Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
Kenneth Grahame is the author of The Wind in the Willows, one of the most beloved books of the twentieth century. Orphaned at an early age, he was brought up by relatives in Berkshire and was educated at St. Edward’s School, Oxford, and Summertown. He became a clerk in the Bank of England in 1879, and after nineteen years’ service he was appointed secretary of the bank, in which capacity he retired, in 1908, after two serious illnesses. (The second of these was caused by a wound he suffered when a lunatic fired a revolver in the bank.) Withdrawing to his boyhood home at Blewbury, Grahame and his wife spent almost a quarter of a century in the tranquil Berkshire countryside; their life was marred in 1920 by the death of their only child, Alastair, an undergraduate at Oxford, who was killed by a train. After his retirement Grahame wrote only sporadically. His later writings include introductions to a few books, among them his anthologies, The Cambridge Book of Poetry for Children and The Cambridge Book of Poetry for Young People. For the most part he devoted his leisure to reading and to observations of nature.
Grahame’s literary career began in the 1880’s with occasional poetry and with prose essays, the latter encouraged by W. E. Henley, who published some of them in the National Observer. When Grahame published a collection of these in 1893 under the title Pagan Papers, the book met with immediate...
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Kenneth Grahame was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on March 8, 1859, the third of four children to James Cunningham and Bessie Ingles Grahame. When Grahame was just five years old, his mother contracted scarlet fever and died. James Grahame “never recovered from the loss of his wife and did virtually nothing to help his children recover from it,” as Kuznets says in Kenneth Grahame, and the Grahame children moved with their maternal grandmother, Granny Ingles, to Cookham Dene, a town in Berkshire, along the Thames River.
At age nine, Grahame began school at St. Edward’s School in Oxford with his older brother Willie. Here, Grahame excelled at both academics and athletics and still had “time to roam the gardens of Oxford and to continue his loving relationship with the river Thames, which runs through Oxford as it does through Cookham Dene, and indeed through most of Grahame’s life,” as Kuznets states in her biography. Although Grahame was an accomplished scholar, his family refused to further his education, and at age 16, he ended his schooling and applied for a clerkship at the Bank of England in London.
Banker’s hours were short in London, and Grahame participated in the London Scottish Regiment drills, volunteered at Toynbee Hall, served as honorary secretary of the Shakespeare Society, and explored the city and the countryside. Shortly after his father’s death in 1887, Grahame began to submit his writing for publication, usually anonymously. His description of the Berkshire Downs, “By a Northern Furrow,” was published in December of 1888 and is the first published piece definitively attributed to Grahame. The following decade was a productive one for Grahame’s writing. He published Pagan Papers (1893), The Golden Age (1895), The Headswoman (1898), and Dream Days (1898), as well as many essays and stories.
On July 22, 1899, the forty-year-old Grahame married Elspeth Thomson, despite the disapproval of their family and friends. Their only child, Alastair, was born on May 12, 1900. In 1906, the Grahames moved back to Cookham Dene, and Grahame commuted to work until he resigned in 1908, citing health problems.
The origin of The Wind in the Willows dates back to 1904, when Grahame began telling bedtime stories featuring a mole, a giraffe (later replaced by Toad), and a rat to celebrate Alastair’s fourth birthday. After some urging by Constance Smedley of the American magazine Everybody’s, Grahame collected the stories into a single manuscript. The Wind in the Willows was initially rejected by publishers as “it was apparently written for children, not for adults who wanted to reminisce about childhood,” as Kuznets says, but was eventually published in 1908. The Wind in the Willows became a classic children’s book, and A. A. Milne later used the novel as the basis for the play Toad of Toad Hall, produced in 1930.
Grahame wrote little after the publication of The Wind in the Willows. His next published work after The Wind in the Willows was a 1913 essay, “The Fellow That Goes Alone,” about the joys of solitude in country life. Grahame enjoyed country living and non-literary pursuits in his later years, but he was troubled by circulatory problems, the strains of his marriage, and the death of their son in 1920. On July 6, 1932, Grahame died in his home in Pangbourne of a cerebral hemorrhage.
Bibliography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
Hunt, Peter. The Wind in the Willows: A Fragmented Arcadia. New York: Twayne, 1994. Places The Wind in the Willows in historical and cultural context, exploring the complexity of its symbolism and the contrasting characters of Mr. Toad and Mole.
Kuznets, Lois R. Kenneth Grahame. Boston: Twayne, 1987. Contains biography, critical overviews, a chronology, and a useful bibliography.
Prince, Allison. Kenneth Grahame: An Innocent in the Wild Wood. London: Allison & Busby, 1994. A literary biography.
Wullschlager, Jackie. Inventing Wonderland: The Lives and Fantasies of Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, J. M. Barrie, Kenneth Grahame, and A. A. Milne. New York: Free Press, 1996. A group biography that draws connections between the writers’ lives and works, and assesses their importance in shaping the genre of fantasy literature.