Robinson asked to speak to the governor, Sir Augustus Prevost. Since Prevost had retired several years earlier, he was asked if he would like to see the bank secretary, Kenneth Grahame, instead.
When Grahame appeared, Robinson walked towards him, holding out a rolled up manuscript. It was tied at one end with a white ribbon and at the other, with a black one. He asked Grahame to choose which end to take. After some understandable hesitation, Grahame chose the end with the black ribbon, whereupon Robinson pulled out a gun and shot at him. He fired three shots; all of them missed.
Several bank employees managed to wrestle Robinson to the ground, aided by the Fire Brigade who turned a hose on him. Strapped into a straitjacket, he was bundled away and subsequently committed to Broadmoor.
A year afterwards, Grahame began to write The Wind in the Willows - 2008 marks the centenary of its publication. While it would be an over-simplification to draw too close a connection between the two events, there’s no doubt that the shooting incident affected Grahame deeply. It confirmed something that he had always suspected; namely, that the outside world was an unsafe and unstable place, full of brutish people doing horrid things to one another. In short, somewhere to escape from.
When Grahame retreated from the world, it was natural that he should choose the one place where he’d always felt at home - close to the Thames at Cookham Dean. In Grahame’s early childhood, Cookham Dean was his only haven of tranquillity. Everywhere else was awash with turbulence and trauma.
He’d first come to Cookham when he was five, soon after the death of his mother: she contracted scarlet fever after giving birth to her fourth child. Grahame’s father, Cunningham, a Scottish lawyer, reacted to his wife’s death by drinking himself into a stupor from which he never really emerged: he died penniless in a Le Havre boarding-house in 1887, just before Kenneth’s 28th birthday.
On the surface at least, the fastidious, emotionally repressed Kenneth bore little resemblance to his bluff, booze-sodden father. But, as Humphrey Carpenter pointed out in his book Secret Gardens, Cunningham, too, was an escapist - he just went about it in a different way: first, through hitting the bottle and then, by running away to France.
As an adult, Kenneth Grahame was constantly pulled between two extremes: part of him wanted to escape the ties of domesticity and wander the highways and byways as a free spirit, while the other part longed for nothing more than the cosiness of the hearth. This tension lies at the heart of all his work, but it’s at its most apparent - and most engaging - in The Wind in the Willows.
With no mother and a perpetually befuddled father, the four children were sent away from their home in Scotland to stay with their maternal grandmother, ‘Granny Ingles’, who had a large house called the Mount, in Cookham Dean, on the edge of the Berkshire downs. There, they were allowed to do what they wanted, virtually free of adult supervision.
When Grahame returned to the Mount in 1906 - by now a married man and with a son of the same age as he would have been then - he found that, ‘I can remember everything I felt then. Coming back here wakens every recollection.’
This idyll, however, lasted for only two years. In 1865, one of the chimneys collapsed in a gale and the family moved to a cottage in the nearby village of Cranbourne. Thrown out of his Eden, Grahame spent the rest of his life trying to get back there. ‘Somehow the sun does not seem to shine as brightly as it used to,’ he wrote later. ‘The trackless meadows of old time have shrunk and dwindled away to a few poor acres.’
Although Grahame was plainly a sensitive child, he was hardly the quivering milksop of popular myth. He did well at his public school in Oxford, winning his First XV rugby colours and becoming head boy. He hoped to go on to Oxford, but what family he had by this stage reckoned that a university education was a waste of time. Instead, they found him a job as a gentleman-clerk in the Bank of England.
Here again, one might assume that the bank represented everything Grahame hated most, being cheerless, monotonous and claustrophobic. But in the late 1880s, it was an extremely odd place. Staff worked short - very short - hours and took expansively long lunches. Several of them kept fighting dogs in the basement: there would be regular after-work dog-fights in the lavatories.
On one level the shy, cloistered Grahame was appalled by this. Yet on another he was fascinated by the mayhem and eccentricity he saw around him, and in a bank ledger he began jotting down ideas for stories and poems.
But at 19 years old, he was still teetering uneasily between childhood and adulthood, terrified of cutting himself off from what he held most dear. With any spare money, Grahame began to buy what turned into a vast collection of toys. Visitors to his London flat were astonished to find it full of fluffy animals and wooden figures.
His first book, Pagan Papers, was published in 1893. A collection of stories and essays on the general theme of escape, the book did well. For one so unworldly, Grahame proved to be a surprisingly tough negotiator with his publishers, winning himself a much larger than average percentage of the gross.
Despite its title, Pagan Days had nothing to do with paganism and still less to do with sex. Instead, it offered a fashionably horrified reaction to the Machine Age, extolling the virtues of long country walks and pints of beer in remote inns. It also established Grahame’s fascination with rivers - places where one could relax and be at ease with oneself.
As far as sex was concerned, it wasn’t so much that Grahame was a late starter: rather, he showed no inclination to get going at all. There are hints that he had an unhappy love affair in his early thirties.
