A Reading Life

A classic, partly lost in time, mostly timeless

By Katherine A. Powers
May 3, 2009
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Last year marked the 100th anniversary of the publication of Kenneth Grahame's "The Wind in the Willows," an occasion I celebrated in this space. This year is the 150th anniversary of its author's birth, and the celebration continues with the arrival of two new annotated editions of this wonderful novel. Just to set them briefly before you: "The Wind in the Willows: An Annotated Edition" ( Belknap Press, $35) is edited by Seth Lerer, whose object, he says, is to give a sense of what early 20th-century readers, whose "verbal world is largely lost to us," would have made of the book. He directs his commentary at today's general reader, as well as at academics in the field of children's literature. The volume includes 22 splendid color plates from past editions as well as many black and white illustrations.

The other entry is "The Annotated Wind in the Willows" (Norton, $39.95), edited by Annie Gauger. This has 470 pages to the other's 288, and is greatly enhanced by an ebullient introduction by Brian Jacques, a paean to the story and its heroes that is in delightful harmony with the book's spirit. The volume is richly illustrated throughout and is provided with a number of appendices as well as sections of correspondence. Gauger, like Lerer, provides historical and social context for the book and explains the language used.

Gauger's chief concern, however, amounts to a cause: It is to show how essential the author's only child, Alastair Grahame, was in bringing the novel into being. Alastair's story is a sad one. His mother and father's marriage was not happy, and neither of them was especially cut out for the role of parent. Alastair spent much time apart from his parents, in the care of a nanny, then a governess, and later at Eton. His sight was impaired, his health was frail, and he had trouble at school. He was sent to Oxford where his father had longed to go and committed suicide in his second year. Some have claimed that Kenneth Grahame based Mr. Toad on Alastair and have seen this as reflecting the author's dissatisfaction with his son and as an unkind act that could have contributed to the young man's unhappiness. But Gauger shows, through a selection of letters from Alastair's governess, that while there was a bit of Mr. Toad in the boy (in most boys, I'd say), there was more in him of those two fast friends: gentle, but doughty Mole and busy, brave Rat. She also includes the series of unmistakably fond letters from Grahame to his son that emerged as a sketch of what was finally published as "The Wind in the Willows." Finally, she reproduces material showing that the boy may have come up with part of the story, and all in all demonstrates young Alastair's importance.

Gauger more than Lerer investigates the possible origins of the novel's characters and settings. She provides illustrations of a number of grand piles upon which Toad Hall might have been modeled. She describes the Fifth Duke of Portland's weird underground establishment, which could, in part, have inspired Badger's ancient dwelling - though both she and Lerer acknowledge the importance of Grahame's fascination with buried ruins. And both editors note that Grahame himself has been fingered for Badger, but Gauger goes on to quote C.S. Lewis's encomium: "Consider Mr. Badger - that extraordinary amalgam of high rank, coarse manners, gruffness, shyness, and goodness. The child who has once met Mr. Badger has ever afterwards in its bones a knowledge of humanity and of English social history which it could not get in any other way."

Well, that was then and there, and this is here and now: Few American children, or even adults unsteeped in Victorian and Edwardian literature, will cotton on to the social history incarnate in that eminent, beneficent creature or to the significance of many of the story's details, expressions, and metaphors. Thus, annotation would seem to be called for, but here it must said that the academic formulations that both Gauger and Lerer bring to identifying and commenting on the social and historical context of the book seem especially awkward and officious running beside the graceful prose they gloss. You may call this a matter of taste.

Still, neither editor seems really at home in the world that gave rise to "The Wind in the Willows." Though they are forever supplying definitions from the Oxford English Dictionary, neither appears to have looked up "metalled," both believing that a "metalled road' has something to do with metal (rather than broken stone). Lerer, clearly no student of Mrs. Beeton (who recommends onion sauce as the best accompaniment for rabbit dishes), believes that Mole's taunting the rabbits who annoy him with "Onion Sauce! Onion sauce!' is the equivalent of his saying "hogwash," going on to say, apropos of nothing in the story, that "By the nineteenth century, onion-sauce had come to represent the simplicity of home cooking, in contrast to the fancy cuisine of court or the Continent." For her part, Gauger does not recognize vegetable marrows, once a staple of the British table (alas), speculating that those shown in an illustration by Arthur Rackham could be "water-melon sized cucumbers or giant leeks."

In possibly my favorite part of the book, the animal friends surge forth to retake Toad Hall from the weasels, stoats, and ferrets. Mild-mannered, home-loving Mole, now "black and grim, brandishing his stick," shouts "his awful war-cry, 'A Mole! A Mole!' " - echoing Scottish warriors of yore whose battle cry was their clan name. For Gauger, however, "This odd war cry resembles one of the most famous lines in Shakespeare's Richard III . . . 'A horse! a horse! My kingdom for a horse!' " This makes no sense at all and, worse, misses a very good joke.

Errors apart, it may be that "The Wind in the Willows" simply resists, or even defies, annotation. Old-fashioned usage and lost allusions aside, much of the novel is an indissoluble amalgam of period mood and perfect whimsy. It combines the charm of small creatures and their anthropomorphized ways with a yearning for friendship and domestic joy, for order, social and household, and for fairness, kindness, and nature's balm. It is ineffably - truly ineffably - British and evokes that halcyon childhood that is, or at least was, a constituent element in that island's sense of itself.

Katherine A. Powers lives in Cambridge. She can be reached by e-mail at