Magazine | April 6, 2009, Issue

Golden Idyll

Meghan Cox Gurdon celebrates The Wind in the Willows.

When Charles Scribner was shown a copy of the manuscript that would become The Wind in the Willows, he experienced a sense of profound disappointment. This wasn’t at all, he felt, what American readers would want from Kenneth Grahame, the noted English writer of essays. The bucolic adventures of Ratty, Mole, and Mr. Toad were, moreover, “altogether lacking in human interest,” Scribner wrote in a rejection letter to Grahame’s agent.

Amazingly, Scribner seems to have been brought to his senses by no less a literary critic than Theodore Roosevelt. Grahame knew the American president had enjoyed his earlier work, so he had sent Roosevelt a typed manuscript of what was then titled The Mole and the Water Rat. Roosevelt read it, loved it, and, according to Grahame’s agent, told the reluctant publisher that, “it was such a beautiful thing that Scribner must publish it.”

So it was that in October 1908, almost simultaneously in the U.S. and in the U.K. (where Grahame had gotten a similarly tepid reaction from his British publisher), one of the most beloved children’s books, ever, arrived in shops. The Wind in the Willows was an immediate and roaring success, proving wrong the glum assessments of its first publishers.

It has been enriching publishers ever since. Indeed, two beautiful new annotated versions of the book are coming out this spring, tied to Kenneth Grahame’s 150th birthday on March 8. The anecdote about Teddy Roosevelt’s literary midwifery appears in Annie Gauger’s preface to The Annotated Wind in the Willows, due in April from W. W. Norton. In May, Belknap Press will issue The Wind in the Willows: An Annotated Edition, edited by Seth Lerer.

For those who don’t know the book, The Wind in the Willows recounts the friendship between a mole and a boat-loving water rat, their joint adventures along a river and amongst the alarming inhabitants of the Wild Wood, and the scrapes and exploits of their conceited, impulsive, rich, heedless, affectionate, boastful, and energetic friend, Mr. Toad of Toad Hall. As that description may suggest, the story is one that meanders along pleasantly and then explodes into drama and witty pathos when Toady appears.

While the other animals exhibit steady characters, Toad is a wild serial enthusiast. He flings himself and his fortune at whatever enraptures him and pursues it furiously to the exclusion of all else. When some fresh curiosity catches his eye, he drops the old obsession and immediately picks up the new one with equal zeal. 

When we meet him, he’s been through a boating phase (leaving a boathouse crammed with handsome, disused vessels) and is now smitten by what he explains to Ratty and Mole is “the real thing, the only genuine occupation for a life time. I propose to devote the remainder of mine to it, and can only regret the wasted years that lie behind me, squandered in trivialities.” 

This turns out to be a horse-drawn caravan, embodying “the open road, the dusty highway, the heath, the common, the hedgerows, the rolling downs!” Toad raves, “Here to-day, up and off to somewhere else to-morrow! Travel, change, interest, excitement! The whole world before you, and a horizon that’s always changing!”

Yes, well: This infatuation lasts only as long as it takes Toad to encounter, on that open road, a motorcar. Now he is utterly ensorcelled, and from his passionate infatuation with automobiles will come a long series of disastrous and rockingly funny episodes that are the crowning joy of the book.

“And to think I never knew!” [says] the Toad in a dreamy monotone. “All those wasted years that lie behind me, I never knew, never even dreamt! But now — but now that I know, now that I fully realise! O what a flowery track lies spread before me, henceforth! What dust-clouds shall spring up behind me as I speed on my reckless way! What carts I shall fling carelessly into the ditch in the wake of my magnificent onset!”

Toad is a brilliant character, as much a man for the Edwardian setting of the book as he is a man for today. If he were a man today, he would probably be managing a hedge fund very badly. In fact, he’s the sort of fellow who might, without meaning to do anything actually wrong, construct a splendid Ponzi scheme, the wickedness of which would become obvious to him only when the thing fell apart and his old friends were remonstrating with him amidst the ruins (though he might not be entirely contrite). If the general run of The Wind in the Willows exudes a kind of gentle, pastoral glow, the bits with Toady in them sparkle like a cut-crystal chandelier.

And this raises questions that are worth asking, on a nice round anniversary such as Grahame’s 150th birthday or the just-passed centennial of his most famous work. Does The Wind in the Willows still hold together as a wonderful read? Should we continue to press it on our children? 

