Willow

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Some of the best children's classics have started with an adult inventing stories to tell to a child. "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland", "Winnie the Pooh", "Peter Pan" and even "Watership Down" all began this way, as did many others. The Wind in the Willows is another such. Like them, it is a novel which can be read on many levels, and arguably has a hidden subtext. And like some others, its writing was prompted by a family tragedy.

Kenneth Grahame had already established himself as a talented writer, and had considerable literary success in the 1890s. He regularly published stories in literary magazines. These stories about a family of parentless children, were collected in one volume called "The Golden Age" in 1895. He followed this up in 1898 with "Dream Days", a sequel, which was even more successful, and established him as a writer with a special insight into childhood. "Dream Days" itself included another children's story, "The Reluctant Dragon". Throughout his career, he had published children's books and a memoir of childhood. He was successful and well-known, well before The Wind In The Willows was even thought of.

Kenneth Grahame had a child of his own, Alastair, to whom he felt very close. He used to tell his son fanciful stories about wild animals who lived by the nearby river, and in the "Wild Wood". When Alastair was about four years old, Kenneth Grahame would tell "Mouse" (his nickname for Alastair) bedtime stories about a toad. And whenever the two were apart, his father would write more tales about Toad, Mole, Ratty and Badger in letters to his young son Alastair.

Kenneth Grahame's own childhood at this age however, was far from rosy. He had been born in 1859, in Edinburgh. His father was aristocratic; a failed lawyer, who loved poetry-but who loved vintage claret even more. The drinking became worse when Kenneth Grahame's mother, Bessie, died soon after she had given birth to his brother, Roland. Kenneth was just 5, when he and his three siblings went to live with their grandmother. There they lived in a spacious but dilapidated home with huge grounds, by the river Thames, and were introduced to the riverside and boating by their uncle, who was a curate.

We can clearly see echoes of his childhood in The Wind in the Willows. His grandmother's decrepit house, "The Mount" has transmogrified into the huge mansion, "Toad Hall", and the book is redolent with riverside and boating scenes. Kenneth Grahame was forced to move to and fro between the two adults, when the chimney of the house collapsed one Christmas, and shortly afterwards their father tried to overcome his drinking problem and took the children back to live with him in Argyll, Scotland. This brief sojourn only lasted a year before they all returned to their grandmother, where Kenneth lived until he went to an Independent school in Oxford. Whilst there he had the freedom to explore the old city as well as the upper reaches of the River Thames, and the nearby countryside. All this comes into The Wind in the Willows.

The young Kenneth did well at school, and dreamed of going to university. He was actually offered a place at the prestigious Oxford University, and was set for high academic honours, but it was not to be. The family finances had dwindled so much that his father wanted him go into a profession straight from school. Kenneth Grahame was therefore forced straight into work at the Bank of England, and duly worked there for thirty years, gradually rising through the ranks to become its Secretary. In 1908, the year The Wind in the Willows was published, he took early retirement.

As a young man in his 20s, Kenneth Grahame was a contemporary and friend of Oscar Wilde. Although married, and having a home in Berkshire, during the week he shared a London home with the painter and theatre set designer, Walford Graham Robertson. Both were very involved with the gay community, whose leading light at the time was Oscar Wilde. Another connection with the gay community was through Constance Smedley, a family friend who helped with the publication of The Wind in the Willows. A year later she was to marry the artist Maxwell Armfield, who himself was gay.

It seems very possible that Kenneth Grahame was gay, despite having a wife and child. This was a time when homosexual acts were still illegal. The novel can be read as having a gay subtext, and passages such as the description of the ancient Greek god of the wild, Pan, are quite sensuous, with descriptions of his "rippling muscles". One academic, Professor Hunt, the emeritus professor in English and children's literature at Cardiff University, suggests that the works were manifestations of a life which Kenneth Grahame longed for. Whether this is conscious or not, it is noticeably "a story of maleness and male companionship", with hardly a female in sight. The only exceptions are the washerwoman, the barge woman and the jailer's daughter. All of these are secondary characters, and perhaps even more significantly, they are human, not animal.

