Essay Lost In The Woods

When Grahame retreated from the world, it was natural that he should choose the one place where he'd always felt at home - close to the Thames at Cookham Dean. In Grahame's early childhood, Cookham Dean was his only haven of tranquillity. Everywhere else was awash with turbulence and trauma.

He'd first come to Cookham when he was five, soon after the death of his mother: she contracted scarlet fever after giving birth to her fourth child. Grahame's father, Cunningham, a Scottish lawyer, reacted to his wife's death by drinking himself into a stupor from which he never really emerged: he died penniless in a Le Havre boarding-house in 1887, just before Kenneth's 28th birthday.

On the surface at least, the fastidious, emotionally repressed Kenneth bore little resemblance to his bluff, booze-sodden father. But, as Humphrey Carpenter pointed out in his book Secret Gardens, Cunningham, too, was an escapist - he just went about it in a different way: first, through hitting the bottle and then, by running away to France.

As an adult, Kenneth Grahame was constantly pulled between two extremes: part of him wanted to escape the ties of domesticity and wander the highways and byways as a free spirit, while the other part longed for nothing more than the cosiness of the hearth. This tension lies at the heart of all his work, but it's at its most apparent - and most engaging - in The Wind in the Willows.

With no mother and a perpetually befuddled father, the four children were sent away from their home in Scotland to stay with their maternal grandmother, 'Granny Ingles', who had a large house called the Mount, in Cookham Dean, on the edge of the Berkshire downs. There, they were allowed to do what they wanted, virtually free of adult supervision.

When Grahame returned to the Mount in 1906 - by now a married man and with a son of the same age as he would have been then - he found that, 'I can remember everything I felt then. Coming back here wakens every recollection.'

This idyll, however, lasted for only two years. In 1865, one of the chimneys collapsed in a gale and the family moved to a cottage in the nearby village of Cranbourne. Thrown out of his Eden, Grahame spent the rest of his life trying to get back there. 'Somehow the sun does not seem to shine as brightly as it used to,' he wrote later. 'The trackless meadows of old time have shrunk and dwindled away to a few poor acres.'

Although Grahame was plainly a sensitive child, he was hardly the quivering milksop of popular myth. He did well at his public school in Oxford, winning his First XV rugby colours and becoming head boy. He hoped to go on to Oxford, but what family he had by this stage reckoned that a university education was a waste of time. Instead, they found him a job as a gentleman-clerk in the Bank of England.

Here again, one might assume that the bank represented everything Grahame hated most, being cheerless, monotonous and claustrophobic. But in the late 1880s, it was an extremely odd place. Staff worked short - very short - hours and took expansively long lunches. Several of them kept fighting dogs in the basement: there would be regular after-work dog-fights in the lavatories.

On one level the shy, cloistered Grahame was appalled by this. Yet on another he was fascinated by the mayhem and eccentricity he saw around him, and in a bank ledger he began jotting down ideas for stories and poems.

But at 19 years old, he was still teetering uneasily between childhood and adulthood, terrified of cutting himself off from what he held most dear. With any spare money, Grahame began to buy what turned into a vast collection of toys. Visitors to his London flat were astonished to find it full of fluffy animals and wooden figures.

His first book, Pagan Papers, was published in 1893. A collection of stories and essays on the general theme of escape, the book did well. For one so unworldly, Grahame proved to be a surprisingly tough negotiator with his publishers, winning himself a much larger than average percentage of the gross.

Despite its title, Pagan Days had nothing to do with paganism and still less to do with sex. Instead, it offered a fashionably horrified reaction to the Machine Age, extolling the virtues of long country walks and pints of beer in remote inns. It also established Grahame's fascination with rivers - places where one could relax and be at ease with oneself.

As far as sex was concerned, it wasn't so much that Grahame was a late starter: rather, he showed no inclination to get going at all. There are hints that he had an unhappy love affair in his early thirties.

Peter Green, in his 1959 biography, believes he may have had some sort of flirtation with his cousin, Annie. By way of evidence, he cites a poem Grahame wrote in 1892 which includes the couplet: 'Routed ere the touch of lance/ By her terrible advance.' It's not immediately clear whose lance Grahame is referring to here, but 'her terrible advance' seems to tell its own story of panic and dismay.

Another two books followed: The Golden Age and Dream Days, both of them also very successful. By 1897, Grahame was a 38-year-old bachelor with a bushy moustache and a perpetually startled expression. He was also a virgin.

At this point he met Elspeth Thomson, the 35-year-old daughter of the inventor of the pneumatic tyre. Elspeth appears to have been the living incarnation of Dolly Daydream, as scatty as she was whimsical. But, like a lot of waftily ethereal women, she was a lot more determined than her manner suggested.

