Travels with a Donkey, Robert Louis Stevenson
Robert Louis Stevenson’s well-loved travel tale is threaded with longing for the love of a woman he was not sure he would ever meet again.
Fed up with spring cleaning, Mole, overcome by the ‘spirit of divine discontent and longing’, leaves his snug little home. He tunnels up to the surface, discovers a glorious spring morning, and sets off for his first great river adventure.
…at last, pop! his snout came out into the sunlight, and he found himself rolling in the warm grass of a great meadow.
This is fine!’ he said to himself. ‘This is better than whitewashing!’ The sunshine struck hot on his fur, soft breezes caressed his heated brow, and after the seclusion of the cellarage he had lived in so long the carol of happy birds fell on his dulled hearing almost like a shout. Jumping off all his four legs at once, in the joy of living and the delight of spring without its cleaning, he pursued his way across the meadow….
By the side of the river he trotted as one trots, when very small, by the side of a man, who holds one spellbound by exciting stories; and when tired at last, he sat on the bank, while the river still chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea.
When Kenneth Grahame first arrived in Fowey in 1899 he was on the retreat from an ardent admirer, Elspeth Thomson. She was thirty-seven, a tricky age for the times. She considered Kenneth an ideal catch. His position as Secretary of the Bank of England was solid and respectable, yet he had also written three books, two of them paying homage to childhood innocence, which appealed to her romanticism and her interest in literary men.
Elspeth worked hard on the handsome forty-year-old bachelor who had successfully evaded a number of previous entanglements. Her approach was by turns loving, assertive, frustrated and submissive. Kenneth blew hot and cold and, flattered by her attention and admiration, he did at one point indicate that marriage was a distinct possibility. He then fell seriously ill.
She was undaunted. As the precocious daughter of a Scottish inventor and a mother with literary aspirations, Elspeth was a bluestocking with a strong will. At her childhood home in Edinburgh she had been accustomed to meeting distinguished visitors. When Mark Twain had arrived to find her parents were out and only the children home, a very young Elspeth received him and offered tea. He said he drank only whiskey and with aplomb she ran downstairs with the teapot and asked the butler to fill it with whiskey, which Twain then drank neat. At the age of ten, she struck up a friendship with Alfred Lord Tennyson on a family holiday to Pontresina. Before meeting Kenneth she had held a London salon for her father-in-law, and she maintained a lifelong correspondence with a number of artists and writers.
While Kenneth remained weakened from a life threatening bout of pneumonia and emphysema, Elspeth arrived on his doorstep armed with carnations and grapes. Then came bottles of port to build up his strength. His sister Helen loathed Elspeth at first sight and kept her visits secret from her brother. She forbade Kenneth to write letters on health grounds but he managed to smuggle out one or two. This led to a risky clandestine meeting while Helen was out. Although he did not go down on bended knee, such a rendezvous, unchaperoned, was tantamount to a proposal.
Helen whisked Kenneth away from Elspeth’s clutches on a recuperative trip to Cornwall, but the courtship continued in a flurry of letters in which they adopted the aliases ‘Dino’ and ‘Minki’. Kenneth affected a type of Cockney baby talk (reminiscent of the dialects used by Gerald du Maurier and David Stead to address their children). As he rankled against her possessiveness, it felt more like concealment than endearment: ‘I eets wot I chooses and wot I don’t want I don’t and I don’t care a damn what they does in Berlin thank gord I’m British’.
Elspeth’s words had the rustic ring of a willing but bashful milkmaid: ‘Zur, Plaze to vorgive that I make so bold as to write-ee’. Keen to coax him into a formal declaration, she introduced images of lovers spending romantic nights together, or strolling down country lanes arm in arm. In reply, Kenneth supplied her with details of the chambermaid’s charming pink and white spotted dress and suggested that he could ‘play’ at throwing Elspeth over the cliff. Yet after such discouragement, he would reel her back in with tenderness. He was essentially a kind man, and his mixed responses expressed his profound inner confusion.
Finally, after weeks of prevarication, came the wonderful news to Elspeth: ‘Im ritin to your farver today cos I think it wos time you was “brort to your bearings”’. He was quick to regret the decision and when Helen asked whether he really intended going through with the marriage he could only muster, ‘I suppose so, I suppose so’. In response, she packed her bags, stormed off to London and barely saw her brother again.