It is the animals in this story who are the well-nuanced, fully developed characters; the humans are merely stock types, who fill some of the minor roles. Yes, Badger is the wise teacher, mentor or parent figure, and one who is looked to for leadership, but he has his own quirky faults. His speech is described as "common"; he excitedly want to get his "grub" (food). And amusingly, both Rat and Mole end up very confused as Badger insists, "I want to learn 'em, not teach 'em!" when they are discussing teaching (view spoiler)[the stoats and weasels (hide spoiler)] a lesson (chastening them).

Despite his success, and eligibility as husband material, Kenneth Grahame remained awkward in the company of the opposite sex. Only when he was 40 did he marry Elspeth Thomson, a woman who was devoted to him. Kenneth Grahame however, in a strange echo of James M. Barrie, remained distant, and incapable of demonstrating love. Elspeth grew increasingly miserable, taking to her bed for much of the day.

Their only child, Alastair, or "Mouse" was born a little prematurely, in 1900. He was blind in his right eye, and the other had a severe squint. Mouse was much loved by both parents, but it was probably the case that Kenneth Grahame was trying to relive his own childhood through his son, especially his thwarted academic aspirations, and he had absurdly high academic expectations of Alastair. "Mouse" had morbid fancies, and when he was three and a half, in an act chillingly prophetic of his own death, amused himself playing a game where he lay in front of speeding cars to bring them screeching to a halt. Another odd instance occurred when he was given his presents on his fourth birthday. Instead of enjoying playing with them, he started to repack them in complete silence.

This strange little boy was bullied at Rugby School, and again when transferring to Eton. He left the school, and was privately tutored in Surrey. Mouse was of a nervous disposition, and aware that he was not coming up to his father's unrealistic expectations for him. His eyesight was worsening; he was fragile, and thoroughly miserable when he started as an undergraduate at Christ Church College, in 1918. He made no friends and joined no social clubs. He was to fail his Scripture, Greek and Latin exams three times within his first year; if he failed them again, he would be sent down (have to leave university).

It had all got too much for him. At his last dinner in Hall, he downed a glass of port, surprising the undergraduate sitting next to him. Alastair then set off across the meadows-the setting for all the stories his father had told him, which had entranced him so-and which were to become The Wind in the Willows. Across the meadows was the railway track.

With supreme irony, just as Peter Llewelyn Davis, the original for J.M. Barrie's "Peter Pan" was to do many years later, Mouse threw himself under a train. He was just 19 years old.

When his decapitated body was found the next day, his pockets were crammed with religious books for his dreaded Scripture exam. He was buried in 1920, on his 20th birthday. His grave is hidden in a quiet corner of Oxford, in Holywell Cemetery, in the shadow of the medieval St. Cross Church. Located beside the River Thames, this is the gentle setting for Kenneth Grahame's masterpiece. His father scattered lilies of the valley over the coffin. And 12 years later, his father too, a shattered genius who had now written The Wind In The Willows, was to be buried beside the doomed little boy who had inspired him. Perhaps after all, he had gained some catharsis through writing down the stories he had told his beloved little boy.

At the time of Alastair's death, Kenneth Grahame was no longer the Secretary of the Bank of England. He left his post abruptly in 1908, following a reported dispute with a governor, Walter Cunliffe. Some academics view Walter Cunliffe as the template for Toad, in his bullyish and forceful nature, and it has been suggested that Walter Cunliffe knew of Grahame's sexuality and bullied him about it, which led to his early retirement.

Kenneth Grahame and his wife (and son, Mouse) then moved to an old farmhouse, where father and son spent their time, "simply messing about in boats". As we have seen, he used the bedtime stories he had told Alastair at this time, as a basis for the manuscript of The Wind in the Willows, where his characters do much of the same. But he was never to write anything else. For all his fame and fortune, Kenneth Grahame remained a tortured soul until his death in 1932, a broken-hearted man of 73.

