Kenneth Grahame, the author of the classic children’s book The Wind in the Willows, died on July 6, 1932, at the age of seventy-three. His epitaph reads “To the beautiful memory of Kenneth Grahame, husband of Elspeth and father of Alastair, who passed the river on the 6th of July, 1932, leaving childhood and literature through him the more blest for all time.”
Despite his great success in his career as an officer of the Bank of England and his literary prominence Grahame had a sad life and a very difficult childhood. Grahame’s mother died when he was four years old and his father, an alcoholic, sent Grahame and his siblings to be raised by relatives.
His father, who had been a lawyer, soon fled to France and Grahame never saw him again. His father died in poverty in a rooming house in Le Havre when Grahame was 28.
Grahame was raised mostly by his grandmother under what could be called benign neglect. He spent most of his time playing and wandering in the nearby woods daydreaming, which became a lifelong solace to him.
He wanted to go to Oxford University but the family had no money for it and he was instead apprenticed to the Bank of England at the age of 19. It was a dull and stuffy environment but Grahame worked diligently at it and rose to become the Secretary of the Bank of England by the time he took early retirement.
Grahame didn’t marry until he was 41, to a woman who would probably be diagnosed today as being bipolar. He married despite his friends’ reservations and it was a very unhappy match. They had one son, Alastair (who they nicknamed “Mouse”), who was born blind in one eye and with a pronounced squint in the other and several physical and mental infirmities.
Grahame told young Alastair stories about woodland animals and their adventures in an idyllic woodland as beftime stories. He later expanded on these stories in letters to Alastair, who lived in the country with his mother, after Grahame permanently moved to London.
In 1908 Grahame published the stories as The Wind in the Willows to immediate commercial success. He wrote other children’s books with good sales after that, but resisted writing a sequel. The erratic character Mr. Toad is thought to be based on Alastair.
Alastair was an eccentric and unruly child. At the age of 20, having just started his studies at Cambridge, he committed suicide by laying on a train track and being decapitated. Grahame was devastated and never wrote anything for the rest of his life.
There is some debate over Grahame’s sexuality. Many critics contend that he was gay and The Wind in the Willows is popular today in the gay community as a queer allegory. Others claim that Graham was simply sexually repressed and his close male friendships were merely expressions of Victorian sentimentality.
A.A. Milne wrote the play Toad of Toad Hall in 1929, adding to The Wind in the Willows fame and there have been many television adaptations and spinoffs in the past decades. In the end, Grahame’s sad life has brought joy to lots of young readers.