While Elspeth was busy with wedding arrangements Kenneth retreated into a Boy’s Own adventure during his extended convalescence at the Fowey Hotel, with its sweeping view across the harbour to Polruan and out to sea. He fell in love with Fowey, as Daphne du Maurier would some twenty-seven years later, and he described it in The Wind in the Willows as ‘a little grey sea town…that clings along one steep side of the harbour’. In the chapter ‘Wayfarers All’, Rat gives a rapturous description which was Grahame’s own.
Through dark doorways you look down flights of stone steps, overhung by great pink tufts of valerian, and ending in a patch of sparkling blue water. The little boats that lie tethered to the rings and stanchions of the old sea-wall are gaily painted…the salmon leap off the flood tide, schools of mackerel flash and play…and by the windows the great vessels glide, night and day, up to their moorings or forth to the open sea.
Kenneth met two lifelong friends in Fowey. Arthur Quiller-Couch, known as ‘Q’, (who was later to become a friend and mentor to Daphne du Maurier) was a Cornish novelist, essayist and critic. Four years younger than Kenneth, he was something of a dandy, the son of a folklorist and historian, and an avid sailor. He loaned him a skiff, the Richard and Emily, in which to paddle up and down Fowey’s river, creeks and estuary, where he absorbed material that would a decade later contribute to the portrait of a river in The Wind in the Willows.
Through Q, he met Edward Atkinson, also known as ‘Atky’, commodore of the Fowey Yacht Club. Atky was as talkative as Kenneth was quiet: ‘ee flow on like a summer brook’ he told Elspeth. Their shared interests included ‘boats, Bohemianism, Burgundy, tramps, travel, books and pictures’ – to which Kenneth should have added, bachelordom. He was delighted to discover that inside Atky’s house, full of telescopes, clocks, barometers and binoculars, was a drawer containing wind-up toys much like his own collection of toys in London. And lunch was blokeish, consisting of ‘every sort of sausage.’ Kenneth was completely won over. In a letter to a friend he wrote:
I get my boat at Whitehouse Steps and scull up the river past the grey old sea wall, under the screaming gulls, past the tall Russian and Norwegian ships at their moorings, and so into Mixtow Pill, and ship my oars at the little stone pier, and find Atky waiting on the steps, thin, in blue serge…and stroll up the pathway… to the little house above it, and he talking all the time and always some fresh whimsicality.
These glorious weeks at the height of summer before Kenneth’s marriage were full of ‘messing about in boats’. There was ‘smokin and drinkin o gin and ginger beer’ at his favourite pub in Fowey, the King of Prussia (the pink building in the picture); picnics by the river, and larks, such as a race of wind-up toys with Q and Atky: ‘a fish, a snaik, a beetle wot flapped its wings, & a rabbit.’ Elspeth was likely to have been irked by such carryings on. She had already summed up Q as a rival and resented him from afar, yet little did she know, she owed him a debt. It was Q who had insisted Kenneth should make things right with her. He also showed by example that it was possible to be married with a young family and remain boyish.
Two weeks before their wedding in Fowey, Kenneth got cold feet and tried to tempt Elspeth into becoming his mistress. ‘Darlin, ow’d you like ter go on livin at Ons: Sq: & cum away wif me fer week-ends?…It would be so nice & immoral.’ Kenneth sensed he was making a mistake (and he was right). He was singularly unsuited for marriage but this last minute request was futile.
Kenneth’s early years had been devastated by bereavement and abandonment. He was the third of four children, born in Edinburgh in 1859, the year that Victorian society was rocked by Darwin’s The Origin of Species. His family came from a long line of Calvinists, mostly involved in the legal and financial professions, but with the odd artistic stray: an art critic and a father who wrote poetry.
Only days after giving birth to her fourth child, Kenneth’s mother Bessie died from scarlet fever. Four-year-old Kenneth caught the fever too and nearly died. His paternal grandmother was summoned and sat by his bedside. She told him stories of her own childhood: the arduous journey of the Edinburgh mail coach to London fifty years before, and the thrill of discovering a novel by Walter Scott for the first time. Slowly the crisis passed but Kenneth remained weakened and susceptible to bronchial complaints for the rest of his life.
