Show Hide image

Dark-hearted dreamer: the double life of Kenneth Grahame

Kenneth Grahame charmed readers with The Wind in the Willows – but his personal life left tragedy in its wake.

It was the heyday of divided lives, from the strange case of Jekyll and Hyde (1886) to the double voice of J Alfred Prufrock (1915), shifting from timorous lover to daring prophet. More pertinent to writers is the dual figure in Henry James’s ghost tale, “The Private Life” (1892), where a celebrated author, holding forth in full public view, is found at the same time alone in his room, back-turned, intent on writing. Matthew Dennison shows us a somewhat similar feat: the co-existence of a fancy-free “eternal boy” and a public conformist throughout the double life of Kenneth Grahame.

What is strange in this case is not the mismatch between private and public lives. It is to be expected, as TS Eliot put it: “Our lives are covered by the currents of action.” Indeed, in Grahame’s children’s classic, The Wind in the Willows, Ratty, the Water Rat, shuns the Wide World beyond the Wild Wood. He instructs his friend Mole that anyone with sense would not go there. But Grahame himself did go there, and more: he shaped himself to the Wide World.

It was not a disguise, not like that of Eliot in his banker identity complete with bowler hat and rolled umbrella. Where Eliot could confide (to Lytton Strachey) that as a clerk at Lloyds Bank he was “sojourning among the termites”, Grahame was at the top of his game as secretary to the Bank of England, and even more so when he drilled with a volunteer London Scottish regiment. This “toy-soldiering”, it appears, was not fake. Contemporary opinion saw Grahame as “a man’s man”. He was a massive figure, tall and broad with no spare flesh. His face remained “beatifically” young with the rosy complexion of a healthy child.

When the First World War came, his authoritative moustache (almost as thick as Lord Kitchener’s in the finger-pointing poster saying “Your Country Needs You”) prompted his appointment as commanding officer to a non-combatant regiment. Yet hard on the march, as it were, was a fantasist with toys scattered around his study and a doll drawer.

The divide in Grahame goes back to Inveraray on Loch Fyne in the west of Scotland. There, in 1864, when Kenneth was five, his mother Bessie died, and his father, once a clever young advocate in Edinburgh but already on a downhill course, collapsed in alcoholic grief. The four children were sent south to their cold maternal grandmother at The Mount, a crumbling house in Cookham Dean in Berkshire. Dennison thinks that the children were too small to find comfort in one another (a precursor to Kenneth’s adult estrangements from his siblings). Instead the child turned to the Thames, surrounded by willows at the bottom of the garden. In later years his nostalgia for this setting, as he knew it between the ages of five and seven (when they moved away), lies behind The Wind in the Willows.

We meet the creatures of the riverbank as Ratty introduces Mole to an “intoxicating” drift in a boat. Mole “trailed a paw in the water and dreamed long waking dreams” while Ratty thinks “poetry-things”. The illustrator EH Shepard catches this idyll to perfection. Nature touched Grahame deeply; people did not. And yet a routinely brutal public school, St Edward’s in Oxford, which he entered at the age of nine and a half, and later, fellow bankers at the Treasury, provided traditional groups in which Grahame did more than function; he flourished. There were prizes and promotion.

All the while, he could sink into his other self, composing stories about five orphans who reject the “Olympians”, the aunts and uncles who suppress imaginative children. These stories were collected in The Golden Age (1895) and its sequel Dream Days (1898). His lasting fiction The Wind in the Willows (1908) was less successful at first, rejected by publishers and reviewers, who wanted a third volume of Olympians stories, not an animal fantasy. Eventually, and with reservations, Methuen & Company accepted the book on the basis of royalties and without an advance. “As a contribution to natural history the work is negligible,” said the Times Literary Supplement. Initially, sales were poor.

The book was popularised by adaptation for the stage (AA Milne’s Toad of Toad Hall in 1929, a staple of school plays), a television version in 1984 and more recently a musical by Julian Fellowes. The enduring popularity, Dennison suggests, lies in nostalgia and an appeal “to the instinctive conservatism of small children who hanker to preserve their particular worlds intact”. There is also, of course, the affinity for the natural world that will appeal to readers of all ages. My daughter found the book a bit slow until it got to the adventures of absurdly puffed-up Mr Toad. What she loved were Shepard’s “cosy, wintry” illustrations of Ratty and Mole lost in the snow of the Wild Wood and finding a haven with the burly Badger, where they toast their toes at his hospitable fire.

It’s a boys’ club, much like Grahame’s outdoorsy chums who did not try one another with intimacy. They got together for rambles, with Grahame dressed like a countryman in tweed breeches and shapeless jacket. His favourite place was the stretch of the Thames between Marlow and Pangbourne; also Fowey, the town clinging to a coastal hillside in Cornwall, looking down on a patch of blue. There Grahame and another writer, Arthur Quiller-Couch (known as “Q”), liked “to mess about in boats”.

Women were out of it, although Elspeth Thomson, at 37, took herself down to Fowey, ready to enter Grahame’s space. That was where they wed in July 1899. Elspeth did not wear her London-made wedding dress, downplaying the event for an uneasy, forty-something bachelor who had beckoned her fitfully – but more often, and worryingly, retreated into his Boys’ Own world.

Until then, Elspeth with her poodle and lady’s maid, and writing occasional verse, had filled a role as her stepfather’s hostess to eminent men like Tenniel (illustrator of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, who once sent Elspeth a Valentine), Tennyson, Campbell-Bannerman and the Asquiths. In Grahame she saw another eminent man, broad-chested, well-born (his mother was twin to the heir of the Duke of Argyll) and well-off.