Peter Green, in his 1959 biography, believes he may have had some sort of flirtation with his cousin, Annie. By way of evidence, he cites a poem Grahame wrote in 1892 which includes the couplet: ‘Routed ere the touch of lance/ By her terrible advance.’ It’s not immediately clear whose lance Grahame is referring to here, but ‘her terrible advance’ seems to tell its own story of panic and dismay.
Another two books followed: The Golden Age and Dream Days, both of them also very successful. By 1897, Grahame was a 38-year-old bachelor with a bushy moustache and a perpetually startled expression. He was also a virgin.
At this point he met Elspeth Thomson, the 35-year-old daughter of the inventor of the pneumatic tyre. Elspeth appears to have been the living incarnation of Dolly Daydream, as scatty as she was whimsical. But, like a lot of waftily ethereal women, she was a lot more determined than her manner suggested.
Almost instantly, she decided that Kenneth was the man for her. Not only was he a famous author, he had also just been made secretary of the Bank of England.
Stunned and flattered by her attentions, Grahame was a pushover. They started to exchange letters, the like of which had never been written before, and nor, one may well hope, since.
These letters were couched in baby language with Grahame signing himself Dino, and Elspeth, Minkie. ‘Darlin Minkie,’ he wrote in 1899, ‘ope youre makin steddy progress & beginnin ter think of oppin outer your nest & avin a short fly round. I ad nuther good nite & avnt ardly corfd torl terday - but it aint so nice a day & doesn’t tempt one out.’
There was more - a lot more - in the same vein. At times, as Alison Prince writes in her 1994 Grahame biography, An Innocent in the Wild Wood, it was as if the two of them were locked in a competition to see who could be the more childlike. This was hardly the basis for a promising marriage.
None the less, notice of their engagement appeared in the Morning Post of 1 July, 1899. By now, Grahame was clearly having misgivings about the whole thing. He wasn’t the only one; most of his friends were appalled by Elspeth, finding her intensely irritating and quite possibly unhinged. One of them asked him if he really intended going through with the wedding. ‘I suppose so,’ Grahame muttered glumly. ‘I suppose so.’
Just three weeks later, on 22 July, they were married in Fowey in Cornwall, with Elspeth wearing a chain of withered daisies round her neck: an aptly symbolic touch, as it turned out. Sure enough, the marriage was a disaster. It was, however, consummated and Elspeth became pregnant almost immediately.
Their son, Alastair, was born on 12 May, 1900. But it was soon clear that something was very wrong. Alastair was born blind in one eye and with a pronounced squint in the other. The couple’s response to this was typical - and catastrophic in its consequences. They retreated into fantasy, convincing themselves that Alastair, or ‘Mouse’ as they called him, was a genius.
At school, Alastair found it increasingly hard to keep up. Removed from Rugby after six weeks, he was sent to Eton, where he promptly had a nervous breakdown. In January 1918, Alastair went up to Christ Church College, Oxford - Kenneth had managed to wangle him a place through his contacts. However, he didn’t fare any better there, changing subjects several times in a desperate attempt to find something he was good at.
On 7 May, 1920, Alastair, by now almost 20, dined in hall as usual. At the end of the meal he asked for a glass of port - ‘I had not known him do that before,’ said a fellow student afterwards. The next morning his body was found on the railway line that ran through Port Meadow in north Oxford. He had been decapitated.
The inquest tactfully recorded a verdict of accidental death, although there seems little doubt that Alastair meant to kill himself: the position of his body suggested he had lain face-down across the rails. As a child, he had done something similar with approaching cars - but then, of course, they had always stopped.
If Alastair did intend to commit suicide, it seems especially poignant that he should have chosen this method to do so. In Grahame’s work, railways stand for everything he most disliked about modern life: ‘The iron tetter that scurfs the face of our island and has killed out the pleasant life of the road.’ Years later, Alastair’s tutor at Christ Church remembered him once saying, ‘This life is like a prison.’
Without Alastair to indulge, Kenneth and Elspeth continued their bloodless, reclusive life together. In her watery way, Elspeth grew ever-more tyrannical, insisting her husband wear special underwear which, she claimed, only needed changing once a year. Under the circumstances it was hardly surprising that he took to going on increasingly long, solitary walks.
Occasionally children who had adored The Wind in the Willows would come to visit Grahame, but they usually went away disappointed. Like A.A. Milne, whose dramatisation of the book, Toad of Toad Hall, had its first production in 1930, Grahame wasn’t very good with real children, tending to ignore them in favour of adults. Two years after the opening of the play, which brought the book to an even wider audience, Grahame died of a cerebral haemorrhage.
The funeral was held in nearby Pangbourne on 9 July, 1932. ‘Perhaps the most touching thing of all,’ recalled one of the mourners, ‘were the flowers sent by children from all over the country, with cards attached in a childish scrawl, saying how much they loved him.’
These days 4×4s throng the narrow lanes of Cookham Dean and the village pub is a boutique hotel. The pebble-dashed, Dutch-gabled house in which Grahame wrote The Wind in the Willows has become a prep school. There’s no view of the Thames from the house. However, next to it is a tangle of ill-kempt trees, their trunks leaning over and covered with ivy. For Kenneth Grahame, the Wild Wood was always closer than he liked to think.
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