The experience fostered in him an appetite for sensual pleasures: for food, sunlight, the complex life of the hedgerow. He became greedy for the beauty of nature.
His parents’ marriage had been good and strong. After the death of Bessie, Kenneth’s father sank into despair and an alcoholic torpor, from which he never recovered. Other family members took the decision to send the children to Cookham Dean, an English village in Berkshire on the river Thames, to live with their maternal grandmother.
Granny Inglis, tough and formidable, was sixty when the four children arrived. She raised them competently and in straitened circumstances too but her dour, humourless ways were a far cry from their gay, ‘irreverent angel’ of a mother. As Kenneth’s sister Helen later observed, ‘I don’t suppose she could be described as a child-lover.’ Although she entertained them with Scottish folktales and ballads, she instilled in Kenneth a dread of ‘the shadow of Scotch-Calvinist devil worship’. Theirs became the type of emotionally deprived childhood that was experienced by ‘Saki’ and Kipling.
Bewildered and confused, the children retreated to their own ‘countries of the mind’ (particularly Kenneth). The great consolations of his childhood were his imagination and the beauty of his surroundings.
Whenever a child is set down in a situation that is distasteful, out of harmony, jarring, that very moment he begins without conscious effort to throw out and to build up an environment really suitable to his soul, and to transport himself thereto.
This capacity to enter the ‘golden realms’ where his thoughts could take flight and become playful, kept him forever boyish. ‘As the highest expression of the emotion of Joy, we would all of us naturally choose to spring upon a charger and ride forth in the boundless prairie’ – so he wrote at the age of sixty-six.
Kenneth later said that he had landed in ‘King Alfred’s country, probably much as it was 1,000 years ago, a sequestered reach of the quiet Thames’, with great copper beeches, ‘crowding laurels’ and ‘high-standing elms’. The higgledy-piggledy half-timbered house was centuries old. There were lily ponds in the garden, raspberry canes, an orchard and meadows full of buttercups.
Always a lover of solitude, Kenneth would wait until the adults were preoccupied before slipping off through a hole in the hedge to the meadow spaces, ‘the passion of the call of the divine morning were high in my blood’. Like Rat in The Wind in the Willows, he became a ‘self-sufficing sort of animal, rooted to the land’. He also developed a deep love of the river, seduced by its running water, and captivated for hours by the ‘glittering insects that darted to and fro on its surface’.
This sleek, sinuous, full-bodied animal, chasing and chuckling, gripping things with a gurgle and leaving them with a laugh…glints and gleams and sparkles, rustle and swirl, chatter and bubble.
It was a source of life, a constant, and ‘if you lay down your nose an inch or two from the water, it was not long ere the old sense of proportion vanished clean away.’
Granny Inglis’s youngest son David, the kindly curate of Cookham Dean, introduced the children to boating and the system of toll gates which offered such leisurely, and quiet passage.
At nine years of age school at Oxford came as a shock to this sensitive, poetry loving boy. But Kenneth was a good academic and sportsman and did well, eventually becoming head boy. Outwardly he conformed but inwardly, he remained a dreamer, with a penchant for the type of rural pantheism revealed in The Wind in the Willows.
The school was brutal but there were freedoms. As long as the boys wore their school cap, they were allowed to wander through the cobbled streets of Oxford freely. ‘It was my chief pleasure to escape at once and foot it here and there, exploring, exploring, always exploring, in a world I had not known the life of before.’ Kenneth headed for the stately buildings near the Radcliffe: the Bodleian Library, the colleges at All Souls and Brasenose, and the Sheldonian Theatre. He loved the noisy Covered Market, and roamed the college gardens unhindered. The enduring legacy of his school days was his love of Oxford. It also offered him another aspect of the Thames: here it lay, ‘remote and dragon-fly haunted’.