Yet from their first days together, on honeymoon at St Ives, the marriage collapsed. Elspeth complained of sex to Emma Hardy, the neglected wife of the poet, who replied that “hundreds of wives” found themselves disappointed when it came to love. In a book on homosexuals in the 19th century, Graham Robb includes Kenneth Grahame, though among the “pre-sexual”. Dennison avoids labels with a subject hard to know. Obviously, in the context of Oscar Wilde’s disgrace, men of that time had to be very, very careful, and Grahame was cautious enough to cease writing for The Yellow Book, the aesthetic journal publishing what were regarded as writers of dubious morality.

Dennison has chosen instead to tell a compassionate story of a boy so damaged by a loveless upbringing as to be incapable of sustained adult attachment. The passing appeal of a female circus performer with a rounded, earthy body and a fantasy about a chambermaid in a pink-spotted frock suggest, says Dennison, “boyish lust”. Women in Grahame’s works are dreamlike – fairies, princesses, enchantresses – not people to know. Poor Elspeth, set aside in the marital home, dwindled into a wraith. So thin that she refused to be photographed, and no longer respectably dressed, she huddled in old cardigans and hand-knitted stockings.

Dennison thinks Elspeth partly to blame for leaning on a man who should not have married. Her only surviving letter to Grahame does put him on the spot for a forgotten overture. Dennison has reason to be annoyed with Elspeth for the biography she oversaw after Grahame’s death in 1932. With this in view, she destroyed papers that might contradict her myths, one of which was that she had inspired The Wind in the Willows. Unpicking the myths, Dennison balances regard with disturbing facts. One is an admission from a contemporary that Grahame was “cruel” to his wife. Another is a political reading of The Wind in the Willows:

This is an aggressively conservative book and its targets include socialism and any form of faddishness or craving for novelty, Toad’s weakness. Loyalty to caste and suppression of the masses are at the heart of its patrician creed. It is triumphantly an exercise in denial, written within a decade of the First World War at a moment when death duties, agricultural slump and left-wing political philosophies had begun an onslaught on inherited privilege…

Dennison’s bold criticism stands out in a biography that is scrupulously just to its subject. His frequent reminders of the blows Grahame suffered will speak to rational minds. The reminders are necessary because the blows, as they happen, are oddly unmoving. We have to understand the reasons why this child developed so extreme a version of an escapist self. Only gradually does Dennison allow the facts to add up to something twisted, even dangerous to any human being who ventured too close.

In the end this book peels back actions to reveal a phenomenon that may not be all that uncommon: an “eternal boy” who cannot grow up yet manages to appear a specimen of manhood who ticks all the boxes. Here is what can happen to a child removed from domestic affection, “institutionalised” too young in a public school, and then compelled to give up natural longings for adventure and higher education to join the London branch of the family law firm, followed by a gentleman-clerkship in the Bank of England. Grahame gamely took on these expected narratives, supplemented by the “toy-soldiering”, but then, at the peak of his public success, he began a narrative he could not manage.

When Grahame added marriage to his set of conformities, his heart wasn’t in it. His letters to his bride-to-be are skittish, locked in a childish lingo that pretends to amuse but really serves as a “screen” against intimacy. Trying to rouse himself, all he could think of to hearten his bride in his pre-wedding letter is that he means to “exhaust” her. Should he be excused as pathetically self-protective like Mr Casaubon, who disappoints his ardently willing wife, Dorothea, in Middlemarch? Ominously, there is a pale stag in the tapestry of the room Mr Casaubon assigns to his bride. We learn not to dislike him for paleness – he can’t help that, and Dorothea herself comes to pity her husband as a poor, lamed creature – but George Eliot does point to the unloveliness of wilful oblivion. For Casaubon never considers his effect on his wife when he rebuffs an affectionate gesture with an act of formal courtesy, placing a chair for her to seat herself at a safe distance.

Grahame’s only child, Alastair (known as “Mouse”), was born in May 1900, ten months after his marriage. Fathering was another narrative that ended badly when Mouse, born blind in one eye, squinting and quirky, could not adapt to the dominant group. He dropped out of Rugby School after six miserable weeks of what boys called “ragging” but was in fact bullying, then dropped out of Eton after a year. After failing his Greek, Latin and holy studies exams three times at Christ Church, Mouse died, almost certainly by suicide, at the age of 20. He was found on the railway line at Oxford – one of his father’s enchanted places.

So there’s the sum of Kenneth Grahame’s divided life: two wrecked people out of a family of three plus one endearing book.  The Wind in the Willows developed out of stories he’d told Mouse. Here, listening, was a boy often away from home, who at 11 wrote to his father: “I hear that you have taken advantage of my absence to make a bolt for France. I am at present staying in a little island known as England, of which you may have heard… Nothing doing here at present, England is a dull little place!” Such sportive retorts could have spurred his father to go on with what was to prove Grahame’s only full-length fiction. For Mouse is said to be the source for the irrepressibly articulate Mr Toad. This involvement gave a vulnerable and otherwise distanced boy a rare access to Grahame’s dreaming self.

Drawing on telling quotes from Grahame’s works, Dennison’s book more than meets the challenge of a walled-off man. The result is a sensitively probing and nuanced portrait that makes sense of the darker character furled in the dreamer. 

Lyndall Gordon’s books include “Outsiders: Five Women Writers Who Changed the World” (Virago)

Eternal Boy: The Life of Kenneth Grahame
Matthew Dennison
Head of Zeus, 288pp, £18.99

This article first appeared in the 09 November 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Revenge of the nation state