On a brisk autumn day in 1903, George Robinson strode into the Bank of England carrying a sheaf of papers. He demanded to see the president (“governor” in that era’s jargon), who wasn’t there.
A clerk found the bank’s secretary, Kenneth Grahame, instead. Robinson offered Grahame the papers. Confused, Grahame accepted them.
His hands now free, Robinson drew a gun and fired three shots. Somehow, all missed Grahame.
A gang of clerks wrestled Robinson to the ground. The fire brigade blasted him with a high-power fire hose. Then the white coats came and took him away.
Robinson’s motives remain murky. The newspapers called him a “socialist lunatic” bent on damaging England’s fiscal reputation.
For Grahame, the disturbing incident held a deeper meaning. According to journalist John Preston, it confirmed that
…the outside world was an unsafe and unstable place, full of brutish people doing horrid things to one another. In short, somewhere to escape from.
Kenneth Grahame escaped into storytelling. Five years later, at age 49, he left the bank and published The Wind in the Willows, one of the most beloved children’s books of all time.
The River of Stories
Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing. (The Wind in the Willows, Chapter 1)
And so Mole bolted from his burrow and discovered the river, the wild wood, and the wide world—the latter a dangerous place where no creature cared to venture.
Kenneth Grahame (1859-1932) was not born in a dark and lowly little house. His father James Cunningham Grahame could trace his roots to Robert the Bruce. But by the time Kenneth entered the wide world, the royal blood had long diluted.
Cunningham was an attorney for the Court of Scotland in Edinburgh. His wife Bessie Ingles was a beautiful socialite. Kenneth was their third child, after Helen and Willie.
When Kenneth was about a year old, Cunningham became Sheriff of Argyllshire and moved the family to Inveraray. Kenneth and Willie spent many halcyon days fishing and exploring the banks of Loch Fyne.
But the idyll ended tragically. Bessie died from scarlet fever a few days after giving birth to their brother Roland. Kenneth, age 5, also contracted the disease. He recovered, but suffered lung problems for the rest of his life.
With four children under age 8, Cunningham asked Bessie’s mother, Granny Ingles, to take them for a spell so he could mourn.
After a long train ride, the children arrived at her ramshackle country house in Berkshire near the River Thames. Here, Kenneth found the home of his heart, despite the tragedy that preceded it.
The River remained a source of solace and inspiration for the rest of his life.
The Tyranny of Trains
In Inveraray, Cunningham began hitting the bottle hard. He eventually stopped supporting the children.
Although Granny Ingles owned a large house, its care—and that of four children—brought her to near ruin. One year the chimney collapsed, and she feared the roof would follow. She finally turned to Cunningham’s brother John for support.
When Kenneth was eight, Cunningham tried to clean up his act and bring the children home. That lasted less than a year. He shunted them back to Granny Ingles and escaped to Calais, where he drank himself to death 20 years later.
During this period, Kenneth came to despise trains as agents of change and devastation, as destroyers of the countryside and all he held dear. He had no idea the worst was yet to come.
After the children had returned, Granny Ingles enrolled Kenneth and Willie to St. Edward’s Preparatory School, Oxford, with their Uncle John’s help. The great River Thames rolled through Oxford, too, so Kenneth felt at home. He and Willie loved roaming its banks and bridges at twilight.
When Kenneth was 15, Willie—brother, classmate, life-long playmate, the one untouched by scarlet fever—died suddenly of a lung infection. Kenneth’s childhood ended with this further confirmation of life’s instability and unfairness.
The Boredom of Banking
Kenneth threw himself into school. He became Head Boy and captain of the rugby team. He won prizes in Divinity and Latin Prose. He aimed for Oxford University and would have been accepted.
But his uncle and grandmother decided they couldn’t afford the tuition. They found him a position as a clerk with the Bank of England.
Perhaps to counter the monotony of the job, he acquired several hobbies—attending theater, collecting toys and automata, and most significantly, writing poems and essays. He rented a tiny garret with a glorious view of the River Thames and found some success as an author.