Throughout his school life Kenneth had assumed he would go to Oxford University. His natural flair for humanities would have gained him easy entrance and like his contemporary Lewis Carroll, he might have settled happily into academic life, drawn as he was to its pageantry and scholarship. But his uncle John Grahame, who had the financial responsibility for his brother’s children, had other ideas. A prudent, cautious (Kenneth would call him indifferent) Scot, he decided that instead of university, his nephew should find paid employment straight away. He was implacable in the face of Kenneth’s arguments. When Kenneth was offered a position at the Bank of England as a ‘gentleman clerk’, he was forced to accept the role as a ‘palefaced quilldriver’.
This was a second expulsion from Eden, from which Kenneth never fully recovered. Later he stated with feeling: ‘Bitter it is to stumble out of an opalescent dream into the cold daylight.’ For the next thirty years he worked for the Bank of England. But as his biographer Peter Green observes, although he compromised outwardly with this respectable position,
…powerful elements were permanently at conflict in him…his inner self took revenge in satire and fantasy…Like Lear and Carroll, he found relief in the world of childhood, the animal fable, the potent symbols of fantasy.
A retreat into imagination, ‘this blessed faculty of…a water-tight skin – nay, an armour plating’ was his well-rehearsed defence mechanism.
He internalised the disappointment but it later emerged in his writing through themes of avoidance and escape. In The Wind in the Willows, Rat is encouraged by the seafaring rat to run away: ‘Take the Adventure, heed the call, now ere the irrevocable moment passes! Tis but a banging of the door behind you, a blithesome step forward, and you are out of the old life and into the new!’
Mole intervenes to prevent this siren call. In Kenneth’s case, his craving for adventure and a more spontaneous life expressed itself through his rejection of a mechanised, impersonal city life, and his yearning for a rural paradise. It was not reform that he desired but escape and a restoration of the old order.
Kenneth grew up to be a handsome man, charming yet elusive and rather awkward in society. Q called him ‘eminently a “man’s man”’. Tall, broad shouldered and lean, he was in his element when drilling with a volunteer Scottish regiment or rambling alone in nature. His London neighbour, the painter Graham Robertson, observed:
As he strode along the pavements one felt to him as towards a huge St. Bernard or Newfoundland dog, a longing to take him away into the open country where he could be let off the lead…He appeared happy enough and made the best of everything, as do the dogs, but he was too big for London and it hardly seemed kind of fate to keep him there.
His flat in Bloomsbury Street was meticulously arranged according to his ideal of ‘little rooms, full of books and pictures and clean of the antimacassar taint’. He chose the ‘safe anchorage’ and ‘embracing light and warmth’ that Badger’s home represented, as if to make up for the security he had lost in childhood. He was particular about his coffee (always freshly ground), and used a certain Honeydew tobacco in his long clay pipes. A great deal of thought was put into the arrangement of his furniture, and friends said he had exquisite taste. Like the homes of Mole, Rat and Badger, Kenneth’s lodgings were snug and full of cushioned comforts.
On weekends he explored different stretches of the Thames or walked for miles on the Berkshire Downs, far from the ‘friendly chattering world of men and women’. He was usually alone ‘with the southwest wind and the blue sky’; absorbed in nature, tracing the passage of the seasons, perhaps enjoying the ‘intoxicating’ drift of a boat, then turning in at sunset to a ‘rustic inn…ready for chops and ale and the sweetest sleep.’
The job at the bank bored him but allowed him time for writing fiction. A fragment of a draft of the Wind in the Willows written on bank paper can be found in the Bodleian Library and he showed his friend, the polymath F.J. Furnivall, his bank ledger filled with poetry and essays written under the influence of Robert Louis Stevenson. Furnivall encouraged him to continue and provided him with introductions to literary society. Soon his whimsical essays were appearing in the National Observer, The Yellow Book (a leading English literary journal) and Scribner’s Magazine in the US, joining a list of distinguished contributors including Rudyard Kipling, W.B. Yeats and Henry James.
In public Kenneth wore a mask; ironically, it was in his published work that he revealed his preferences, desires, and imaginative evocation of childhood happiness. By the time he met Elspeth, he had been capitalising on fictionalised memories for most of a decade. They were published in three collections: Pagan Papers (1893), The Golden Age (1895) and Dream Days (1898). He was now a celebrated writer but his sources had all but dried up and he was looking for new inspiration. Elspeth was treading water. Her own literary aspirations had come to nothing. She was in need of a new focus.
