Neil Rathmell – writer

150+ essays on literary topics

Kenneth Grahame

Kenneth Grahame, the author of one of the most famous and best loved of all children’s books, was a banker. Born in 1859, he worked his way up to become Secretary of the Bank of England, a post from which he retired in 1908. The Wind in the Willows was published in the same year. He once said that the part of his brain he used between the ages of four and seven had never changed.

Few people now read his other books, The Golden Age and Dream Days, which were once as popular as The Wind in the Willows. Both are what would now be called memoirs, recollections of his childhood in which real and imagined adventures are re-told. One of the stories in Dream Days had an after-life as a Walt Disney film and a John Rutter opera. In its original form, the story is told to the young Kenneth and his friend, Charlotte, by an old man who lives nearby. Kenneth and Charlotte are looking for the tracks of dragons in the snow and the man, entering into the spirit of their game, tells them a story about one. The chapter in which this happens begins like this:

‘Footprints in the snow have been unfailing provokers of sentiment ever since snow was first a white wonder in this drab-coloured world of ours. In a poetry-book presented to one of us by an aunt, there was a poem by one Wordsworth in which they stood out strongly with a picture all to themselves, too – but we didn’t think very highly either of the poem or the sentiment. Footprints in the sand, now, were quite another matter, and we grasped Crusoe’s attitude of mind much more easily than Wordsworth’s. Excitement and mystery, curiosity and suspense – these were the only sentiments that tracks, whether in sand or snow, were able to arouse in us.’

These books, which were written ten years before The Wind in the Willows, were not only, or even primarily, books for children, but books about being a child, to which the author applied the appropriate part of his brain. It was unusual at the time when they were written for the child’s point of view to be elevated above that of the adult and that was what caught people’s attention when they were published. Kenneth Grahame, writing about his own childhood, brought children into the foreground, while he hovered behind them, entering into their games like the old man who told the story of the Reluctant Dragon.

In the first chapter of The Golden Age he tells us that things might have been different if he had been brought up by parents, as most children are, instead of by aunts and uncles. ‘They treated us,’ he writes, ‘with kindness enough as to the needs of the flesh, but after that with indifference (an indifference, as I recognise, the result of a certain stupidity), and therewith the commonplace conviction that your child is merely animal. At a very early age I remember realising, in a quite impersonal and kindly way, the existence of that stupidity, and its tremendous influence in the world.’ He called them ‘The Olympians’ and ended the chapter on a cautionary note: ‘A saddening doubt, a dull suspicion, creeps over me. Et in Arcadia ego – I certainly did once inhabit Arcady. Can it be that I also have become an Olympian?’

The Wind in the Willows was different from the other two in being a wholly made-up book for children to read, but not in its vocabulary, syntax or points of reference different from a book for grown-ups. On the first page we read a sentence which, in all three respects, is entirely grown-up. ‘Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing.’ Anyone who has read The Wind in the Willows as a child, recognises Mole when he meets him again as Mr Polly or Mr Lewisham.

The best children’s writers don’t write about a child’s world as if it is in some way different from the adult world. Instead, they bring a child’s intelligence to bear on the world we all inhabit. Even so, I wonder whether all those books that are written now just for children may not be an unmixed blessing. It is not just that children might be missing out on vocabulary, syntax and points of reference, but that ‘the commonplace conviction that your child is merely animal’ may have been strengthened rather than diminished by the creation of a separate literature for children. Books as pet food. Let the children have their books, let the grown-ups have theirs and let there be no confusion between the two.

‘The only excuse which I have yet discovered for writing anything,’ wrote A.A.Milne, ‘is that I want to write it; and I should be as proud to be delivered of a Telephone Directory con amore as I should be ashamed to create a Blank Verse Tragedy at the bidding of others.’  Having delivered himself of Now We Are Seven and The House at Pooh Corner, he watched in dismay as the audience for his plays, thinking that anything written by A.A.Milne must be for children, dried up.  He died by all accounts a rather unhappy man.

J.M.Barrie wrote books and plays for adults before he wrote Peter Pan and went on writing them long after. In the opinion of George Bernard Shaw, it was ‘ostensibly a holiday entertainment for children but really a play for grown-up people.’ Lewis Carroll followed up Alice in Wonderland with An Elementary Treatise on Determinants. A representative selection from Robert Louis Stevenson’s work in order of publication would include Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes, Familiar Studies of Men and Books, Virginibus Puerisque, Treasure Island, A Child’s Garden of Verses, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Kidnapped, The Master of Ballantrae and In The South Seas. E.Nesbit was one of the founders of the Fabian Society (she named her son after the society) and wrote socialist tracts as well as The Railway Children.

The 21st century is not so very different from the 19th when it comes to the attitude of grown-ups to children. We still, most of us, look down on them from Mount Olympus. ‘Can it be denied,’ Matthew Arnold wrote in his essay on Democracy, ‘that to live in a society of equals tends in general to make a man’s spirits expand, and his faculties work easily and actively; while, to live in a society of superiors, although it may occasionally be a very good discipline, yet in general tends to tame the spirits and to make the play of the faculties less secure and active? Can it be denied that to be heavily overshadowed, to be profoundly insignificant, has, on the whole, a depressing and benumbing effect on the character?’

He was writing about the different classes in English society, comparing England unfavourably with France, but he could as easily have been writing about children. England is still as much a ‘society of superiors’ as it ever was and its children are still made to feel profoundly insignificant, mere adults in the making, soon to be fully fledged contributors to the economy. We observe that the children of what used to be called the lower orders do less well at school and persuade ourselves that it is possible to do something about it without ordering society differently. We take it as a fact of life that some people are more equal than others. We, that is to say English grown-ups, say that children who murder other children are evil, but lack the honesty and courage of Prospero to say, ‘This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.’

England needs more bankers like Kenneth Grahame, more school inspectors like Matthew Arnold, fewer Olympians and a greater sense of equality in the literary world between those who still have that part of their brain they used when they were children and those who don’t.

kenneth grahame 01

Next week’s post, on 12 March, will be the latest entry in my Reader’s Diary.

The post on 19 March will be about Othello.

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