Saturday 18 May 2024

Kenneth Grahame

One of the things I love about Monty Lee's book challenges is the research and how I am often astounded by the back story of the book involved. The story behind 'The Wind in the Willows' is horribly tragic it is a work of grief, loss and memory. 

Kenneth Grahame (1859 -1932) was Scottish, born to a wealthy family in Edinburgh, and yet he is famed for writing one of the most quintessentially English books. 

At just four years old, his mother died, after giving birth to Graham's younger brother, of scarlet fever, his grief stricken father became an alcoholic. Kenneth and his three siblings were left in the care of his, apparently cold, maternal grandmother who lived in Cookham Dean in Berkshire on the banks of the River Thames. 

Here he found solace in Nature, "Nature has her moments of sympathy with man" and if he found himself in a vexful situation "I would go forth once more' on the Berkshire downs within sight of his house,"and give it prayerful consideration among my friends the hares and plovers."

He was sent away to a brutal Oxford school; St Edwards. This was funded by an uncle, but funds ran out before Kenneth could attend university. 

Kenneth applied to be a clerk at the Bank of England, intelligent he found the work easy and became one of the youngest men to be made company secretary. He narrowly escaped death in 1903 when he was mistaken for the Bank's governor and was shot at several times.

Kenneth wrote secretly as a hobby for magazines and became a contemporary of contributors including Rudyard Kipling, George Bernard Shaw and WB Yeats. Kenneth's first book, Pagan Papers (1893) initiated his writing success, followed by The Golden Age (1895) and Dream Days (1898), which turned him into a celebrated author.         

Grahame married Elspeth Thomson in 1899, their only child, Alastair (known as “Mouse”), was born prematurely in May 1900, he was blind in one eye.                       

The Wind in the Willows 'The mole and the Water Rat', (1908) originated as bed time stories and then letters from Kenneth to his son. Alastair was bullied at school and became an unhappy teenager, having failed exams in first year of Eton, he was later found dead on a train line after a suspected suicide. 

Kenneth never recovered from the tragedy and died with a broken heart, within earshot of the River Thames. His widow, Elspeth, dedicated the rest of her life to preserving her husband's name and promoting his work.

Ironically, Kenneth Grahame's most famous novel today, was the least successful during his lifetime, 'The Wind in the Willows' was popularised after becoming adapted for the stage. Initially he could find no publisher for it in London as it was deemed 'to fantastic', eventually 500 copies were published in the UK by Methven in 1908.

Bizarrely the 26th President of the United States Theodor Roosevelt who petitioned for The Wind in the Willow's'  publication in America insisting: 

                       "That it is such a beautiful thing, Scribner's must publish it!" 

The first illustrated edition (by Paul Bransom) was published in America in 1913 by Charles Scribner's Sons, 1913.

Theodore Roosevelt, wrote to Kenneth Grahame in 1909 in appreciation; 

'My Dear Mr GRAHAME -- My mind moves in ruts, as I suppose most minds do, and at first I could not reconcile myself to the change from the ever-delightful Harold and his associates, and so for some time I could not accept the toad, the mole, the water-rat and the badger as substitutes. But after a while Mrs Roosevelt and two of the boys, Kermit and Ted, all quite independently, got hold of The Wind Among the Willows and took such a delight in it that I began to feel that I might have to revise my judgement. Then Mrs Roosevelt read it aloud to the younger children, and I listened now and then. Now I have read it and reread it, and have come to accept the characters as old friends; and I am almost more fond of it than of your previous books. Indeed, I feel about going to Africa very much as the seafaring rat did when he almost made the water rat wish to forsake everything and start wandering!

"I felt I must give myself the pleasure of telling you how much we had all enjoyed your book.

"With all good wishes,

"Sincerely yours,

          Theodore Roosevelt 

1 comment:

  1. Oh, so very sad. Such heartwarming stories to come from such a broken heart.