A Second Wind for Toad and his Pals
By CHARLES McGRATH / NEW YORK TIMES
The years between 1900 and the outbreak of World War I, it has often been remarked, were a golden age in Britain for the writing of children’s books. Among the books published then are most of what we remember of Beatrix Potter; several of E. Nesbit’s novels; Kipling’s “Jungle Book” and “Just So” stories, J. M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens,” which became the basis for the stage play; Kenneth Grahame’s “Wind in the Willows”; and “A Little Princess” and “The Secret Garden,” by Frances Hodgson Burnett, who eventually became an American citizen but was born in Manchester, England. In hindsight these books seem to reflect the long, sunny afternoon of Edwardian England, a moment of arrested innocence before the outbreak of the Great War. Many of them also yearn for a rural, preindustrial England that was already vanishing. Part of their appeal is that they’re nostalgic, as we are, for childhood itself, or for a simpler past that seems to embody childhood virtue.
Of all these books “The Wind in the Willows” may be the oddest and most endearing. Too late for the centennial of its original publication in 1908, but a century and a half after the birth of the author, it has been reissued in two large-format annotated editions — one edited by Seth Lerer and published by the Belknap imprint of Harvard University Press, the other edited by Annie Gauger and published by Norton as part of its well-established series that already includes “Alice in Wonderland,” “The Wizard of Oz,” and three volumes of Sherlock Holmes.
“The Wind in the Willows” is probably most famous for a single line, Rat’s remark to Mole: “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” But the boating adventures, charming as they are, are the least of what makes the book so singular. “The Wind in the Willows” is a children’s book that, unlike most, doesn’t describe a world without grownups; instead, it parodies the grownup world. The characters — Rat, Mole, Badger, Otter, Toad — aren’t just woodland creatures with a few anthropomorphic traits. They’re of indeterminate scale — Toad is toad-size in some scenes but in others big enough to disguise himself as a human — and they have full-blown adult personalities, more nearly Edwardian clubmen than rodents, burrow-dwelling mammals or amphibians. Toad, who has certain traits in common with the overweight, fun-loving King Edward, even parts his hair in the middle, a detail that Beatrix Potter famously took exception to. “A frog may wear galoshes,” she wrote. “But I don’t hold with toads wearing beards or wigs!”
The adventures depicted in the book include the famous riverine idylls and a couple of almost equally well-known scenes of cozy underground bachelor life, which Mr. Lerer says owe something to Ruskin’s ideal of British domesticity. There are also the much wilder episodes of Toad’s manic car theft and car smashing; a Bolshevik takeover of Toad’s great manor house, Toad Hall, by the lower-class stoats and weasels; and, most bizarre of all, a moment of sexual and religious ecstasy when Mole and Rat behold, in the silvery, creeping light of dawn, no less than a naked, shaggy-flanked goat god, Pan himself, taking a break from his piping.
This scene is so charged that Ms. Gauger detects an element of homoeroticism. But then she, by far the more extensive and detailed of the two annotators, is quick to find an erotic subtext throughout a work that Grahame declared to be “free of the clash of sex.” After Toad and Mole companionably spend the night together, she notes, “If this were a novel for adults, Mole and Rat would perhaps consummate their relationship amorously.”
This kind of observation is indicative of the problems inherent in annotating a classic text, even one as well known as this. On the one hand, parts of the cultural landscape that inspired the book are already lost to us, and there are echoes and allusions that we remain deaf to even after having them pointed out, others that we are apt to misinterpret from our habit of seeing sex everywhere. On the other hand, the book is still perfectly readable without pedantic notes or explanations, and Ms. Gauger’s edition, in particular, is so laden with commentary that it sometimes resembles the Talmud, with more commentary than text on the page.
Both editors devote vast amounts of space to defining words like “panoply,” “repast,” “provender,” “vouchsafe,” “sniffy,” “fusty,” “hummocky” that are all in the dictionary and whose meaning hasn’t changed much, if at all, since 1908. And neither is entirely reliable: both think that a “well-metalled road” is one literally paved with metal when a glance at Google would have told them that the term is a synonym for what we think of as tarmac.
Both editors, to be fair, are very good at picking up echoes of Romantic poetry, huge chunks of which were clearly swirling inside Kenneth Grahame’s head while he was writing “The Wind in the Willows,” and both illuminate the text by suggesting, among other things, that Toad — blusterer, aesthete, jailed prisoner — was inspired in part by Oscar Wilde. He probably also owes something to Horatio Bottomley, a flamboyant, gasbag journalist and politician of the time. Mr. Lerer further suggests that Toad’s mania, his grandiosity, his compulsive lies and self-deceptions may derive from Grahame’s reading in Krafft-Ebbing’s “Textbook of Insanity.” A simpler explanation of Grahame’s understanding of wild, unpredictable personality may be that he grew up with an unreliable, alcoholic father who eventually abandoned his two sons.
In general Ms. Gauger is more willing than Mr. Lerer to find the roots of “The Wind in the Willows” in Grahame’s biography, and though she sometimes overdoes it, or explains the parallels at tedious length, her commentary nevertheless provides a sad and illuminating subplot of sorts. In many ways Grahame resembles A. A. Milne, who in 1929 dramatized the Toad sections of “The Wind in the Willows,” which always remained his favorite book. Both, though they had little use for women, were married to remote, difficult wives (Grahame courted his by writing to her in baby talk), and each had a single son whom he both doted on and neglected.
“The Wind in the Willows” began as a bedtime story and evolved over a series of letters (reproduced in the Gauger edition) that Grahame wrote to his son, Alastair, during the long months when he was farmed out to a nanny. Alastair Grahame was born part blind (an inspiration for Mole?) and appears to have been emotionally disturbed. After a miserable experience at school he lay down on some train tracks while an undergraduate at Oxford and was decapitated.
Kenneth Grahame’s own early life was scarcely much happier. His mother died when he was 5, his father ran off, and he was raised by relatives who were too stingy to send him to university. Like P. G. Wodehouse, another aspiring writer with a blighted childhood, Grahame went into the banking business. Unlike Wodehouse, he stuck it out, and by the age of 39 had risen to become secretary of the Bank of England, a post that doesn’t seem to have required him to do a whole lot.
His ostensible life was that of a proper Edwardian gent, with lots of male bonding and messing about in boats, and yet privately he burned to write, to live in his imagination. For all its apparent celebration of neatness and domestic orderliness “The Wind in the Willows” is really a book about letting go. It begins with Mole, tired of spring cleaning, putting aside his whitewash brush and taking to the road, and its true hero is Toad, who is anarchy incarnate.
Officially the text seems to disapprove of him: vain, swaggering and boastful, Toad is reprimanded and briefly chastened, and at one point the other characters even stage what we would call a full-scale intervention to confront him with his car-wrecking addiction. But he nonetheless runs away with the book, just as he runs away from prison disguised as a washerwoman, and supplies most of its narrative energy.
Though Rat is supposed to be a poet, Toad’s Song of Himself, sung to an imaginary audience near the end, is the novel’s most exuberant creation. To say that he is Grahame’s alter ego is too simple. More likely he’s the alter ego Grahame wished he could have but was also a little afraid of. Like a surprising number of stuffy-seeming Edwardians, Grahame was half in love with, and half terrified of, the idea of Pan, who never grows old, never goes to the office, never even bothers to put on clothes, and yet embodies all that is magical about the world we imagined we grew up in.