When I first read The Wind in the Willows, the story felt remembered rather than received. I was twenty two. I hadn’t read the book as a child; I had only encountered it through Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Disney World and as a cross-stitched quote on the wall of a beach house: “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”
The quote told me nothing about the book’s contents, which I would describe as a reverberating tone poem with little in the way of cohesively plotted narrative. The tone is homely. In England the word “homely” doesn’t mean plain, as we use it in America, but home-like. Snug. The Wind in the Willows was the homeliest book I’d read, not just in its scenes of good friends sitting around in smoking jackets before fires, but in its refusal to indulge in climaxes or character development, its constant opposition of the tranquil domestic life with the terrible things that might happen if one were to leave the house. Among the terrible things that may ensnare you, the book claims, are certain “fads” of modern life, like foreign travel and new technologies. Toad’s desire to move quickly, first by boat, then by “gipsy caravan,” and then (famously) by the then-new technology of the motor car, is judged deeply in the novel. “The good fellow has got to live here, and hold his own, and be respectable,” Badger says of Toad at the book’s conclusion, tut-tuttingly. In The Wind in the Willows, the Life Adventurous is something to be tamed; the Homely Life is to be lauded.
The Wind in the Willows is, I realize now, about England, or a particular version of Englishness that is often more imagined than lived: a homely countryside Englishness of thick socks and warm ale and brambly rambles. It is a rural Englishness that rejects the idea that any place outside the homestead could offer anything nicer.
In modern times, this Englishness has emerged as a Brexity Englishness—rural Britons supported leaving the EU in far greater numbers than urban ones—which is essentially white Englishness. It is insular and islanded and wary of outsiders. Sally Brooks has argued that societal support for Brexit was reinforced by a ‘politics of the rural’ that ‘merged a national identity rooted in imagery of rural England with ethnic populism,’ a reactionary movement seeking to combat a state seen as increasingly controlled by foreign interests as Britain’s empire faded. These ethnic populists thought Britain was one thing, then opened their eyes to find it something entirely unrecognizable. The Britain they thought they knew was proved impermanent.
Today it’s hard not to read Kenneth Grahame’s novel as shoring up a nativist sentiment that would justify evicting outsiders and rejecting alliances. Indeed, The Wind in the Willows ends in a scene of interloper weasels and stoats from the Wild Wood being unceremoniously and violently kicked out of Toad Hall, which they have overrun while Toad was in gaol. Yet Grahame himself was a quasi-outsider to Englishness, born in Scotland but sent at age five, after his mother’s death and because of his father’s alcoholism, to live with relatives along the Thames in Berkshire. Too poor for Oxford, he made a career in banking, married (unhappily), and had one son, Alastair, who was called Mouse. The story that became The Wind in the Willows started as bedtime tales, recorded in letters, for his son.
I love this book in the same guarded way that I love England itself. Our village has its own river nearby, not unlike Grahame’s river, which he describes as the fifth beastly hero of the book: “this sleek, sinuous, full-bodied animal, chasing and chuckling, gripping things with a gurgle and leaving them with a laugh… All was a-shake and a-shiver – glints and gleams and sparkles, rustle and swirl, chatter and bubble.” Our river bursts in winter and slogs in summer. Ducks bob and dragonflies antagonize. I love it even as I wonder what I’m loving: the river itself or the river as something received, as an Anglophilic imprint gleaned from books like Grahame’s, from a constructed past that was already in Grahame’s day going—going, and therefore all the more necessary to preserve.
The cosmos of the stories I tell my children at night developed organically enough. Our American family picked up and moved to England two summers ago. The house we found was older than all the houses I’ve lived in in America combined, and it had a thatched roof, and it sat (because how could it not?) next to the ruins of a castle.