Almost instantly, she decided that Kenneth was the man for her. Not only was he a famous author, he had also just been made secretary of the Bank of England.

Stunned and flattered by her attentions, Grahame was a pushover. They started to exchange letters, the like of which had never been written before, and nor, one may well hope, since.

These letters were couched in baby language with Grahame signing himself Dino, and Elspeth, Minkie. 'Darlin Minkie,' he wrote in 1899, 'ope youre makin steddy progress & beginnin ter think of oppin outer your nest & avin a short fly round. I ad nuther good nite & avnt ardly corfd torl terday - but it aint so nice a day & doesn't tempt one out.'

There was more - a lot more - in the same vein. At times, as Alison Prince writes in her 1994 Grahame biography, An Innocent in the Wild Wood, it was as if the two of them were locked in a competition to see who could be the more childlike. This was hardly the basis for a promising marriage.

None the less, notice of their engagement appeared in the Morning Post of 1 July, 1899. By now, Grahame was clearly having misgivings about the whole thing. He wasn't the only one; most of his friends were appalled by Elspeth, finding her intensely irritating and quite possibly unhinged. One of them asked him if he really intended going through with the wedding. 'I suppose so,' Grahame muttered glumly. 'I suppose so.'

Just three weeks later, on 22 July, they were married in Fowey in Cornwall, with Elspeth wearing a chain of withered daisies round her neck: an aptly symbolic touch, as it turned out. Sure enough, the marriage was a disaster. It was, however, consummated and Elspeth became pregnant almost immediately.

Their son, Alastair, was born on 12 May, 1900. But it was soon clear that something was very wrong. Alastair was born blind in one eye and with a pronounced squint in the other. The couple's response to this was typical - and catastrophic in its consequences. They retreated into fantasy, convincing themselves that Alastair, or 'Mouse' as they called him, was a genius.

While Kenneth took an obsessive interest in his son, forever banging on about how talented he was, Elspeth increasingly took to her bed where she drank hot water and wrote soppy poetry.

In 1906, three years after the Socialist Lunatic turned a gun on him, Grahame moved his family back to Cookham Dean, plainly hoping the place would once more work its soothing magic on him. By now, it had been almost 10 years since he had written anything. Within a matter of weeks, though, he was working on The Wind in the Willows.

The book had actually had its genesis two years earlier. It started in the shape of bedtime stories Grahame used to tell Mouse. According to Elspeth's (wildly fanciful) account of its composition, she and Kenneth were due to go out to dinner one night. Elspeth was waiting impatiently in the hall wondering where Kenneth had got to. When she asked the maid, she was told, 'He's with Master Mouse, Madam. He's telling him some ditty about a Toad.'

The stories continued as Mouse grew older, becoming steadily more refined. Whenever Grahame went away, he wrote Mouse letters continuing the adventures of Toad, Ratty, Mole and other inhabitants of the river bank.

There has been speculation that the mercurial, manic and appallingly behaved Toad was a veiled portrait of Alastair himself. Certainly the boy was already exhibiting signs of peculiar behaviour.

One of his favourite games involved him lying down in the road in front of approaching cars and forcing them to stop. Stranger still, he had taken to calling himself Robinson, the name of the man who had shot at his father. (Several of the Toad letters are addressed to 'Darling Robinson'.) But it seems just as likely that Toad's exuberance was Grahame's own; he just didn't have an outlet for it anywhere else.

The inspiration for other characters is easier to pinpoint. While dressing for dinner one night in Cookham Dean, Grahame looked out of the window and saw a robin and a mole fighting over a worm in the garden. He rushed downstairs and put the mole in a box for safe keeping. But in the morning the mole had escaped - only to be beaten to death with a broom by the housekeeper, who thought it was a rat.

As for the Wild Wood, where poor Mole is terrified by the faces he sees in the trees, 'all fixing on him glances of malice and hatred: all hard-eyed and evil and sharp', this is often held to represent everything that Grahame regarded as dark and frightening in his own nature, his sexuality in particular. The Wild Wood is also a place where the old social order has crumbled away and been replaced by anarchy - somewhere Socialist Lunatics could run about with impunity.

It wasn't until the intervention of a neighbour in Bray, an American woman called Constance Smedley, that Grahame was persuaded that these letters and bedtime stories might make a book. His original title was The Wind in the Reeds. However, W.B. Yeats had published a collection of poetry with almost the same title, and so Grahame changed it to The Wind in the Willows. When he sent the manuscript off to his agent, he told him proudly that it was 'clean of the clash of sex'.

