- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 22, 2009



By Kenneth Grahame

Edited with a preface and notes by Annie Gauger

Norton, $39.95, 384 pages, illus.

Reviewed by Claire Hopley

Most book lovers have delicious memories of the books they read as children, and they usually have at least one book they love so much that, as adults, they reread it with a pleasure all the more poignant for being tinged with nostalgia.

My book is Kenneth Grahame’s “The Wind in the Willows,” published in 1908. As a child, I lived near a river and spent happy hours on its banks, so I adored Grahame’s picture of the Mole and Ratty messing about in boats and rowing to quiet bank-side coves for monumental picnics. I loved following their adventures, especially Mole’s. Like a child, he emerges from his home to the excitement of new experiences and new friends: the irresponsible Toad, the gruff Badger, the charming Otter and, most important, the Rat, who introduces him to the myriad fascinations of the Wide World.

What is so alluring about Grahame’s masterpiece is that, like children, his characters have their successes and disasters, pleasures and problems. But because they are animals, readers can feel avuncular about them. Even when one character teeters on calamity, there’s the assurance that the others will rally ‘round and all will be made soothingly well again.

The sense that “The Wind in the Willows” is somehow like our own world - though better - is vindicated in Annie Gauger’s “The Annotated Wind in the Willows.” Her careful introduction explains that when he wrote it, Grahame was already successfully established as both a writer and as secretary of the Bank of England. He spent his leisure with literary friends, who had introduced him to the joy of boating. He married Elspeth Thomson in 1899, and 10 months later, their only child, Alastair, was born. Grahame was 41 and his wife 38.

Alastair was afflicted with serious eye problems that left him partially blind. His mother never quite recovered from his birth. Governesses took over, and so, to some extent, did Grahame. He was remote emotionally, and physically, too; he was often distant - either working or taking extended vacations.

But he devoted his literary talents to his son. As early as 1904, a guest overheard him telling bedtime stories, and by 1907, his letters to the little boy were largely tales of the animal characters we know from “The Wind in the Willows.” Already at 7, Alastair - usually called Mouse - had created a magazine for which he both wrote stories and drew pictures, often elaborating on his father’s tale.

Ms. Gauger’s annotated edition includes transcripts of the magazine, the 57 letters from governess Naomi Stott detailing the daily events in Mouse’s life, and all of Grahame’s letters on which the novel is based. Like her biographical introduction and her discussion of Alastair’s magazine, this supporting documentation provides revealing insights into the psychological and social genesis of “The Wind in the Willows.”

Equally illuminating is Ms. Gauger’s analysis of the pictures that have always been one of the delights of the book. Arthur Rackham was invited to illustrate the first edition but declined because he was busy. Opportunity knocked again in 1940, and “The Wind in the Willows” was the last book he ever illustrated. He was ill, which probably explains why his illustrations, though attractive, are not the best.

Paul Bransom, who taught himself to draw by portraying the animals in the National Zoo in the District, contributed splendid drawings to the first American edition. Ms. Gauger criticizes his work as too naturalistic, but his picture of Otter has the remarkable presence of great art, and that of Ratty and Mole leading Toad’s horse wittily confronts the conundrum of whether to portray the animals as all the same size - which seems justified by Grahame’s descriptions - or in their very different true-to-life sizes, as Bransom does. Another American, Nancy Barnhart, made charming pictures for the 1922 edition. Like many later illustrators, she clothed the animals, a feature Grahame seems not to have desired.

Ms. Gauger’s textual annotations are less successful. She lacks nothing in diligence, meticulously adding information that relates the text to whatever seems relevant. Thus, she explicates the riverbank scenes and the wanderings of Ratty and Mole with reference to Grahame’s love of boating and his fondness for long hikes. She often links text and pictures to literature - most often to Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle - and to classic illustrations or paintings. She explains details of English life for Americans. But she frequently goes too far and explains the perfectly obvious.

Surely the literate audience that will read her book does not need dictionary definitions of such words as “vouchsafe,” “repast” and “provender.” Then, too, she draws links that seem far-fetched and gets carried away by detail.

For example, commenting on Mole’s alertness to his nearby old home, she describes Claude Chappe’s invention of the telegraph and notes its use at the Battle of Trafalgar. True enough, but Chappe’s manual telegraph was not used after 1880 because wireless telegraphy - clearly Grahame’s metaphor for Mole’s sensitivity to his home - had long since taken over.

Though Ms. Gauger’s extensive detail certainly will help future scholars, one serious effect is that her notes are far more extensive than Grahame’s text. They are printed side by side, which is sometimes useful but often means that the notes take extra pages so that readers have to hunt to find their place in the story. This layout problem could have been solved more elegantly by the publisher. Likewise, the publisher could have improved the quality of the many images. An index ought to have been provided. Its lack is a serious omission in a 379-page volume so densely packed with information.

Despite these caveats, lovers of “The Wind in the Willows” are surely indebted to Ms. Gauger’s work, and her readers will love seeing illustrations from so many editions.

Claire Hopley is a writer and critic in Amherst, Mass.

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