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Avoiding the Wide World

Susan Hill reappraises The Wind in the Willows

14 December 2009

12:00 AM

14 December 2009

12:00 AM

The clue comes early on in the book. ‘Beyond the Wild Wood comes the Wide World,’ said the Rat, ‘And that’s something that doesn’t matter either to you or me. I’ve never been there and I’m never going, nor you either, if you’ve got any sense at all. Don’t ever refer to it again please.’

In 1903, a shocking incident took place at the Bank of England, where the soon-to-be author of one of the most magical of all children’s books was then Secretary. A man had walked in from the street asking to see the Governor but had to settle for Grahame. He held out a roll of paper with two ribbons tied round it, one black, one white, and asked Grahame to pull either one. Grahame chose the black and when he pulled it the man took out a shotgun and fired three times at Grahame. Every shot missed.

Kenneth Grahame had never much cared for the Wide World and now he retreated into the past, the idyll, as he remembered it, of the years he spent as a child living with his grandmother in the beautiful Thames-side village of Cookham Dean. In fact, those years were a mere two, but any perfect period of time has no limit, it expands in the memory and those happy, carefree days with his siblings spent playing around the river are at the heart of Grahame’s classic story.

Kenneth Grahame was that familiar literary figure, the man who not only set his face against real life and particularly its modern aspects but also against growing up. Technically, of course, he did — he even married and had a son, but the marriage, to a neurotic and domineering woman who pursued him until he gave in, was a disaster, and the son and only child committed suicide. Experience of the Wide World confirmed Grahame’s worst fears about it. But out of that worst came the near-perfect book.

Only near? Yes. The purple prose of some of The Wind in the Willows is excessive, and the embarrassing chapter called ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’, in which we meet the god Pan in the woods, could be excised with impunity. Otherwise, was there ever a better, more quintessentially English story, set on the river and riverbank, among meadows and in the terrible Wild Wood? It is the places one enjoys first and remembers, and not only because they are wonderfully evoked and described but because they are home to a set of carefully observed and lovingly drawn characters. Grahame must have not only watched, but thought about the behaviour, habits and habitats of the animals he saw in the country as a boy. Rat, Mole, Badger and Toad, the Weasels, the Ferrets and the Stoats, and every minor player, right down to the chorus of fieldmice, are exactly as they would be if they were human. Anthropomorphic writing is by no means as easy as it might seem, because sentimentality so often gains the upper hand. Not in The Wind in the Willows, though there are one or two mildly tear-inducing incidents.

Children of all ages — for this, like all the best, is written for children aged 6 to 106 — enjoy imagining the houses in which animals live, and furnishing them accordingly. Mole’s humble little underground home, with its bare wooden table and chairs, newly whitewashed walls and box beds, Badger’s snug bachelor den, Rat’s bright and airy riverside house, and of course Toad Hall, are places in which not only they but we, the readers, live. Probably the boy Kenneth Grahame lived in them too, and the memory of what they were like in his imagination can never have left him, for the detail is so exact, so fully formed, down to Badger’s slippers and pipe rack, Rat’s sides of ham hanging up to cure and Mole’s statue of Garibaldi.

The Wind in the Willows has everything the heart could desire. It has several good narrative threads, it is touching, and it is hilarious. Was there ever a character like Toad, and haven’t we all known one — boastful, proud, foolish, victim of every passing fancy, spendthrift, full of bravado yet a coward at heart? I have met quite a few Toads, just as I have met men as wise and comforting as Badger, humble and innocent as Mole, energetic and sensible as Rat.

Deftly and with great skill, Grahame builds up his story and keeps his reader excited. If the underground burrows are contrasted with the sunny, breezy river bank, the spring, when everyone starts cleaning, and the summer — idle and pleasurable — are contrasted with what we all understand by a Proper Winter. There is snow, in deep, satisfying drifts, snow in which small animals lose their way because the scent they follow is buried, and cold, in which the carolling party of field mice shiver and turn blue in spite of their knitted comforters.

The greatest contrast of all is between the sunlight, freedom and carefree happiness of the fields and riverbank and the darkness and danger of the Wild Wood. The scene in which Mole foolishly enters it by himself, against better advice, and gets lost, is very frightening:

I know of many a ghost or horror story which aims to scare the reader witless but fails by comparison with ‘Chapter Three: The Wild Wood.’

But if the book that Grahame wrote is a masterpiece of invention and charm, there is something else which is as good. When A.A. Milne took The Wind in the Willows and turned it into a play called Toad of Toad Hall, he did that most difficult of all things an adaptor must do — made it both entirely true to the book, down to the use of much original dialogue, and yet a piece of theatre in its own right. And no one has composed better music for any adaptation of Grahame’s book than the original written for Milne’s play by H. Fraser Simpson. The combination is as right as right can be.

My husband, a Shakespeare scholar, is often asked to name his favourite Shakespeare play and he usually says The Cherry Orchard. If I am asked I say Toad of Toad Hall. Nothing in the theatre has ever given me as much pleasure. I first saw it as a child at the Repertory Theatre in my home town of Scarborough and it captivated me then and for life. In the early 1970s it was put on by the Royal Shakespeare Company for several Christmas seasons with near- ideal casting, including Judi Dench as a very pregnant Mrs Rabbit.

London saw a production year in year out, until the book was adapted by Alan Bennett for the National Theatre. It was not the same. Toad of Toad Hall is the ultimate adaptation, the ultimate theatrical delight. When the fieldmice come round singing their carols and are then entertained by a roaring fire to mulled wine and mince pies something settles over every audience, a deep, nostalgic sort of contentment at the experience of Christmas as it is in stories and on cards, Christmas with the frost and snow without and friends gathered together warm within. When we emerge from the book or from the theatre, the Wide World does indeed seem a place with which we want nothing to do, which doesn’t matter to us and which we never want to hear mentioned again.

Escapist? Well of course it is. The best always are. And where better to escape for a time than the sort of place people have picnics containing ‘coldtonguecoldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkinssaladfrenchrollscresssandwichespottedmeatgingerbeerlemonsodawater.…’ ?

Illustrations by Arthur Rackham

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