The book was turned down by every publisher it was sent to. Eventually Methuen agreed to take it, but only on the understanding that it wouldn't pay Grahame any advance.

Published in the autumn of 1908, The Wind in the Willows received almost universally stinking reviews. 'Grown-up readers will find it monstrous and elusive,' wrote the Times critic. 'Children will hope, in vain, for more fun.' Arthur Ransome judged it to be an out-and-out failure - 'like a speech to Hottentots made in Chinese'. The only reviewer who saw its merits was the novelist Arnold Bennett, who pronounced it 'entirely successful'.

Salvation, though, came from an unlikely quarter: the then President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt. Grahame sent Roosevelt a copy of The Wind in the Willows after he had expressed his admiration for his earlier books. Roosevelt loved it and wrote to the American publishers Scribners, effectively telling them they had to publish it. Scribners obliged and from then on public appreciation - and sales - kept on rising.

But the success of The Wind in the Willows did little for Grahame's morale: he was still stuck in a loveless marriage with a hysterical hypochondriac. Meanwhile Alastair/Mouse had become as ill-disciplined as the weasels and stoats who take over Toad Hall. Petulant and grotesquely indulged, he was a long way from being a genius.

At school, Alastair found it increasingly hard to keep up. Removed from Rugby after six weeks, he was sent to Eton, where he promptly had a nervous breakdown. In January 1918, Alastair went up to Christ Church College, Oxford - Kenneth had managed to wangle him a place through his contacts. However, he didn't fare any better there, changing subjects several times in a desperate attempt to find something he was good at.

On 7 May, 1920, Alastair, by now almost 20, dined in hall as usual. At the end of the meal he asked for a glass of port - 'I had not known him do that before,' said a fellow student afterwards. The next morning his body was found on the railway line that ran through Port Meadow in north Oxford. He had been decapitated.

The inquest tactfully recorded a verdict of accidental death, although there seems little doubt that Alastair meant to kill himself: the position of his body suggested he had lain face-down across the rails. As a child, he had done something similar with approaching cars - but then, of course, they had always stopped.

If Alastair did intend to commit suicide, it seems especially poignant that he should have chosen this method to do so. In Grahame's work, railways stand for everything he most disliked about modern life: 'The iron tetter that scurfs the face of our island and has killed out the pleasant life of the road.' Years later, Alastair's tutor at Christ Church remembered him once saying, 'This life is like a prison.'

Without Alastair to indulge, Kenneth and Elspeth continued their bloodless, reclusive life together. In her watery way, Elspeth grew ever-more tyrannical, insisting her husband wear special underwear which, she claimed, only needed changing once a year. Under the circumstances it was hardly surprising that he took to going on increasingly long, solitary walks.

Occasionally children who had adored The Wind in the Willows would come to visit Grahame, but they usually went away disappointed. Like A.A. Milne, whose dramatisation of the book, Toad of Toad Hall, had its first production in 1930, Grahame wasn't very good with real children, tending to ignore them in favour of adults. Two years after the opening of the play, which brought the book to an even wider audience, Grahame died of a cerebral haemorrhage.

The funeral was held in nearby Pangbourne on 9 July, 1932. 'Perhaps the most touching thing of all,' recalled one of the mourners, 'were the flowers sent by children from all over the country, with cards attached in a childish scrawl, saying how much they loved him.'

These days 4x4s throng the narrow lanes of Cookham Dean and the village pub is a boutique hotel. The pebble-dashed, Dutch-gabled house in which Grahame wrote The Wind in the Willows has become a prep school. There's no view of the Thames from the house. However, next to it is a tangle of ill-kempt trees, their trunks leaning over and covered with ivy. For Kenneth Grahame, the Wild Wood was always closer than he liked to think.

The Wind in the Willows at the River & Rowing Museum

The River & Rowing Museum’s permanent Wind in the Willows exhibition heralds the return of Mr Toad, Ratty, Badger and Mole to the banks of the River Thames.

The Museum provides a natural home for an exhibition of Kenneth Grahame’s classic children’s book as Grahame was brought up in Cookham Dean, Berkshire where he lived with his grandmother on the banks of the River Thames. He also had close affiliations with Oxford and spent the rest of his life not far from Henley in Pangbourne.

The Museum’s exhibition brings Grahame’s famous tale to life via 3-D models that depict the adventures of Mr Toad, Ratty and their friends.

With 2008 marking the centenary year of the publication of The Wind In The Willows the River & Rowing Museum will be hosting a season of events later in the year for adults and children alike to celebrate Kenneth Grahame’s timeless tale.