Yet the legacy of this tragic life, is a delightfully whimsical tale which has entertained both children and adults for generations. We can recognise all the anthropomorphised animals so well from our own lives. It starts with Mole, an "Everyman" and hero of the story, a home-loving ordinary sort of chap. He is tempted to explore a little further than his own comfortable domesticity, when he meets Ratty, and is very impressed by his ideas. The water rat turns out to be a dashing free-spirited, imaginative and capable friend, and the two of them have many adventures. One involves meeting Badger, a venerable wise old soul, with his down to earth reasoning and help. He is a father figure or teacher to the others. Then of course there is Toad, who is wildly taken up by any new craze, and tempted by anything new. Toad is convinced that he can outwit everybody, and his ridiculous antics provide most of the humour in this book. He represents the spirit of abandonment and adventure that many of us might dream about, but are either too shy, or too practical and self-controlled to do.

Toad is impossibly vain and conceited, rather dim-witted, but when not devising new plot and tricks, he is very loyal. He has inherited a great house from his father, who knew full well what his impressionable and impulsive son was like, and asked Badger to look out for him, after he died. Toad is therefore immensely rich, but has a good heart essentially and is very generous to his friends, who spend much of their time getting him out off the scrapes he gets himself into. Children will love Mr. Toad, and secretly admire his devil-may-care attitude, and defiance of conventional rules and etiquette. His antics (view spoiler)[land him in jail, and lose him his home to vandals, in the form of weasels, stoats and ferrets, (hide spoiler)] yet even this does not cool Toad's delightfully wicked ways.

The purpose of children's stories during this "golden era" of children's literature, was largely didactic. Today its overt themes of appreciation for domesticity and manners may seem quaint and moralistic, yet in reality, most parents would want their children to follow these. Throughout the novel, Rat and Badger are praised for their hospitality, or and as in the case of Toad, criticised for their lack of it. Kenneth Grahame also shows children how to act towards others in certain situations, sometimes by speaking directly to the reader to comment on the importance of etiquette, from the smallest examples of table manners, or much larger concerns of honesty. Through both its plot and its writing style, The Wind in the Willows clearly shows the manners deemed proper in the Edwardian era.

Unlike the much more savage story of "Peter Pan", Kenneth Grahame's characters have to face the consequences of their actions. Both Mole and Toad make mistakes, and suffer for them. (view spoiler)[When Mole ignores the warning he has had, and ventures into the woods, he soon finds himself in a terrifying, dangerous situation. Only the aid of his friend and mentor, Rat, saves him. Toad is warned several times about his extravagant spending and reckless driving, and is eventually thrown in jail for ignoring those warnings. Ultimately he is forced by Badger to confront his behavioural problems. (hide spoiler)] The characters in this novel are realistically flawed, as we all are, but children are shown that the way to learn and grow is to face those consequences.

The exploits and escapades of Mr. Toad were such an appealing part of the book, that 2 decades later, when it was in its 31st printing, the author A.A. Milne adapted those chapters for the stage. The result was A.A. Milne's 1929 play, "Toad of Toad Hall". Almost a century later, it was yet again adapted for the stage, this time as a musical, by Julian Fellowes. This is a book which has never been out of print, has many adaptations, and never lost its appeal.

One reason for this is that it is not just a collection of moral tales, but also an exciting adventure. Kenneth Grahame's characters love adventures. In common with Victorian and Edwardian gentlemen, those from this class do not work. Instead they go on visits, take boats out on the river, go for long picnics, and enjoy the open air and Nature. Both they and we therefore as a consequence appreciate the beauty of Nature through exploration. Toad takes his road trips, home-loving Mole explores the Wild Wood on his own, and even Rat, thoroughly settled in his riverbank home, is momentarily tempted to setting out for an ocean life, at the end of the season. Each of the main characters is subject to the lure of adventure.

Yet whilst each of them has an adventurous spirit, and enjoys their various escapades, they all enjoy the sense of having a place of their own to return to. Rat and Badger seem older, and are more set in their ways. They prefer to stay close to their homes, while Mole and Toad want to see as much of the world as they can. Nevertheless, Mole and Toad are also glad to have a home to go to, and which they view with great affection. The closing scenes of the novel reiterate the power of home, with (view spoiler)[their triumphant return to Toad Hall. (hide spoiler)]

Interestingly, although they are not human, each character represents a certain stage of a human's life. Badger is the oldest and hence commands the most respect. Rat acts as if he is slightly younger than Badger, (for example, he is more active around his home) but he still seems to be very sensible and quite mature. Mole behaves like a young man just trying to make his way in the world. Sometimes he is quite daring, but he also needs someone to guide him, as he tends to make foolish decisions. Toad's behaviour, very obviously, is that of a spoiled, immature child.

