The Clever Men At Oxford…
…know all there is to be knowed
but they none of them know one half
as much as intelligent Mr Toad
So wrote Kenneth Grahame in the amazingly conceited Toad’s Song.
Until Mags asked me to contribute to her Wind In The Willows Celebration, I had only the sketchiest knowledge of Kenneth Grahame’s life – I knew the Bank of England was in it somewhere, but that was all. What seems sad to me is that Grahame himself dreamed of being one of those ‘clever men’ – but his ambitions were cruelly thwarted.
He was a gentleman of great intelligence, wit and literary ability, whose creations, especially the characters of The Wind in the Willows, have brought pleasure to countless millions - and yet his own life was one of dreadful sadness.
He was born in Edinburgh in 1859, but tragically scarlet fever came into the household five years later – and Kenneth, his mother, and new born brother all contracted the disease. Sadly his mother died, and Kenneth himself was very ill, and was to suffer throughout his life from the effects. His father never really got over the loss of his wife and became an alcoholic- Kenneth and his three siblings were sent off to live with his grandmother. He went to school in Oxford [later writing “Oxford through a boy’s eyes”] but when the time came to leave, his uncle, now in charge of the boy, refused to finance his studies at Oxford.
Kenneth applied instead for a job in the Bank Of England – achieving 100% in the Bank Entrance Exam – a feat unheard of before or since. He worked conscientiously, and in his spare time, wrote stories for “The Yellow Book” a popular quarterly literary periodical. He published two collections of stories – The Golden Age and Dream Days – semi-autobiographical stories about a family of orphaned children. The stories were hugely popular when first published- but almost forgotten nowadays.
Kenneth met and married [in 1899] Elspeth Thompson – at last there was some joy in his personal life. But that too was very short-lived. When their only son, Alastair was born prematurely the following year, he was found to have serious visual impairment – and only of ‘average’ intellect. Kenneth and Elspeth could never accept these facts, and believed he was really a gifted child.
They nicknamed the shy child “Mouse” and Grahame was inspired to write The Wind In The Willows by the bedtime stories he read his son. One evening, when Mouse was four, his parents were due to go out for dinner. Waiting for her husband in the hall, Elspeth sent the maid for him. ‘He’s with Master Mouse, madam,’ said the maid, ‘He’s telling him some ditty about a toad.’
Before his fortieth birthday, KG became the youngest ever Company Secretary of the Bank – but five years later, he was confronted in the bank by a deranged gunman. Grahame was unhurt in the incident – but took early retirement shortly after as his health broke down. The family moved out to Blewbury near Didcot in Oxfordshire.
He continued work on writing Wind in the Willows – but initially nobody would publish it. But President Teddy Roosevelt was a fan of the earlier books, and campaigned on KG’s behalf till finally Methuen agreed to publish. The critics rejected it – “not as good as the earlier books” – but the public loved it – it went to reprint after reprint.
Elspeth and Kenneth were financially very comfortable, and able to send Alastair to Rugby, then Eton – neither school suited him – but they managed somehow to get their partially sighted son, with mediocre intelligence, into Christ Church, Oxford. In his second year, his tutor wrote the words ‘Pass or go’ next to his name in the college records; if he failed the exam again, he would have to leave. Soon after, the poor lad was found dead by the railway tracks. The official verdict was ‘accidental death’ – but many felt it was suicide. Elspeth and Kenneth were devastated. Kenneth wrote hardly anything after the tragedy and he and his wife spent most of their time abroad – and although when in England he made frequent trips to Oxford, he never visited London again. He died in 1932 and was buried with his son.
I wish I could end with something positive – but the truth is that this man who brought so much joy to the childhood of so many was himself someone whose own childhood – and experience of parenthood - was full of sadness.
At the end of Wind in the Willows, Toad sends the gaoler’s daughter, who helped him to escape, a thank-you letter and a gift. The gift is “a gold locket, set with pearls”. I often tell my pupils how pearls are created - the oyster takes the bit of grit which is sharp and irritating, and making life a misery - and converts it into something beautiful.
I like to think that Kenneth Grahame chose not to wallow in self-pity over the sadnesses of his life – but rather devoted his energies to writing this charming tale in order to bring laughter and happiness to others.