‘Dated’ Books, Part Six: The Wind in the Willows

1 I recently had occasion to re-read The Wind in the Willows2 by Kenneth Grahame, and realised at once that it would make an excellent addition to my ‘Dated’ Books series. (For the benefit of those new to the series, ‘dated’ means ‘of its time, not ours’. ‘Dated’ books can be offensive to modern sensibilities, or they can be charmingly nostalgic, or they can simply be . . . odd. And some, like The Wind in the Willows, are all of these things.)

I picked up The Wind in the Willows because I’d been asked to read a section of it aloud as part of the National Bookshop Day celebrations3. Although I’d read the book as a child, it hadn’t made much of an impression on me, so I figured I’d better have another look, just in case there were any ‘difficult’ words. Well! Here are some of the words I found in The Wind in the Willows. How many can you correctly pronounce and define, without looking them up in a dictionary?

provender'The Wind in the Willows' by Kenneth Grahame

While the general meaning of the words could usually be inferred from the context, I had to look up several of the boating-related terms. For example, a ‘caique’, pronounced ‘kah-eek’, is either a rowboat used on the Bosporus or a small Mediterranean sailing ship, while ‘gunwale’, the edge of a boat formerly used to support guns, is pronounced ‘gunnel’. That’s not counting all the French phrases (table d’hôte, en pension), off-hand references to Norse legends (Sigurd) and Old English names of flora and fauna that I came across in the book. Now, imagine an author of today using those words in a manuscript aimed at primary school children, then trying to get the manuscript published. 4 It says something (probably something unflattering) about expectations for child readers these days. I think it also means The Wind in the Willows is more of a read-aloud-to-young-readers book now (although it depends on the particular child, of course – there are some who’d love figuring out the unfamiliar vocabulary for themselves).

The second thing I noticed about the book is how uneven it is, regarding tone and pace. There are a number of funny, exciting chapters involving Toad’s misadventures, in which he steals a car, insults a policeman, escapes from prison, hitches a ride on a steam train, gets tossed into a canal, steals a horse and finally makes his way home, only to find that his mansion has been invaded by weasels. There’s also the thrilling tale of Mole and Ratty getting lost in the Wild Wood during a snowstorm. Fortunately, Mole trips over a door-scraper hidden under the snow, although he fails to understand the significance of this:

“‘But don’t you see what it MEANS, you—you dull-witted animal?’ cried the Rat impatiently.

‘Of course I see what it means,’ replied the Mole. ‘It simply means that some VERY careless and forgetful person has left his door-scraper lying about in the middle of the Wild Wood, JUST where it’s SURE to trip EVERYBODY up. Very thoughtless of him, I call it. When I get home I shall go and complain about it to—to somebody or other, see if I don’t!’

‘O, dear! O, dear!’ cried the Rat, in despair at his obtuseness. ‘Here, stop arguing and come and scrape!’ And he set to work again and made the snow fly in all directions around him.

After some further toil his efforts were rewarded, and a very shabby door-mat lay exposed to view.

‘There, what did I tell you?’ exclaimed the Rat in great triumph.

‘Absolutely nothing whatever,’ replied the Mole, with perfect truthfulness. ‘Well now,’ he went on, ‘you seem to have found another piece of domestic litter, done for and thrown away, and I suppose you’re perfectly happy. Better go ahead and dance your jig round that if you’ve got to, and get it over, and then perhaps we can go on and not waste any more time over rubbish-heaps. Can we EAT a doormat? Or sleep under a door-mat? Or sit on a door-mat and sledge home over the snow on it, you exasperating rodent?’

‘Do—you—mean—to—say,’ cried the excited Rat, ‘that this door-mat doesn’t TELL you anything?’

‘Really, Rat,’ said the Mole, quite pettishly, ‘I think we’d had enough of this folly. Who ever heard of a door-mat TELLING anyone anything? They simply don’t do it. They are not that sort at all. Door-mats know their place.'”