To Kenneth’s dismay, Elspeth turned up in Fowey for the wedding fashionably dressed, with a poodle and a maid in tow, looking very odd to the locals. On the morning of the wedding they were woken early by a hurdy-gurdy player, organised by the prankster loving best man, Kenneth’s cousin the novelist Anthony Hope Hawkins (The Prisoner of Zenda). Elspeth, in a back to nature moment, left the Fowey Hotel to watch the sunrise from the castle. Standing in her old muslim dress in the dew laden grass, with gulls wheeling overhead and a gentle sea breeze ruffling her hair, she resolved to keep her old dress on and leave her fashionable wedding dress unpacked. Slinging a daisy chain around her neck, she joined Kenneth and set out from Q’s house to be married in Fowey’s Saint Fimbarrus Church. It is just across the water from Lanteglos church where Daphne du Maurier was later married. Neither Daphne nor Kenneth were the marrying type. To him, marriage had always seemed a deadly and soul-destroying enterprise, yet here he was.
After the wedding Elspeth, back in her smart London clothes, lacked the allure of a country chambermaid (one of the objects of Kenneth’s desires). His other fantasies focused on the unattainable; he was enamoured with the fairytale idea of a princess, and notions of chivalry found in Malory’s tales of Arthur and the stories of the Troubadours – Elspeth could not compete. Sex was anathema to him. It wrecked his sense of timelessness, hauling the pure-minded child into a world of pubescent upheaval and transformation. He confessed to a friend that he did not feel in the least grown up, and it is likely he would have died a gentle fantasist bachelor (like Lear, Carroll and Hans Christian Anderson), if fate had not thrown Elspeth Thomson in his way.
Their marriage barely survived the three-day honeymoon in St Ives. Hurt by his coldness, Elspeth was soon complaining to Emma Hardy, the neglected wife of Thomas. Emma’s response merely confirmed her disenchantment:
I can scarcely think that love proper and enduring, is in the nature of men…Love interest, – adoration and all that kind of thing is usually a failure…Hundreds of wives go through a phase of disillusion – it is really a pity to have any ideals in the first place.
Back in London and intensely unhappy, Elspeth resorted to writing recriminating verse. Kenneth retreated to his study, filling it with so many fascinating toys it began to look more like a nursery. But although they were unsuccessful as a partnership, there was the hope that they might become good parents, for shortly after the honeymoon, Elspeth fell pregnant.
Their son Alastair, known as ‘Mouse’, was born prematurely on 12 May 1900. He was blind in one eye and partially sighted with a squint in the other. Both parents projected their dreams onto the child, doing their best to convince themselves and everyone else that he was remarkable, but he was not. The gulf between his parents remained wide and Elspeth in particular pinned her hopes on her son. She smothered him with all the feelings Kenneth had rejected and was convinced Mouse was a child of the ‘elfin-celestial sort’, here for a ‘high purpose’. He was encouraged to show off and developed a difficult, some would say dislikeable personality.
Shortly after the birth, Elspeth suffered a nervous collapse and became preoccupied with invalid routines of cold soups, and sulphur baths. In May 1904 she embarked on the first of a number of long cures at a spa in Lincolnshire. About this time, Kenneth wrote to a friend:
He [Mouse] had a bad crying fit on the night of his birthday, and I had to tell him stories about moles, giraffes & water-rats (he selected these as subjects) till after 12.
A month later their maid, on being asked by Elspeth why Kenneth was running late for dinner, replied: ‘He’s with Master Mouse, Madam, he’s telling him some ditty or other about a Toad’. And so, three years before he began to write The Wind in the Willows, the story had begun to incubate. Like The Hobbit, Treasure Island, Peter Pan, The Water-Babies, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, it began as a story for a particular child.
Becoming a parent rekindled Kenneth’s memories and these bedtime stories brought him close to his son. One visitor to the house overheard Kenneth telling his story involving a rat and a toad, and Alastair interrupting – ‘sometimes asking for an explanation, sometimes arguing a point, at others laughing’.
