Some Books: Kenneth Grahame’s ‘First Whisper of The Wind in the Willows’


Willows

This irregular series began as a conscious decision to re-read certain books I had enjoyed many years ago when borrowed from Didsbury Library in South Manchester, and to consider how well, or otherwise, they stood up to my recollection of them. Since then, it’s expanded beyond the confines of the Library.
Though I’ve clearly read it several times before, it was only on my most recent re-reading of The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien that I properly paid attention to a reference, in one short extract, to his wish to obtain a copy of First Whisper of The Wind in the Willows, a book of Kenneth Grahame’s writing published several years posthumously by his widow. Tolkien describes the book as not being notes and drafts but rather new stories featuring the creatures of the Riverbank, taken from letters from the author to his son.
It’s some months since I read that beloved book for the first time in decades, but its effect on me hasn’t dissipated. The Wind in the Willows has had numerous sequels, both authorised and unauthorised, particularly since it finally fell out of copyright. There is the pleasant but lightweight Dixon Scott Fresh Wind… and the heavier but horribly misguided trio by William Horwood starting with The Willows in Winter, which I tried reading from the Library, but threw away in disgust after only one chapter, enough to see by just how far Horwood was off-beam.
But more tales of Toad, and Ratty, and Mole and Badger, from the only mind that could create them in their natural glory? It seemed irresistible and, to my amazement, a book published in 1947, that has vanished into total obscurity and never been republished was not only easily available through eBay, but at less than £5, including postage.
I have it now, and have read it. I won’t say that it is a disappointment, though Professor Tolkien has misled me badly. First Whisper contains nothing really new of the companions of the Riverbank. It is a very slim volume, only 83 pages, of which slightly more than half is taken up by a long preface by Elspeth Grahame, dealing with her husband and his character, his popularity and his talent for prose. It’s hagiography of the highest class, but it’s plain that she misses him very deeply, left as she was on her own, with not only her husband but their only son, for whom his greatest book was first told, in the nursery and by the advertised letters, having predeceased her.
Though it’s of its time in its writing style, more than a bit overwritten, and concealing more of private tragedy than it reveals, it is nevertheless fascinating. The hagiography extends, understandably to the little boy, Alistair, known as ‘Mouse’, born blind in one eye and suffering from poor health throughout his life, for whom bedside stories were concocted, later to be continued by letter when the child was sent on holiday.
Having found out more via Wikipedia, it’s evident these absences were for his health, and whilst there is passing reference to Alistair dying as an undergraduate, there is no mention that this was by suicide, though for his father’s sake officially recorded as Misadventure.
The second section of the book is a short story entitled ‘Bertie’s Escapade’. It’s a pre-Willows anthropomorphic fantasy, spinning out of a real incident in which the Grahames’ domestic pig, Bertie, managed to jump the fence of his pen. It’s very much a bedtime story, short and limited in scope but ideal for the imagination of a little boy.
Only the final section is to do with The Wind in the Willows. Mouse did not want to go on holiday since it meant an interruption to his father’s nightly stories of Toad, whose high-spirits and antics were based on Mouse’s own, so Grahame wrote these as letters, which the nurse returned to Elspeth, knowing she would preserve these where their author wouldn’t.
The story takes up with Toad’s escape from prison and conveys the narrative of his adventures until the end of the book. The familiar story is there in all respects, truncated and brief, without the breadth of expression and event we are familiar with. There is none of the lyrical rhapsody in nature that followed. It’s not unfair to describe it as thin gruel in comparison, but this is the first draft, the First Whisper of that Wind, and to anyone enthralled by that magic it is its own magic.
So no, not the book I thought I was buying, but one worth having anyway, for its insight into the creation of a work of art. A book to retain.

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