But then, interspersed with the humour and excitement of these adventures, are entire chapters wallowing in cloying Victorian sentimentality. Most of these are Romantic odes to Nature:

“‘This is the place of my song-dream, the place the music played to me,’ whispered the Rat, as if in a trance. ‘Here, in this holy place, here if anywhere, surely we shall find Him!’

Then suddenly the Mole felt a great Awe fall upon him, an awe that turned his muscles to water, bowed his head, and rooted his feet to the ground. It was no panic terror—indeed he felt wonderfully at peace and happy—but it was an awe that smote and held him and, without seeing, he knew it could only mean that some august Presence was very, very near. With difficulty he turned to look for his friend and saw him at his side cowed, stricken, and trembling violently. And still there was utter silence in the populous bird-haunted branches around them; and still the light grew and grew […] All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still, as he lived, he wondered.

‘Rat!’ he found breath to whisper, shaking. ‘Are you afraid?’

‘Afraid?’ murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. ‘Afraid! Of HIM? O, never, never! And yet—and yet—O, Mole, I am afraid!’

Then the two animals, crouching to the earth, bowed their heads and did worship.”

Can you believe these two excerpts are about the same characters and come from the same book? And then, directly after Rat and Mole’s trembling glimpse of The Piper At The Gates of Dawn, we return to Toad escaping from prison, disguised as a washerwoman. Still, this might not count as evidence of the book’s datedness – it’s possibly just a sign of Kenneth Grahame’s eccentricity.

One definite sign of both datedness and the author’s oddness is the book’s attitude to girls and women. Not one of the animal characters – Mole, Rat, Toad, Badger, Otter, Portly, the Wayfarer Rat or the Chief Weasel – is female. When baby Portly goes missing, it’s his father, not his mother, who frets about him, searches for him and keeps a lonely vigil at the ford waiting for his return. The only female characters with speaking roles are the gaoler’s daughter (described as “a pleasant wench”) and an unnamed barge-woman (described by Toad as a “common, low, FAT barge-woman”). When other females are mentioned, it’s always with contempt. Toad’s friends try to get him to give up his dangerous motoring escapades by warning him that he could end up “in hospital, being ordered about by female nurses”. Then there’s this charming exchange between Toad and the barge-woman:

“‘But you know what GIRLS are, ma’am! Nasty little hussies, that’s what I call ’em!’

‘So do I, too,’ said the barge-woman with great heartiness. ‘But I dare say you set yours to rights, the idle trollops!'”

Oh, dear. Apparently, when Kenneth Grahame “sent the manuscript off to his agent, he told him proudly that it was ‘clean of the clash of sex’.”5 By ‘the clash of sex’, I assume he meant ‘any positive references to girls or women’. Still, you have to feel sorry for the man, because he had a very troubled life. His mother died when he was five, his father proceeded to drink himself to death, and his guardians refused to send him to Oxford, ordering him instead to work at the Bank of England, where he was shot at by a ‘Socialist Lunatic’. Fortunately, all the bullets missed, but Grahame retired to the country soon after this to live in “a loveless marriage with a hysterical hypochondriac” and look after their disturbed young son, Alastair. One of Alastair’s favourite games involved “lying down in the road in front of approaching cars and forcing them to stop”, and he eventually killed himself at the age of nineteen by lying in front of a train. It was no wonder Kenneth Grahame wanted to escape into a world where animals lived in snug little houses by a river bank and spent all their time “messing about on boats” and having delightful picnics.

Despite the difficulties I had with this book, I am curious about this annotated volume, edited by Seth Lerer (if only because it features those lovely original illustrations by Ernest H. Shepard).

More ‘dated’ books:

1. Wigs on the Green by Nancy Mitford
2. The Charioteer by Mary Renault
3. The Friendly Young Ladies by Mary Renault
4. Police at the Funeral by Margery Allingham
5. Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner
6. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
7. Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome
8. Kangaroo by D. H. Lawrence


  1. I have finally learned how to do proper footnotes in WordPress. Be afraid. Be very afraid.
  2. Now available in a new Vintage Classics edition.
  3. at Shearer’s Bookshop in Norton Street, Leichhardt, which now has a large selection of my signed books.
  4. I write for teenagers, not children, but still had a minor editorial skirmish over ‘enervating’. It appears in the Australian edition of The FitzOsbornes in Exile, but was replaced with ‘tiring’ in the North American edition.
  5. All the biographical quotes in this paragraph are from this fascinating article by John Preston, entitled Kenneth Grahame: Lost in the Wild Wood.

