British author Kenneth Grahame wrote one of the most famous children’s books of all time, The Wind in the Willows, more than a century ago, yet its characters and plots remain as relevant today as they did in the early 1900s.
Grahame wrote and published one of the classics of children’s literature back in 1908. Its beautifully written chapters depict the picturesque English countryside, filled with exciting adventures for a group of friends, who happen to be anthropomorphic animals.
The underlying themes of friendship, adventure, camaraderie and morality have stood the test of time. Today, 111 years after the book was first published, it has been made into theatrical plays, radio shows, television series, web series, videos and DVDs.
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About the author
Grahame was born in Edinburgh in March 1859 and his early youth was spent in Argyllshire at Inveraray, where his father was sheriff. After his mother’s sudden death, when Grahame was only five, he and his three siblings were sent to Cookham in Berkshire to be brought up by their grandparents.
They were brought up at The Mount, a spacious house in large grounds, where they enjoyed playing on the riverside and boating with their uncle, David Ingles, who was the curate at Cookham Dean Church.
Grahame excelled at school, but his dreams of going to Oxford University were dashed because his family didn’t have enough money, so in 1879, he found employment with the Bank of England instead. He rose through the ranks, eventually achieving the high honour of becoming Secretary of the Bank of England.
Grahame had been writing short stories since he was in his 20s, having them published in periodicals of the time such as the St James Gazette. A collection of his short stories was published under the title Pagan Papers in 1893. They were published again as a compilation called The Golden Age in 1895.
In 1898, a collection called Dream Days was published, containing his other famous story, The Reluctant Dragon, but there was a ten-year gap between the publication of Dream Days and the writing and publication of his most famous work, The Wind in the Willows.
A year after writing The Reluctant Dragon, Grahame married Elspeth Thomson in 1899. They had a son, Alastair, in 1900. Grahame would entertain the youngster by telling him bedtime stories and this was how The Wind in the Willows began.
The author drew from his own childhood experiences playing on the riverbank and invented a host of characters such as Toad, Mole, Rat and Badger, giving them human characteristics and personalities.
The characters of The Wind in the Willows lived an idyllic life enjoying friendship and adventures in turn-of-the-century pastoral England. The story begins with the characters meeting each other. Mole, a good-natured chap, is spring cleaning but he soon loses patience.
He decides to get some fresh air at the river – somewhere he has never been before. While there, he meets Rat, a water vole, whose nickname is Ratty. They become friends and Ratty begins to teach Mole about life on the river.
One day, they take a trip to the majestic Toad Hall, the home of wealthy Toad, who is jovial, kind-hearted and friendly, but also rather conceited and directionless. He tends to obsess about current fads, but then quickly abandons them.
He begins hanging out with Mole and Ratty and develops an obsession with motor cars, the emerging craze back in 1908, when Grahame wrote the book. Sadly, Toad’s driving skills don’t match his enthusiasm – Mole and Ratty learn that their friend has crashed seven cars so far!
The fourth member of the quartet of pals, Badger, is a reclusive soul who lives deep in the woods. Mole sets off into the forest one day to look for his home, but gets hopelessly lost and panics. Ratty goes looking for him and saves him, as snow has begun to fall and it’s a freezing day to be deep in the woods.
They stumble, literally, on Badger’s home and he invites them in, offering them hot food and dry clothes following Mole’s ordeal. The four friends go on to strike up a firm friendship and have plenty of adventures together.
Origins of Toad Hall
Many people believe Toad Hall is based on Fowey Hall (now the Fowey Hall Hotel) in the picturesque harbour town of Fowey, on the south coast of Cornwall. The hall was built by businessman Sir Charles Augustin Hanson, who was born in 1846 in Polruan, across the estuary from Fowey.
He built the majestic hall with his new-found wealth in the Victorian era, after emigrating to Canada as a young man to make his fortune in the lumber trade. He returned to Cornwall in 1889, when in his 40s, after deciding he wanted to build a mansion suitable for his new wealthy lifestyle.
He became a politician on his return to Cornwall, entering the Commons as MP for Bodmin in 1916. The peak of his career was being elected Lord Mayor of London in 1917.
Fowey Hall was recognised as one of the finest country houses of its era, its Portland Stone exterior contrasting with red tile roofs, moulded cornices, a lead-domed central bell-cot and large weather vane.
Fowey Hall today
As one of the last country homes built in England, Fowey Hall is a famous landmark on the Cornish coast, with breathtaking views over the harbour. Today, it provides a lasting reminder of one of Fowey’s most famous sons, who went abroad to make his fortune and returned home triumphant to build his castle.
Grahame was a regular visitor to Fowey Hall and many people believe it was the model for Toad Hall. His good friend, Sir Arthur Quiller Couch (famous for the Oxford Book of Verse) married Hanson’s cousin, Louise Hicks. The extended family frequently entertained at the hall and Grahame was a regular visitor there.
The Wind in the Willows affectionately depicted Fowey as “The Little Grey Seaport” and Grahame was said to be a regular visitor there. Today, the eight bedrooms in the hotel’s courtyard are named in honour of all the characters in The Wind in the Willows.
Grahame retired from the Bank of England in 1908, after the publication of The Wind in the Willows. The author died in 1932 in Pangbourne, Berkshire, but his legacy lives on in the form of his wonderful tales of Toad, Mole, Ratty and Badger and their adventures.
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