Before he would write these stories down, Kenneth resigned his position at the bank and moved the family to the country, close to the house of his boyhood. For the first time Kenneth had a boat of his own, and was within reach of the stretch of Thames between Marlow and Pangbourne that was so special to him. He drew on it as part of the setting for his next book.
By the time Alastair turned five, his behaviour was becoming increasingly precocious and his nurse was replaced with a governess. Miss Naomi Stott was fair minded and did her best to counterbalance the inflated opinions of Elspeth that were so damaging to the child. In a memoir she emphasised Alastair’s finer qualities of fearlessness, hatred of suffering and sensitivity.
In the spring of 1907, Elspeth and Kenneth took a trip to Cornwall, leaving Mouse behind with Miss Stott. Missing his regular bedtime stories with Mouse, Kenneth sent them to him in letters from Falmouth and Fowey, and Miss Stott had the foresight to preserve them. They begin with Toad’s adventures after being dragged to prison and end with a banquet at Toad Hall. These fifteen letters covered the first drafts of chapters VIII, X, XI and XII of The Wind in the Willows. But it took the intervention of a third party to get things moving.
Constance Smedley was a writer and feminist with links to Everybody’s Magazine in America. She lived nearby and was sent by the magazine editor on a mission to persuade Kenneth to produce some essays for the publication. She wisely refrained from mentioning her feminism and managed to charm Kenneth and Elspeth, who had both read her novel An April Princess. Constance found Kenneth ‘as remote and shadowy as the countryside’ and ‘encased in the defensiveness which dreads coercion.’ But he was more forthcoming with her than with most people and revealed how the return to the scene of his childhood had stimulated a flood of the most vivid childhood memories. But he also confessed that writing had become sheer torture.
Constance found the key to unlock Kenneth’s reluctance. Over the course of a number of visits, it appears she was privy to the special secret sessions Kenneth had with his son and observed the close interaction between them.
He [Alastair] had about him something of his father’s remoteness
…Every evening Mr. Grahame told Mouse an unending story, dealing with the adventures of the little animals whom they met in their river journeys. This story was known to him and Mouse alone and was related in a bed-time visit of extreme secrecy…Mouse’s own tendency to exult in his exploits was gently satirised in Mr. Toad, a favourite character who gave the juvenile audience occasion for some slightly self-conscious laughter.
To allay Kenneth’s fears about the writing, she pointed out that much of the book was already written and she was able to push him in the right direction.
Most of The Wind in the Willows was completed in London that autumn of 1907. Despite Kenneth’s claims to the contrary, it is a highly personal, autobiographical work, emerging from his childhood experiences and disastrous marriage. All his fears and passions, regrets and friendships, beliefs and ideals were poured into this one book.
One of the incidents in the book was inspired by a violent attack on Kenneth at the bank. Just before his retirement, Kenneth had been set upon by an assailant who fired a revolver at him three times, missing on each occasion. This triggered his fears of social unrest, which he portrayed as Toad’s brush with the ferret sentry at Toad Hall, who ‘said never a word, but he brought his gun up to his shoulder.’
The Wind in the Willows encompasses Kenneth’s wanderings by the river Thames, and the town of Fowey with its creeks and backwaters. Ultimately it is a celebration of friendship, loyalty and homecoming and reflects Kenneth’s joy in nature and fatherhood.
Elspeth claimed to have been the inspiration behind the book. She did have some influence, but perhaps not in the way she imagined. Feminine relationships are all but banished from the book – Mrs Mole was chopped out of the story very early on. Kenneth relished the use of animals rather than humans as it avoided ‘weary sex problems’, and the book expresses far greater interest in friendship than in love.
Humphrey Carpenter points out that ‘The Wind in the Willows has nothing to do with childhood or children, except that it can be enjoyed by the young’. The animals represent leisured English gentlemen who own houses, steal cars, row boats, drink, smoke, yearn for Italy, write poetry and gorge on extravagant picnics. They are deeply embedded in a quintessentially English landscape.
