The Wry Romanticism of Kenneth Grahame

I did not set out to reread Kenneth Grahame’s essays this morning, but simply to find a quote. However, as always happens when I get anywhere near his writing, I was drawn in and ended up going through them all again in a single sitting.

Pagan Papers was the first book of Grahame’s to be published, a collection of essays and stories, written originally for London periodicals (including The Yellow Book.) It came out in 1893, fifteen years before The Wind in the Willows, and while his style matures over that time, you can certainly find the wistfulness of Mole and Ratty, Toad’s mischievous humour and Badger’s curmudgeonly disregard for society in these early essays.

The first edition of Pagan Papers also included some of the stories that were later removed and published separately as The Golden Age and Dream Days, they are are vaguely autobiographical and beautifully written adventures that demonstrate Grahame’s unparalleled ability to see the world through a child’s eyes. The essays stand apart from these and fit in more with the style of Jerome K. Jerome, whose Three Men in a Boat was almost certainly an influence on Willows.

Several of the essays are ironic pieces, poking gentle fun at his subjects which include book-buying (Non Libri Sed Liberi), public libraries (Cheap Knowledge) and familial relations (Justifiable Homicide). You get the impression that he is deliberately provoking the reader by giving absurd opinions on things, only to change tack at the last minute. It is amusing to be forced to see things like lending libraries and railways, not as romantic old-world institutions, but as highly suspicious intrusions onto Grahame’s nostalgic world view.

This nostalgia is an undercurrent in everything Grahame writes, and he is always aware of it and indulges in his romanticism without any attempt to hide it. He uses childlike playfulness to get away with sentimentality, in much the same way Toad’s adventures distract the reader from Ratty’s yearnings. The more romantic essays express a deep connection to the landscape. Grahame always fell in love with places and saw in them the layers of history. In The Romance of the Road, he takes us on a walk along the Ridgeway of the North Berkshire Downs where “the Roman, sore beset, may have gazed down this very road for relief, praying for night or the succouring legion. This child that swings on a gate and peeps at you from under her sun-bonnet — so may some girl-ancestress of hers have watched with beating heart the Wessex levies hurry along to clash with the heathen and break them on the down where the ash trees grew.” If this sounds unfashionably quaint, I must point out Robert Macfarlane, who follows the same path in The Old Ways (2012)with an almost equal affection for the land.

The Romance of the Rail is nearly prescient in predicting our romantic attitudes towards railways (and particularly steam trains), which he derides, like Ruskin before him, for destroying  the “steadfast mystery of the horizon.” It is clear that he is already succumbing to their charms, however, when he confesses to “a sentimental weakness for the night-piercing whistle.” His description of night trains, ghostly passengers and imaginary journeys brought to mind Blackwood’s A Prisoner in Fairyland (1913). So it seems the Edwardian prose writers were far from immune to the railway’s magic, even if, “The poet, however, seems hard to convince hereof.”

This feeling is expressed most explicitly in A Bohemian Exile, which mourns not only changes to the land, but the people who inhabit it.

…there were two Englands existing together, the one fringing the great iron highways wherever they might go — the England under the eyes of most of us. The other, unguessed at by many, in whatever places were still vacant of shriek and rattle, drowsed on as of old: the England of heath and common and windy sheep down, of by-lanes and village-greens…

If you think this sentiment is dead, you need look no further than Icons of England (2008), a collection of essays for which this could almost be the blurb. Grahame’s nostalgia has, at least, that quality of self awareness.

My favourite of the essays, The Fairy Wicket is more mischievous. It is a musing on disenchantment (Weber again) and the loss of both a child’s power of imagination, and perhaps the imagination of Grahame’s contemporaries, children of the industrial revolution; that “material generation that so deliberately turned its back on the gap into Elf-Land.” Grahame was, after all, an employee of the Bank of England, and perhaps no one has greater need of fairyland than a bank clerk.

Pagan Papers is both a plaintive mourning for the loss of an idyllic England (a mourning that has been going on for centuries I might add) and a humorous poke at the English themselves. Grahame is capable of rescuing his romanticism from sentimentality, as he does in Willows, by the judicious injection of humour.

Skye M. W.

Illustration – Aubrey Beardsley, for The Yellow Book, source

 

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