7 thoughts on “‘Dated’ Books, Part Six: The Wind in the Willows”

  1. I’ve read a couple of biographies on Kenneth Grahame (there was also recently a great little documentary on him with Griff Rhys Jones) and I have to say I don’t think much of the biographic article you linked to. It is patronising, sensational and makes sweeping assumptions based on snippets taken out of context.

    While I can completely understand you finding The Wind in the Willows dated, I think you’ll find a lot of the same traits in other children’s books from the same era and in some way they are a product of the Victorian world view as much as that of their individual creators.

    Grahame, like Milne and Barrie, produced a lot of work outside of the children’s books they are remembered for and much of that is very good. I have read Pagan Papers and Dream Days and enjoyed them very much, his writing is evocative and he manages to touch on some of those primal, childlike sensations and moods that most of us would struggle to describe.

    It is very easy to form a caricature of Grahame, just as easy as it is to speculate on Barrie’s friendships with young boys, but there is far more to these complicated and conflicted authors than sensationalist tabloids like the Telegraph will ever manage to report.

    1. Hello, Skye. Yes, I’ve no doubt the Telegraph article was meant to attract readers by focussing on the most dramatic parts of Grahame’s life – but did it get any facts wrong? That’s a genuine question, as I haven’t read any of the book-length biographies.

      As for the ‘datedness’ of the Victorian (and later era) British children’s writers, I absolutely adore Lewis Carroll’s Alice books and Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh books. Those authors were both products of their time (and Lewis Carroll has certainly been subjected to sensationalist reporting about his life), but I don’t find their children’s books as uneven in tone, or as anti-girl, or as sentimental and moralising, as I did The Wind in the Willows. I enjoyed a lot of the descriptions of life on the river and the misadventures of Toad, but I simply found some of the chapters too saccharine for my taste. Thanks for your thoughtful defence of the book and the author, though, and I’ll be interested to see what other readers think of this book.

  2. I haven’t re-read this book since I read it, many times, to my children over 20 years ago.
    I didn’t find the tone uneven then, though there are some highly poetic parts contrasting with, as you point out, farcical action. But look at Shakespeare.
    The pipers at the gates of dawn (which by the way is the title of my favourite book on children’s literature – by Jonathan Cott) section is so beautiful that the book is worth reading for that alone. But you may be right. And as for Grahame personally – I think all writers may be flawed and damaged people. And art is by nature flawed – it’s made by people (the flaw deliberately put into every Persian rug). I think of AA Milne, who can be terribly sentimental and twee, sometimes talks down to children, and then at times so accurate and true.

    1. Hi, Joanne. I think this book works well as a read-aloud book because chapters tend to be read on different days, making the ‘uneven-ness’ less noticeable. It’s only when an adult reads the whole thing in one go that it becomes a problem – and even then, it’s only a problem to persnickety adults like me. (My favourite Shakespeare plays are Julius Caesar and Macbeth, which have very few farcical episodes – if it’s tragedy, I prefer it to be unrelenting tragedy.)

      Hmm, and now I’m re-considering Milne – he can be twee, especially in his collections of verse, but I don’t find that such an issue in the Pooh books, perhaps because they’re so funny. But then, I’m always going to be forgiving when it comes to the creator of Eeyore.

  3. Hi Michelle – you’re right about Milne – it was only his verse I was referring to. Pooh isn’t twee. You know how people identify with the characters? I always thought I was Eeyore, but then I was also Piglet to my very large Pooh-like son.

    i must admit I like unrelenting tragedy too – but who was it said, ‘Make them laugh, and the poison seeps in later.”?

  4. I strongly urge you to never, ever even so much as form the first hint of the merest inkling of the tiniest thought to pick up much less attempt to read Mark Twain’s ‘The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn’.

    It’d be the death of you.

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