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Lane wanted to double back immediately and pick up the trail, but I was of a different mind. We had just left the splendid vista from an altitude of 3,300 feet at the top of Kloochman, and I was imbued with confidence. Goaded by the knowledge that time was short, I wanted to press on overland to our camp by the Queets River, about six miles distant. We could see the Queets twisting in the valley below, we knew in what direction we wanted to go, and traveling overland was often actually faster than trying to stay on the faint trail. So why not strike out cross-country, I argued. Actually, we didn't argue, even though we probably should have. Lane just rolled her eyes and fell behind.

We made quite good time for the first hour, romping down a long inclined ridge like skiers on a slope of powder. We were enjoying ourselves so much that I failed to notice that we had missed the trail where I had expected to hit it again. By 4:30, as the afternoon shadows began to lengthen, we entered a deep dell along the headwaters of a stream called Coal Creek. Consulting the map, and judging we were less than a mile from where the trail had to cut back again below, we decided to continue down the funneling gorge through lush growths of ferns and moss. Before long, the increasing narrowness of the gorge and the thick growth of devil's club slowed us to a crawl.

At twilight, we came to a particularly narrow and tricky section of the canyon, and here, in a blind on a small island, we found the moss-covered skeleton of a bull elk, complete with its huge antlers. I wondered how this great beast had come here to die. Had he hurled himself off the cliffs, or wandered in along the deep, twisting stream as we had done? Lane was becoming increasingly concerned about our situation. Experienced in the outdoors, she began to say aloud what she had previously let me know only with looks, namely that it was possible that we couldn't follow the creek through to its intersection with the trail. This meant we would either have to backtrack for more than an hour or (appreciable pause) go up the cliffs that now towered over us on both sides.

I was in no mood to discuss this. It seemed to me we were wasting precious time talking. We've got to keep moving, I told myself and bulled ahead, trailed Lane's unanswered questions after me. Lane followed reluctantly. Within a few minutes I nearly joined the old elk when I leapt into a slick bowl of stream-sculptured rock, lost my footing and came with- in inches of plunging over a 90-foot waterfall onto boulders below. Using interlocking wrist holds, Lane was able to haul me back up to her level where we looked deeply into each other's eyes. I said, "I'm too stupid to live." We both laughed, but more from relief than good humor. It was clear that we had an impassable path before us and an hour of daylight left to cover the distance that should take nearly an hour and a hall under good conditions.

Not knowing what else to do, we climbed straight up a steep scree slope on the left side of the creek, wading through hip-deep bushes until we came to our utter surprise -- upon the old Kloochman Rock trail. Our pace picked up appreciably after this, but not nearly enough. We held council. Because I had already led us into the wilderness and nearly thrown myself over a precipice, it seemed logical to me that I should now run back to our camp in a dash against the darkness. There I would retrieve the flashlight, which of course was safely stowed in our tent, and return for Lane. She was dubious, but tired enough to let me try any fool thing I wanted. So we kissed, and I dashed away down the trail.

Running along in the gloaming, I had a strong impulse to pin the whole misadventure on someone else. First I fried blaming it on the Kloochman view (if it hadn't been so stunning, we would have started back sooner), then the forest-products industry (if it hadn't logged so much of the view from Kloochman, the park probably would have continued maintaining the trail) and finally even Lane (if she hadn't let me lead us into this mess, we would have had no trouble at all). Even then, though, I couldn't entirely avoid thinking about my own responsibility for the affair.

By the time I stumbled into camp, vomited from fatigue, found the flashlight and headed back, I began to realize how differently Lane and I reacted to stress and how stereotypical of the two sexes our reactions might be. Like many men, I assumed command and, when difficulties arose, simply pushed harder. I resisted reconsidering my original premises and stuck to my decisions. Meanwhile, Lane, instead of striving to save the day, relaxed to survive. I discovered her a few minutes later dozing peacefully in the soft, musk-smelling bed of a deer.

And so, in addition to the wide vista from the top, Kloochman Rock ultimately provided me with a memorable interior vista. I learned that my physical abilities were greater than I thought, but also that I might have done better if I'd never had to test them. I saw how, given a chance, the sexes can complement each other and appreciated anew what might be called wifely virtue.

Even now, when I get the bit between my teeth and want to force some issue through to some inappropriate or untimely conclusion, Lane has a way of getting my ear.

The code word is "Kloochman."

"Lost in the Woods" originally appeared in the August 25, 1985 New York Times Magazine.
© Copyright 1985 Bruce Brown

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