Kenneth Grahame

by John Boland

Mention the name of Kenneth Grahame to most people and, if they recognise it at all, they’ll think of The Wind in the Willows, which was published a hundred years ago this summer. And a lovely book it is, too, one of the most imaginative and enduring of children’s fantasies in the English language. Grahame, in fact, wrote it for his own much beloved son Alistair, a sickly boy and partially blind from early childhood due to a cataract in one eye. He was to die at the age of twenty in an accident on the Oxford railway line.

The book his father wrote for him grew out of Alastair’s bedtime demand for stories about moles and water rats and it was to become a perenially popular children’s classic, but the Kenneth Grahame I most love resides not in that pastoral reverie but in some short stories that he wrote more than a decade earlier and that were published in two collections, The Golden Age (1895) and Dream Days (1898).

All of the twenty-six stories in these two books feature the same group of orphaned children – three boys and two girls – living with well-meaning but distant and dismissive aunts and uncles in a large country house, and all of them are narrated by the third eldest child, a boy. He is obviously Grahame’s alter ego because the fictional situation corresponds to that of the author himself, the third of four children born in Edinburgh who, on their mother’s sudden death, were despatched to the care of uncaring relatives near Windsor.

In adult life, the shy, retiring Grahame went on to become one of the most senior figures in the Bank of England, but he never escaped his childhood, though it might be more truthful to say that he never grew up, or wanted to.

Indeed, in all of these twenty-six stories, adults (“stiff and colourless Olympians,” the narrator calls them) are regarded as objects, worthy at best of contempt but generally ignored. The children – Edward, Selina, Charlotte, Harold and the narrator himself – are notable for their independence and their lack of respect for their elders, and Grahame constantly asserts the sanity and right-mindedness of the child’s world, while scorning that of the adult:

“It was perennial matter for amazement,” he writes in the opening story of The Golden Age, “how these Olympians would talk over our heads – during meals, for instance – of this or the other social or political inanity, under the delusion that these pale phantasms of reality were among the importances of life. We illuminati, eating silently, our heads full of plans and conspiracies, could have told them what real life was. We had just left it outside, and were all on fire to get back to it. Of course we didn’t waste the revelation on them: the futility of imparting our ideas had long been demonstrated.”

This amounts almost to a manifesto and a revolutionary one at that in an age when children were regarded as little more than symbols of their elders’ yearning for innocence and purity and were certainly not expected to have minds of their own. But Grahame’s vision of childhood was so beautifully and persuasively evoked that readers immediately succumbed to its spell.

These readers were mostly adults, and it’s adults who will appreciate Grahame’s stories today. The Golden Age and Dream Days are books about childhood and they contain many wonderful adventures and epiphanies peculiar to the childhood experience and imagination – such as stealthily negotiating a reputedly haunted room in the house, or discovering in an old bureau in a little-used room a secret drawer containing the keepsakes of a boy who had placed them there years, perhaps decades, earlier.

But, unlike The Wind in the Willows,  they’re not really meant for children. In their narrative tone, there’s a fusion of the child’s and the adult’s vision – the child observes and relates but a more mature sensibility interprets and gives meaning and depth. It’s an astonishing balancing act – the two voices are so subtly blended that a casual reading might miss the effect whereby an imaginative and emotional quality far beyond the boundaries of a child’s sensibility is conveyed.

To give just one instance, in that lovely story The Roman Road , as the narrator prattles on to the landscape painter he has just met while out walking about cities he’s never been to, the aged painter wistfully realises that his own actual experience of far-off places can’t match the boy’s rapturous imagining of them. And Grahame manages that moment of realisation with great finesse while never departing from the boy’s point of view.

In the final story of Dream Days, as the children solemnly bury their dolls, you feel that Grahame is also burying his dream-children – they exist in too precious and rarefied a world to be able to survive any harsher one. Which may be why, in The Wind in the Willows, he abandoned children altogether and opted for animals instead – retreating, in other words, into pure fantasy.

But his stories capture for all time that all-too-brief period in our lives when the world seemed a mysterious and enchanted place and there seemed no limit to what life could offer. In this sense, they seem to me the best stories ever written about childhood.

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