The book also reflects the larger pattern of the times, documenting the profound social changes occurring in English Edwardian society. Toad’s jolly caravan, and the gentle, bohemian way of life it represents, is flattened by the motor-car: ‘Poop-poop’. It hints at class wars and the demise of the landed elites, the onslaught of an increasingly mechanised society and the resulting breakdown of a predominantly agricultural and village based way of life. These themes also concerned Thomas Hardy, D.H. Lawrence, Arnold Bennet and Laurie Lee in Cider with Rosie.
Kenneth’s split allegiances are expressed in the way the tightly knit community observes a code of responsible behaviour compared to Toad’s irresponsible passion for outlandish adventure. Conformity and loyalty to one’s own kind triumph over individual freedoms (as in Kenneth’s own life). Toad’s excesses and irresponsible behaviours let the side down and show him up as a fool; Badger is brought out of retirement to give him a bollocking and rein him in. Yet for all that, there is the sneaking suspicion that Kenneth sides with Toad and nurses a secret desire to behave in exactly the same fashion as this jovial and essentially kind hearted creature.
The book found a home with Methuen and was published in April 1908, to almost unanimously negative reviews. ‘As a contribution to natural history the work is negligible,’ crowed the Times literary Supplement.
Kenneth fell into a slump until he received a letter from President Roosevelt on White House letterhead:
Now I have read it and re-read it, and have come to accept the characters as old friends; and I am almost more fond of it than your previous books.
The flood of recognition and adoration came soon enough. And over the years he would have good reason for thanking his agent, Curtis Brown, who had negotiated excellent royalties with the publisher.
A few years later, Kenneth and Elspeth took Mouse on a holiday to Cornwall. It was Kenneth’s idea:
I want Mouse to make the acquaintance of my Cornish haunts, and friends, before he goes to school – then he may like to go back there.
He also wanted to share with him the joy of ‘messing about in boats’ learned from his dear friend Q. Mouse loved Atky’s house with its jumble of intriguing nautical things, and his ‘special’ luncheons. He was suitably impressed by Q’s ‘peacock manner of dress’ and made friends with Q’s daughter Foy, who would later became best friends with Daphne du Maurier (there is a story about an adventure the two women shared together here). And in a tribute to friendship, Kenneth signed a copy of The Wind in the Willows for Foy, adding that her father had been the inspiration for Rat.
After Kenneth died, Q wrote this about his friend:
He came to these parts and to this house (from which he was afterwards married) a little more than thirty years ago; convalescent from a severe illness. Lazy afternoons at sea completed his recovery and made me acquainted with a man who combined all enviable gifts and yet so perfectly as to soften all envy away in affection. Noble in looks, yet modest in bearing; with flashes of wit that played at call around any subject, lambent as summer lightning, never hurting, and with silences that half-revealed things beyond reach of words, he seemed at once a child and a king.
This song is from the West End musical The Wind in the Willows, written by Julian Fellowes, with music and lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. The musical had its world premiere at Plymouth’s Theatre Royal in October 2016. In 2017 it transferred to London’s West End Palladium where it was filmed for cinema broadcast.
The Wind in the Willows was my father’s favourite book and when I was little he gave me a fine hard cover copy illustrated by E.H. Shepard, lovingly inscribed. Always fond of his food, the passage Dad most often recalled was this:
When the girl returned, some hours later, she carried a tray, with a cup of fragrant tea steaming on it; and a plate piled up with very hot buttered toast, cut thick, very brown on both sides, with the butter running through the holes in great golden drops, like honey from the honeycomb. The smell of that buttered toast simply talked to Toad, and with no uncertain voice; talked of warm kitchens, of breakfasts on bright frosty mornings, of cosy parlour firesides on winter evenings, when one’s ramble was over and slippered feet were propped on the fender, of the purring of contented cats, and the twitter of sleepy canaries.
Dad brought me morning toast and tea countless times, rushing it upstairs so that the toast was always hot and buttery, doubtless inspired by this description. It is quintessential Kenneth Grahame, who would be longing for his food and comforts after striding through beautiful countryside, covering up to twenty miles a day.
The Wind in the Willows is a wise, comforting and funny book and I was delighted to discover its significant association with Fowey, just a twenty minute drive from where I lived.