His editor at The Observer convinced him to compile anthologies of his most popular essays. They appeared as Pagan Papers (1893), The Golden Age (1895), and Dream Days (1898). The Golden Age, which explored the wonder and innocence of childhood, made Kenneth a household name.
Kenneth was 39 when his last anthology came out. Soon after, the Bank of England promoted him to Secretary—one of their youngest.
He wouldn’t see print again for another decade.
The Depths of Duty
Until this point, Grahame lived the carefree life of a well-paid bachelor. He sailed with gentlemen friends in Cornwall and visited the Italian countryside with his sister Helen. His collection of toys and automata filled a study.
But the promotion weighed on him. Biographer Paul Brody notes that “Some of Grahame’s more conservative colleagues did not approve of his decision to continue writing.”
They probably also frowned on his lifestyle, for remaining unmarried in that era signaled all manner of personality defects.Whatever the reasons, Kenneth shortly met and wed Elspeth Thompson, a 36-year-old spinster whose father had invented the pneumatic tire.
Their only son, Alastair, was born a year later, premature and blind in one eye. By all accounts, the marriage was a disaster. But they stayed together for Alastair, whom they both adored.
When Alastair was four, Kenneth began regaling him with the adventures of a rat, a mole, and a toad who lived on the banks of a great river. Even when he traveled, Kenneth mailed new chapters home to Alastair.
Those letters, which still exist at Oxford, became the heart of The Wind and the Willows.
The Wind in the Willows
In 1908, Kenneth suddenly resigned from the Bank of England, citing ill health and lingering stress from the shooting incident.
But by that time, he knew something beyond poor vision plagued his son. Visitors to the household described Alastair’s behavior as bizarre and disturbing.
He screamed at adults and hit other children at random. He would lay in the middle of the road and laugh when drivers screeched to a halt. He insisted his parents call him “Robinson,” the name of his father’s attacker.
Some chroniclers claim that Alastair was spoiled and undisciplined, “indulged to the point of delinquency.” Others feel he suffered from a condition unrecognized then, perhaps a form of autism or bipolar disorder.
The family fled the strain of London and brought Alastair to an old farmhouse in the Berkshire countryside.
A few months later, Methuen and Co. published The Wind in the Willows (after several other houses rejected it). Kenneth was 49.
The critics immediately panned it. “Grown-up readers will find it monstrous and elusive. Children will hope, in vain, for more fun,” wrote one.
But in 1909, President Theodore Roosevelt wrote Kenneth a fan letter: “I have read it and reread it, and have come to accept the characters as old friends.” Roosevelt convinced Scribner to publish the book in the States, and sales took off.
Today, thanks to A.A. Milne (creator of Winnie the Pooh), Mr. Toad’s madcap exploits have eclipsed the quiet, lyrical descriptions of country life in The Wind and the Willows.
In 1929, Milne adapted Toad’s adventures for the London stage. Disney produced an animated version in 1949. And in 1955, “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” became one of Disneyland’s first attractions.
Sadly, The Wind in the Willows would be Grahame’s last book.
Alastair’s condition worsened. Two preparatory schools expelled him, and he suffered a nervous breakdown. Kenneth got him into Oxford, but he couldn’t keep up. He became increasingly lonely and depressed.
On May 7, 1920, a few days before turning twenty and after downing a glass of port in his college dining room, Alastair walked across a meadow to the train tracks. He was found decapitated the next morning, an apparent suicide.
Kenneth and Elspeth fled to the Italian countryside but returned to England in old age. Kenneth gave thirty years to the Bank of London, but his heart remained on the banks of the Thames. He quietly passed away in Berkshire near the Thames at age 73.
Kenneth Grahame didn’t pull The Wind in the Willows from a void. He plied his craft through 30s. He took ten years off to deal with difficulties at home.
And finally, he excavated a place of pain with a deeper passion, creating something timeless and nostalgic. His late-blooming gift still captivates children of all ages.
[The illustrations here come from the 1913 version of The Wind in the Willows available at Project Gutenberg.]
…and when tired at last, he sat on the bank, while the river still chattered to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea. (The Wind in the Willows, Chapter 1)