In such a setting, bedtime stories write themselves. But of all the stories I’ve made up in the last few years, there’s only one that’s stuck. It’s known now simply as “The Willow Tree” and my younger son asks for it nightly. The story grew from life: a great willow tree lords over the back garden of our cottage. In the summer it’s like a feature of the weather, its small green leaves making a huge crescendo when the wind rushes through it. There’s a tire swing on one of the branches and a wooden platform built around the trunk where you can sit on the long summer evenings. Last summer my eldest became obsessed with dining “al fresco,” and this is where we’d do it, watching the twilight swallows dart and weave overhead. The boys would grasp at the willow’s tendrils and perform a dance with it. They would get in artillery fights with sticks and twigs and the tree would stand at the center of it.
The story goes: Once upon a time in a small village there was a little stone house with a thatched roof. It had a big front garden and a big back garden, and in the back garden there was a beautiful willow tree. Jack and Teddy loved the willow tree. They loved to swing from its branches and shelter under it during the rain. And the willow tree loved Jack and Teddy. It loved to hear their songs and games and stories. So one day, the willow tree decided to tell them a secret. It said, “Jack, Teddy, come inside my branches. I want to show you something wonderful.”
So they went inside its branches and saw something they’d never seen before: it was a hole at the bottom of the tree trunk. “What’s that?” said Jack. “I don’t know,” said Teddy. “Let’s go inside and find out!” So Teddy squeezed into the hole and Jack squeezed in after him, and they went down, down, through the darkness, down some more, until they finally saw a little speck of light, and they kept going and kept going until they emerged in a cave full of waterfalls and lakes and stalactites and stalagmites.
They realized they were in the magical realm of the elves and the fairies. “Welcome, Jack and Teddy!” said the elves and fairies. “We’ve heard so much about you. We know all about your games and songs, and we want to learn them!” So Jack and Teddy taught their friends their favorite games, and they played and sang, until Jack and Teddy realized that it was late and their parents were going to wonder where they were. They said goodbye to their new friends, and the elves and fairies said, “Goodbye! Come back soon!”
Then Jack and Teddy went back up into the hole, through the darkness, up, up, up some more, until they finally saw a little speck of light, and they kept going, and kept going, until at last they emerged at the bottom of the willow tree. And they were so amazed at everything they had seen: they said, “Thank you! Thank you!” to the willow tree, and the willow tree said, “You’re welcome, my friends.”
There are things I would like to change about the willow tree story, like the moral that when a stranger invites you to view something secret, you should say, “Yes, please!” But it’s too late now. The story’s set in stone.
I tell you this because our little cosmos, playing out against a larger cosmos of national uncertainty, is shifting. The thing that doesn’t make it into stories about magical talking willow trees is that sometimes their roots (which an Internet gardening site calls “aggressive, invasive, and shallow”) shift the foundations of three-hundred-year-old human houses, and sometimes insurance companies make homeowners cut them down.
I realized The Wind in the Willows was not a book for children when I tried to read the episode with the Sea Rat aloud with my oldest. It’s a nightmare. In this chapter, the river-living Water Rat encounters a Sea Rat, who relays, in sentences labyrinthine and tortured, his life of Melvillean adventure on the wide oceans. The Water Rat is initially entranced by the idea of leaving his river home and seeing the world—but ultimately, he is left “listless, silent, and dejected” upon realizing that he will never leave home. This sense of opportunities gazed upon and lost is one of the most adult feelings I know. It requires a sense of the future foreclosing upon you that children seldom, I hope, have to feel.
I have come to see The Wind in the Willows as less about being a child than being a parent. Toad is all id and all narcissist in the same way that children often are. He acts without thinking, stealing cars and horses, crashing multiple vehicles, and ends up only mildly chastised by book’s end. Badger, Rat, and Mole put up with him, love him, despite and perhaps because of his inability to see beyond his own desires.
