I recently re-read Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows for one of the book groups I belong to. It brought back such lovely memories of my childhood and of my mother tucking me into bed and reading me a chapter every night.
The Wind in the Willows is especially good bedtime reading; in fact, its first incarnation was a series of stories that Grahame told his son Alistair. Here (courtesy of the Bodleian Library) is a letter to a seven-year-old Alistair from his father who was holidaying in Cornwall:
GREEN BANK HOTEL
10th May 1907.
My darling Mouse
This is a birth-day letter, to wish you very many happy returns of the day. I wish we could have been all together, but we shall meet again soon, & then we will have treats. I have sent you two picture-books, one about Brer Rabbit, from Daddy, & one about some other animals, from Mummy. And we have sent you a boat, painted red, with mast & sails, to sail in the round pond by the windmill — & Mummy has sent you a boat-hook to catch it when it comes to shore. Also Mummy has sent you some sand-toys to play in the sand with, and a card-game.
Have you heard about the Toad? He was never taken prisoner by brigands at all. It was all a horrid low trick of his. He wrote that letter himself — the letter saying that a hundred pounds must be put in the hollow tree. And he got out of the window early one morning, & went off to a town called Buggleton & went to the Red Lion Hotel & there he found a party that had just motored down from London, & while they were having breakfast he went into the stable-yard & found their motor-car & went off in it without even saying Poop-poop! And now he has vanished & every one is looking for him, including the police. I fear he is a bad low animal.
Your loving Daddy.
I must thank Letters of Note, one of my very favourite blogs, for the letter and the happy coincidence that brought it my way just after I’d re-read the book.
When talking about The Wind in the Willows, most people seem to rave about the famous Chapter VII – The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. But, while it is indeed a beautiful piece of writing, I think my favourite chapter is Dulce Domum in which Mole returns to his own home after smelling it and being overcome with that desperate and tearful joy that many of us feel when we think of ‘home’:
Poor Mole found it difficult to get any words out between the upheavals of his chest that followed one upon another so quickly and held back speech and choked it as it came. ‘I know it’s a — shabby, dingy little place,’ he sobbed forth at last, brokenly: ‘not like — your cosy quarters — or Toad’s beautiful hall — or Badger’s great house — but it was my own little home — and I was fond of it — and I went away and forgot all about it — and then I smelt it suddenly — on the road, when I called and you wouldn’t listen, Rat — and everything came back to me with a rush — and I wanted it! — O dear, O dear! — and when you wouldn’t turn back, Ratty — and I had to leave it, though I was smelling it all the time — I thought my heart would break.
Of course, Ratty understands, and the two of them find Mole’s house. As Mole is dropping off to sleep in his little house, the chapter ends with:
He [Mole] saw clearly how plain and simple — how narrow, even — it all was; but clearly, too, how much it all meant to him, and the special value of some such anchorage in one’s existence … it was good to think he had this to come back to, this place which was all his own, these things which were so glad to see him again, and could always be counted upon for the same simple welcome.
Isn’t that what we all want?