December 15, 2017

"Have You Heard About The Toad?"

On this day in 1907 Kenneth Grahame wrote the first (or the first extant) of a series of letters to his son, Alastair, describing the Toad, Rat, Mole and Badger adventures that eventually became The Wind in the Willows. Grahame had been inventing such bedtime stories for several years and the letter, occasioned by his being separated from Alastair on his seventh birthday, picks up what seems to be a continuing tale:
    Have you heard about the Toad? He was never taken prisoner by brigands at all. It was all a horrid low trick of his. He wrote that letter himself -- the letter saying that a hundred pounds must be put in the hollow tree. And he got out of the window early one morning, & went off to a town called Buggleton, & went to the Red Lion Hotel & there he found a party that had just motored down from London, & while they were having breakfast he went into the stable-yard & found their motor-car & went off in it without even saying Poop-poop!
Alastair was an only child, born blind in one eye and with a squint in the other. Grahame's biographers describe his son as both spoiled and neglected, and conclude that his death at age nineteen was most likely a suicide, brought on by his handicap and his maladjustment to an adult world that seemed, to him as to Rat, more than adventure:
    "And beyond the Wild Wood again?" [Mole] asked: "Where it's all blue and dim, and one sees what may be hills or perhaps they mayn't, and something like the smoke of towns, or is it only cloud-drift?"

    "Beyond the Wild Wood comes the Wide World,'" said the Rat. "And that's something that doesn't matter, either to you or me. I've never been there, and I'm never going, nor you either, if you've got any sense at all. Don't ever refer to it again, please. Now then! Here's our backwater at last, where we're going to lunch."
Grahame himself is described as one who pined for but never took the Open Road, as an escape from his banking career and a loveless marriage. When he offered The Wind in the Willows to his publisher he described it as a book "of life, sunshine, running water, woodlands, dusty roads, winter firesides, free of problems, clear of the clash of sex, of life as it might fairly be supposed to be regarded by some of the wise, small things 'that glide in grasses and rubble of woody wreck.'"

The first two of Grahame's letters to his son are on display where they were written, at the Greenbank Hotel in Falmouth, Cornwall; the entire series is in My Dearest Mouse: The Wind in the Willows Letters (1989).

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