Book Review: The Real Kenneth Grahame

Elisabeth Galvin ~ The Real Kenneth Grahame

Elisabeth G

Synopsis

He wrote one of the most quintessentially English books, yet Kenneth Grahame (1859 – 1932) was a Scot. He was four years old when his mother died and his father became an alcoholic, so Kenneth grew up with his grandmother who lived on the banks of the beloved River Thames.

Forced to abandon his dreams of studying at Oxford, he was accepted as a clerk at the Bank of England where he became one of the youngest men to be made company secretary. He narrowly escaped death in 1903 when he was mistaken for the Bank’s governor and shot at several times. He wrote secretly in his spare time for magazines and became a contemporary of contributors including Rudyard Kipling, George Bernard Shaw and WB Yeats. Kenneth’s first book, Pagan Papers (1893) initiated his success, followed by The Golden Age (1895) and Dream Days (1898), which turned him into a celebrated author.

Ironically, his most famous novel today was the least successful during his lifetime: The Wind in the Willows (1908) originated as letters to his disabled son, who was later found dead on a train line after a suspected suicide. Kenneth never recovered from the tragedy and died with a broken heart in earshot of the River Thames. His widow, Elspeth, dedicated the rest of her life to preserving her husband’s name and promoting his work.

Review

There’s something quintessentially British about The Wind in the Willows. Not just in the landscapes described, but in the language within. It conjures up an idyllic way of life before the First World War, where the Edwardians messed about in boats and took tea.

Yet behind its picturesque narrative is an author whose life is one of sadness. As a child I paid little attention to writers themselves and it is only now, as an adult, that I’m learning about the men and women whose books I enjoyed.

Elisabeth Galvin takes us on a journey across Britain, from Edinburgh to Oxford and beyond, as we follow in the footsteps of Kenneth Grahame, a nature lover, avid reader and intellectual. We see a man who tries hard to please, despite it going against his true desires. Rather than study at Oxford University, he works for a bank in London and writes in his spare time. His dedication to words shines through in excerpts from his letters, published works and the recollections of others.

It’s a tough read at times, and parts of it feel a little contrived, but support the author’s angle. However, it is well-written and interesting. All but orphaned at a young age, sorrow follows Grahame around until the tragic death of his only son leads him and his wife to escape to Italy.

While The Wind in the Willows is a story of hope, friendship and belonging, it seems that the only place Grahame felt he belonged was by the water. Its continuous presence feels comforting to us as it did to Grahame, but even a river cannot carry one’s problems away.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Thanks to Pen and Sword, and White Owl for my copy of this book. Opinions my own.

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