Toad’s youthful transgressions are where the story of The Wind in the Willows starts. Grahame began embedding little tales about Toad into the letters he wrote to Mouse while they spent five months apart. Grahame later extracted the Toad stories from the letters and expanded them to include chapters about the other animals, thus creating the text we know as The Wind in the Willows today. “Have you heard about the Toad?” Grahame writes conversationally after a discussion of birthday presents (a toy sailboat for the pond) and children’s games that aligns Mouse’s interests with the fictional Toad’s. It seems clear that Grahame was trying to entertain his young son with a ripping yarn, to keep his own presence alive despite his physical absence, and also, perhaps, to assert his parental authority, to control the narrative of their relationship.
But Mouse, like Toad, rebels. Between letters 6 and 7, Mouse informs his father that he is changing his name to Michael Robinson. (We must infer this from Grahame’s letters, since it appears that Alastair’s have not been preserved.) When Grahame writes back, he follows his son’s wishes, but adds after the salutation to Robinson a huffy “WELL!” The letters that follow launch straight into Toad’s adventures, as if Grahame wonders whether the son he knew, the son playing boats in the pond, still exists.
Children try on new identities all the time, and parents are always struggling to adjust the new person to the old one, the new reality to the old expectation. I don’t know if Kenneth Grahame was a good father, but he strikes me in the letters as a father who is at least trying, and in many days of my parenting, “I tried” is the best I can muster. The story of Toad’s misadventures developed in the letters suggests an attempt to forge a shared cosmos, a common language.
Adjusting to a world rendered unknowable by change is difficult. We throw tantrums and make bad decisions like Toad; we act out, almost always at the people who haven’t caused our grief. We blame outsiders for our own failures. This is growing up, and this is also parenting. I don’t know if Grahame’s attempts to spin stories into gossamer connections with his young son worked. But I know how Mouse’s story ends, at nineteen years old, an impermanent thing. After a sickly childhood and a boyhood that saw him drop out of some of the most famous preserves of white male Englishness—Rugby, Eton—Mouse performed miserably on his Oxford exams and was found dead on the railway line near the university. The coroner called Mouse’s death an accident, but it was almost certainly a suicide. His copy of The Wind in the Willows is in the Bodleian, and where is he? He is a present absence in the story of the story, a perforation. He is everywhere. Nowhere.
I should have built a cosmos around something more permanent. The willow tree seemed permanent enough when we arrived two summers ago. But it wasn’t here forever. I have an aerial photograph of our cottage from the 1980s with no tree.
Taking a long view, no, the willow tree was hardly permanent. But in the concertinaed time of childhood, expanding and contracting and looping like stretched taffy, the willow tree forever belonged to my sons. In reality, of course, it was never ours. But it hurts to lose it anyway.
I realize I must make up a new story, one designed to tell the boys the clichés we adults know to be true: The only thing that is constant is change. Nothing gold can stay. To weep over a willow tree is a cliché too, but this is where we are. I anticipate the splintering and sawing, the puncture in the familiar view, and feel nostalgia for the time I occupy now, in which the wintry naked tree stands a waterfall of spindly veins against the slate sky. Sometimes I get angry at the person, twenty or thirty years ago, who planted a beautiful weeping tree with shallow, aggressive, and invasive roots so close to a house. A Google search tells me that because willow trees grow so fast (up to 10 feet a year) and so tall, they have short lifespans of 30 to 50 years. Perhaps our tree was nearing the end of its natural life anyway. Even knowing this, I can’t imagine a summer without its presence, its shade. I try to stop looking forward and appreciate it now, impermanent as we all are.
I know I must make up a new story, but instead I keep retelling the old one. Sometimes it’s easier to stay home, to embrace what was, than to face a present you don’t recognize.
My oldest son and I never finish reading The Wind in the Willows together. I finish it by myself, and wonder if maybe he’ll return to it someday when he’s intimate with his own griefs.
Jillian Caddell is lecturer in nineteenth-century American literature at the University of Kent, where she teaches and researches the intersections of history and literature, cultures and the arts, and the American Civil War. She’s written for academic journals and collections, as well as cultural publications, including The New England Quarterly, J19, Apollo: The International Art Magazine, and CNN Opinions. She’s currently at work on a book about history and the long shadow of Civil War literature.