At this time, young men would often find their place in the world through the mentorship of an older, more established gentleman. We see an example of this with Rat and Mole. They instantly like each other, which enables Rat to advise Mole in many areas, and help him towards maturity, turning him into a considerate and kind gentleman. The reader sees how successful Rat has been by the end of the story. Mole plays an essential role in the final adventure at Toad Hall, and is highly praised by Badger. Toad, on the other hand, is a more difficult case, so only Badger can fill that role of a mentor. It will take a while, but we do see signs that Toad will improve as well. It is clear that Kenneth Grahame had a strong belief in the power an older man had, as a guide to a younger one.

The novel is a series of episodes, in twelve chapters; each in a way complete in themselves, and each varying a lot in its style and pace. Some are adventure stories, full of camaraderie; some are humorous interludes, often with a little moral lesson. Some are thrilling, and full of excitement; some far more contemplative, and beautifully evocative of the English countryside. And two chapters in particular, chapter 5, "Dulce Domum" about an animal's instinct for home, and chapter 7, "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn", about the great god Pan, are mystical, and very strange. Aspects of and references to the novel are to be found in unlikely places; "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn", is also the name of Pink Floyd's first album in 1967.

Yet oddly, as a whole, it works, as countless enthusiastic readers have attested. Catchphrases such as "messing about in boats" and "poop, poop!" have found their way into English culture. There are many abridgements and rewritten forms of the novel, with appropriate language for very young children. When I approached my latest reread. I was certain that I would easily be able to select just one of the three versions that I have, to keep. Nevertheless, all three seem to have somehow found their way back on to my shelves.

The Wind in the Willows is quintessentially English, and moreover very Edwardian. As we have seen, it is very concerned with correct form, and good manners; with what is required to be an upright jolly good fellow. We recognise the English traits of pomposity and bluster, a certain reserve, a sense of decency, a "stiff upper lip" in the face of danger, a dry and understated sense of humour, a sense of the ridiculous and absurd, and an enjoyment of adventure. The whole is imbued with a love of Nature and the English countryside, with lyrical passages which are quite beautiful. The whole is a paean to the English countryside, and Kenneth Grahame repeatedly shows his views of the superiority of country life over city life.

The novel begins when Mole decides to leave his crowded home in order to live more in the country, and this idea continues to permeate through each episode. We see the author's views in his portrayal of the destructiveness of the motor car. He continually criticizes the ugliness of industrial life; a city became the Wild Wood once the humans abandoned it. But his love for the pastoral life comes through most in his prose, which is rich in imagery about the beauty of nature.

"the rich meadow-grass seemed that morning of a freshness and a greenness unsurpassable. Never had they noticed the roses so vivid, the willow-herb so riotous, the meadow-sweet so odorous and pervading."

The relaxing settings, rustic picnics and peaceful rambles along the riverside, all contrast with the hectic, crowded city. As its author said, it is a book for those "who keep the spirit of youth alive in them; of life, sunshine, running water, woodlands dusty roads, winter firesides". Altogether it is a very endearing book, and one which can be read over and over again.

It is one of the great children's classics, and a book which is full of a type of carefree happiness. How especially poignant and ironic, then, that the little boy who enabled its creation, found that such delight and happiness always eluded himself.


Seven months ago on a rainy March night, Willow’s parents drank too much wine at dinner and asked her to drive them home. But they never made it–Willow lost control of the car, and both of her parents were killed.

Now seventeen, Willow is living with her older brother, who can barely speak to her. She has left behind her old home, friends, and school. But Willow has found a way to survive, to numb the new reality of her life: She is secretly cutting herself.

And then she meets Guy, a boy as sensitive and complicated as she is. When Guy discovers Willow’s secret, he pulls her out of the solitary world she’s created for herself, and into a difficult, intense, and potentially life-changing relationship.

Julia Hoban has created an unflinching story about cutting, grieving, and starting anew. But above all, she has written an unforgettable tale of first love.

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