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The Wind in the Willows – Why is it a Classic?


Peter Hunt argues that we have to be careful when classifying one of the most well known English books: it may be a ‘Children’s Classic’ but it’s not a ‘Classic for Children’.


Of course The Wind in the Willows is a ‘Children’s Classic’! It appears in every series of Children’s Classics from Oxford University Press to Ladybird Books (which edition cheerfully misinforms us that when it was published Kenneth Grahame was ‘working as a secretary in the Bank of England’, rather than – a small point – the Secretary of).


Leaving aside the cynical view that a ‘classic’ is something that publishers don’t have to pay royalties on, or is simply a book that is famous for being famous, The Wind in the Willows surely ticks all the right boxes. It is about talking animals (very children’s book-y), and about home and warmth and security (especially after a little scariness in the Wild Wood). There are picnic baskets and groaning tables full of food (children are, as C. S. Lewis ironically observed, thought to be ‘greedy little beggars’); there are small adventures (on a peaceful river) and knockabout farce (escaping down a rope of sheets, stealing cars, commandeering a railway engine). There are a lot of (apparently) uncomplicated friendships: a vulnerable child-figure (Mole) and a rebellious child-figure (Toad) to empathise with, a father figure (Badger), and a brother figure (Rat) to aspire to or to rebel against. There is a very satisfactory cartoon-violent resolution – and on top of all that, the book has that copper-bottomed trademark of the children’s classic: it originated, like Alice’s Adventures and Treasure Island in stories told to a particular child. What’s not to like?


And yet, any adult who reads it as an adult, and especially one who encounters the difficulty of reading it to children (even to very bookish children, such as my own grandchildren) may have some doubts. Whatever its origins, in its published form The Wind in the Willows was never intended for children. Not Grahame, nor his publishers, nor the original reviewers thought it was. It may have started out as Grahame’s bedtime stories and letters to his son, but, like Alice and Treasure Island, it developed into something very different. It’s not about talking animals (Mr Toad is, in his own words, ‘the well-known and popular … landed proprietor’): the main characters may have animal names, but apart from three or four small incidents (as when the urbane Otter suddenly gets a taste for dragon-flies instead of cold beef and pickled gherkins) these are leisured, upper-middle-class (well, maybe Mr Mole is lower-middle) men, who smoke, drink, drive cars, write poetry, own houses, give dinner parties, and are rather averse to women.


Kenneth Grahame at thirty: a rising young banker, and at the same time one of ‘W.E. Henley’s Young Men’, writing short essays for the Scots Observer


Alastair Grahame as a child, from Patrick Chalmers’ Kenneth Grahame: Life, Letters and Unpublished Work. The title of this photograph,probably supplied by Elspeth, was: ‘The Editor of The Merrythought’


Kenneth Grahame at thirty: a rising young banker, and at the same time one of ‘W.E. Henley’s Young Men’, writing short essays for the Scots Observer.


16 Books for Keeps No.229 March 2018 (which says a lot about communications at the time):


above Alastair Grahame as a child, from Patrick Chalmers’ Kenneth Grahame: Life, Letters and Unpublished Work. The title of this photograph, probably supplied by Elspeth, was: ‘The Editor of The Merrythought’.


Kenneth’s life at the Bank continued, punctuated by two notable incidents. In 1903 one George Robinson came into the Bank and fired three shots at Grahame before being ‘overpowered by a quick-witted messenger using a fire hydrant’.12


Grahame wrote a note to Elspeth


There’s cold chicken … coldtonguecoldhamcoldbeef- pickledgherkinssaladfrenchrollscresssandwidgespot- tedmeatgingerbeerlemonadesodawater—‘ Arthur Rackham’s 1939 view of the iconic picnic. Arthur Rackham’s illustrations for The Wind in the Willows (1940) were the last work of his brilliant career, which included backgrounds for Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.


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