Time is passing, tastes are changing, and the turn of the 19th century is receding. Are adults who love the book mostly living on the love of things that previous generations formed for us? Or do we love it because it is a masterwork, and we simply recognize, as our parents and grandparents did, that the book is so good that no subsequent generation should grow up without it?

I think it is fair to say that The Wind in the Willows remains a genuine classic, without which no one can emerge from childhood with complete cultural literacy. It’s not so fundamental as a fairy tale; Toad’s deceits, funny as they are, don’t rank alongside Cinderella or Rapunzel for resonance or durability. Nor does it mark a child an ignoramus not to know that it was Ratty who famously said there is “nothing — absolute nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” Yet Kenneth Grahame’s idyll nonetheless belongs in that quirky canon of books that are essential furnishings in the mind of the educated child. 

On the same shelf you would find, inter alia, Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking, E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, and C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. It’s no crime to dislike any of them, but not to know them is to have gaps in one’s knowledge. By now, probably, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is on that shelf. Others, like books by the magnificent E. Nesbit, are, as the decades whip by, gently being nudged off it. Arriving in the canon of children’s greats does not mean staying there forever. 

Also sliding towards perishability are Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. Both are quirky books — aspects of Peter Pan are seriously weird — and neither works well anymore as an at-home read-aloud for young children. By the time the modern American child is capable of reading either on his own, his tastes are likely to be, if not jaded, then perhaps not wholly in alignment with these books’ quaint surrealism. In both cases, the child has probably already had his conception of the characters formed by Walt Disney, which will make an encounter with the real, more taxing stories even more daunting. Children still need to know these tales; they do not really need to read them.

The Wind in the Willows is much warmer and funnier, but it shares with those other British stalwarts the vulnerability of language that is, to modern tastes, sometimes overly rose-scented, like an old lady’s perfume.

Half the pleasure of Grahame’s story is the way he writes it; his descriptions of nature, at their best, get at its beauty with delightful precision. Much loved and quoted, for example, is this early passage in which Mole throws off spring cleaning, strikes out on a walk, and suddenly finds himself at the edge of a river: “Never in his life had he seen a river before — this sleek, sinuous, full-bodied animal, chasing and chuckling, gripping things with a gurgle and leaving them with a laugh, to fling itself on fresh playmates that shook themselves free, and were caught and held again.” 

It is a lovely, memorable description. But Grahame’s portrayals are not always so economical. Some passages pose real difficulty for the modern reader — which, for our purposes here, means a well-intentioned adult reading aloud at bedtime to a child or two (or five). Imagine getting through this without causing bewilderment in your auditors:

The pageant of the river bank had marched steadily along, unfolding itself in scene-pictures that succeeded each other in stately procession. Purple loosestrife arrived early, shaking luxuriant tangled locks along the edge of the mirror whence its own face laughed back at it. Willow-herb, tender and wistful, like a pink sunset cloud, was not slow to follow. Comfrey, the purple hand-in-hand with the white, crept forth to take its place in the line; and at last one morning the diffident and delaying dog-rose stepped delicately on the stage, and one knew, as if string-music had announced it in stately chords that strayed into a gavotte, that June at last was here.

That passage becomes even more confusingly ornate — with a “shepherd-boy for the nymphs to woo” and “meadow-sweet, debonair and odorous in amber jerkin” and whatnot — before the actual story resumes. Halfway through a bit like that, even the most alert and cultivated child will be wondering what on earth you’re on about, and wishing you’d get back to Mr. Toad.

Perhaps a century ago, British and American children were close enough to flowers and plants, and, for that matter, the gavotte, for such a passage to resonate. But we live at a faster pace now. Grahame’s languid description of natural beauty — indeed, the whole experience of the book — has a kind of leisurely feeling that, like the messing about in boats, may not be immediately accessible to a generation of children raised on Wiis and iPods.

For those families who read aloud and often, there is no real question: Of course you must read The Wind in the Willows, and if you happen to skip the odd elaborate descriptive paragraph, well, who’s to know? For those families who regard nightly read-alouds as something glimpsed in a Norman Rockwell illustration, there’s an equally good option: Buy the audio version recorded by Martin Jarvis. It’s gloriously first-rate, and — what do you know? — it’s also abbreviated.

– Meghan Cox Gurdon writes regularly about children’s books for the Wall Street Journal.

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