Fowey has a fine fourteenth century church, St Fimbarrus (where the Grahames were married), and a great Tudor house called Place House, originally owned by the Treffry family. French invaders besieged it in 1457 but were fended off by the quick thinking of Elizabeth Treffry, who had men pour melted lead stripped from the roof on the invaders. The tower you see was built afterwards by her husband, to protect the building from further attack.
Apart from these grand buildings, everything is on a small scale and as the author of Peter Pan J.M. Barrie observed, ‘It is but a toy town to look at’. Q’s house The Haven overlooks the harbour and the open sea (described so well by the sea rat in The Wind in the Willows). For the man who taught Kenneth the joy of ‘messing about in boats’, this view never lost its allure:
Of all the views, I reckon that of a harbour the most fascinating and the most easeful, for it combines perpetual change with perpetual repose. It amuses like a panorama and soothes like an opiate, and when you have realised this you will understand why so many thousands of men around this island appear to spend all their time in watching tidal water.
I have described Fowey and surrounding areas in my Notes for the story Here was the Freedom I Desired. The story features pictures from the ancient Hall Walk, that links the harbourside communities of Fowey, Polruan and Bodinnick.
Some of the pictures in this story were taken on a Wind in the Willows cruise that travelled up the estuary from Fowey to the tiny riverside village of Lerryn, a place that lays claim to having been an inspiration for the book. Certainly Q knew it well, and there is a record of him rowing his wife Louisa and daughter Foy up the river from The Haven, past Lerryn, to attend the Sunday service at the beautiful St Winnow church nearby. It is highly likely that Lerryn would have been a destination for one of the many picnics Q and Atky enjoyed with Kenneth. The village has a pub that doubles as a library, a general store full of local produce that contains a post office, and a jumble shop where knick-knacks can be bought using an honour system. There are claims that Ethy wood, adjacent to Lerryn, was the model for the ‘Wild Wood’. In the 1930s a man had an intriguing folly built at its centre, which as you can see from the photograph, the undergrowth is doing its best to reclaim.
This article touches on other aspects of Kenneth Grahame’s life.
The Wind in the Willows comes in at number 38 on Robert McCrum’s list of 100 Best Novels.
Read the book online on Gutenberg.org.
The Wind in the Willows has been endlessly recycled in print, in cinema and on stage. Here is an article about how A.A. Milne adapted The Wind in the Willows for the stage.
This 1983 animated version directed by Mark Hall and Chris Taylor, evokes the atmosphere of The Wind in the Willows beautifully. The cast includes Richard Pearson as Mole, Ian Carmichael as Rat, David Jason as Toad, and Michael Hordern as Badger.
Here is another fine (1995) adaptation directed by Dave Unwin and Dennis Abey, with Alan Bennett, Michael Palin, Michael Gambon and Rik Mayall.
Or this (1996) satirical and revisionist production directed by the late great Terry Jones, Starring Steve Coogan, Eric Idle and Terry Jones.
A number of walks available in the Fowey area.
The Wind in the Willows river cruise from Fowey to Lerryn.
In Medieval times, Fowey became a point of departure for pilgrims on their way to Rome and later to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. The British Pilgrimage Trust provides details about the Cornish Saints’ Way that runs from Padstow to Fowey.
The Fowey Festival of Arts and Literature is held in May each year.
The Fowey Harbour Hotel is where Kenneth Grahame stayed (and it is here where Elspeth launched herself in her back to nature moment on her wedding day). It is a 37-room Victorian boutique hotel with sweeping views of the harbour and out to sea. Even if you can’t accommodation, a drink on its terrace is a treat.
The Fowey Hall Hotel is said to have been the model for Toad Hall and also has sweeping views across the harbour.
Brittain, F. Arthur Quiller-Couch: A Biographical Study of Q, Cambridge University Press, 1947
Dennison, Matthew. Eternal Boy: The Life of Kenneth Grahame, Head of Zeus, 2018
Grahame, Kenneth. The Wind in the Willows, Methuen & Co, 1939.
Hunt, Peter. The Making of the Wind in the Willows, Bodleian Library, 2018
Hunt, Peter. ‘The Wind in the Willows Isn’t Really a Children’s Book’, Lit Hub, August 2018
Green, Peter. Kenneth Grahame: A Biography, The World Publishing Company, 1959