Last reviewed: June 2018
Scottish children’s author.
March 8, 1859
July 6, 1932
Kenneth Grahame was the author of The Wind in the Willows (1908), one of the most beloved books of the twentieth century. Born to parents Bessie Ingles and Cunningham Grahame in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1859, he was just five years old when his mother died, soon after giving birth to his younger brother, Roland. He also had an older brother, Willie, and an older sister, Helen; as his father was unable to care for four children, Grahame and his siblings were raised by their mother's family in Berkshire, England. Grahame was educated at St. Edward’s School in Oxford. After completing secondary school, he wanted to go on to study at the University of Oxford, but his uncle refused to pay for it. Instead, he applied for work at the Bank of England and waited for two years for a post to become available. In 1879 he was hired by the bank as a clerk, and after nineteen years’ service he was promoted to secretary of the bank. Kenneth Grahame.
Grahame married Elspeth Thompson in 1899, a year after his promotion; their son, Alastair, was born in May 1900, premature and blind in one eye. Grahame took early retirement in 1908, due in large part to health problems, and withdrew with his family to the village of Blewbury, then in Berkshire (now in Oxfordshire). After his retirement Grahame wrote only sporadically. His later writings were largely limited to introductions to a few books, including The Cambridge Book of Poetry for Children (1916), which he also edited. For the most part he devoted his leisure to reading and to observations of nature.
In 1920, the Grahames were devastated when Alastair was struck by a train and killed while at Oxford University. Though his death was almost certainly suicide, it was officially recorded as an accident. Four years later the Grahames moved to Pangbourne, where Kenneth Grahame died from a cerebral hemorrhage in 1932.
Grahame’s literary career began in the 1880s with occasional poetry and with prose essays, the latter encouraged by editor William E. Henley, who published some of them in the National Observer. When Grahame published a collection of his essays in 1893 under the title Pagan Papers, the book met with immediate success. Over the next few years he contributed other prose sketches to The Yellow Book, and in 1895 he issued his second volume, The Golden Age, combining material from the first with pieces he had written in the interim since its publication. A sequel, Dream Days, appeared in 1898. The Golden Age and Dream Days, drawn from Grahame’s own childhood, give some of the most charming and nostalgic glimpses of child life in all of English belles lettres.
The Wind in the Willows began informally as a series of stories told by Grahame to a young Alastair, nicknamed “Mouse.” In 1907 the child was sent away for a seaside holiday, and during his absence Grahame wrote frequent letters to him, expanding the chronicle of Mole, Ratty, Toad, and Badger, the heroes of his narrative. These letters, published posthumously in the volumes First Whisper of The Wind in the Willows (1944) and My Dearest Mouse: The Wind in the Willows Letters (1988), show the impeccable sensitivity of his style even in his first drafts. The Wind in the Willows, though slow to establish itself in the public admiration, eventually surpassed his earlier books in popularity. Its jollity and coziness appear certain to remain attractive, despite a vein of sentimentality. Various editions of the book have been illustrated by E. H. Shepard, Arthur Rackham, and others. Parts of it were dramatized by A. A. Milne in his play Toad of Toad Hall, which premiered in London in 1929. Several of Grahame’s stories, among them “The Reluctant Dragon,” have been adapted for motion pictures.