The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame’s most enduring work, continues to have a powerful hold on our imaginations, presenting a compelling image of a rural idyll. Until now, though, there have been only two full-length biographies of Grahame: a doorstopper by the classicist Peter Green, published in 1959, and one by the children’s author Alison Prince in 1994. Nothing much has surfaced since then. For his new life of Grahame, Matthew Dennison has had to shape and hone the existing material. He skilfully covers the facts, producing a vivid impression of this strange, shy, awkward figure. The result is a highly readable book.
Grahame’s life was a sad one, when looked at as a whole, ending up with him pursuing an almost hermit-like existence. There were repeated episodes of loss and abandonment, experiences that informed his writing. Born in 1859 (he always considered himself a ‘mid-Victorian’) into a large and well-respected Scottish family, descended on his mother’s side from Robert the Bruce, he lost both parents at a young age. His mother died giving birth to her third son (her last words were ‘It’s all been so lovely’); his father, Cunningham Grahame, declined into alcoholism, deserting his children, who were sent to live with their grandmother at The Mount, her house in Cookham Dean, by the Thames. Dennison shows how this gentle, lush landscape became essential to Grahame’s imagination, linked with his image of himself as an eternal Wordsworthian child, with access to special perceptions sorely lacking in the adults surrounding him.
While at boarding school in Oxford, Grahame dreamed about attending the university there. It was not to be. The nineteen-year-old Grahame was sent by his avowedly sensible uncles to toil at the Bank of England, where he settled into a life removed from the rowdy clerks. One of the delights