By PETER GREEN
Mills is really a cautionary tale for publishers. I Once upon a time, there was a Secretary of the Bank of England who wrote nostalgic stories about children—but not for them, oh dear me, no. These stories wete aimed at the sentimental adult who, in his heart of hearts, had never quite grown up, and tended to regard real children as rivals. (Ghosts of Sir James Barrie and A. A. Milne, please note.) The author was praised by the critics, though his financial colleagues viewed such literary activities with some suspicion. (One of them mistakenly got hold of The Golden Age under the impression that it had something to do with bimetallism.) 'How beastly the bourgeois is.' was Mr. Grahame's childhood theme-tune, and vastly popular it proved among those enlightened fin de siècle liberals who—like Mr. Grahame— were pretty bourgeois themselves at heart. Most of The Golden Age first appeared in The Yellow Book, which, when you come to think of it, was just the right place for that particular gimmick.
Then a great silence fell. Mr. Grahame married a wife, sired a son, and, somewhat prematurely, retired from the Bank. In 1908, the year of his retirement, he at last took a new MS round to the Bodley Head. Anticipatory excitement rapidly turned to consternation when it transpired that The Wind in the Reeds (or Mr. Mole and his Mates), far from repeating Mr. Grahame's successful formula, was about animals. Even after a decade, it seems, the pundits in Vigo Street were still sold on that publisher's balm from Gilead, the mixture as before. So they and their readers turned this new venture down : better safe than sorry. After a certain amount of tarry- hooting around, Mr. Mole, together with his Mates, was deposited in the amiable bosom of Sir Algernon Methuen; and there he remained.
But even Sir Algernon viewed his new acquisi-
* Tin WIND IN THE WILLOWS. By Kenneth Grahame. Illustrated by E. H. Shepard. (Methuen, 2 I s.) tion with somewhat watery enthusiasm. Indeed, so slight was his faith in the book's selling pos- sibilities that he refused to pay any advance on royalties; whereupon Curtis Brown, the agent, who knew a trick worth two of that, demanded —and got—one of the most steeply rising per- centage scales on record. Sir Algernon, I gather, regarded this concession as a huge joke; his epigonoi in Essex Street today probably take a rather more jaundiced view of the whole trans- action—especially since Kenneth Grahame be- queathed his copyright in The Wind in the WiL lows* to the Bodleian.
At first, indeed, it looked as though the laugh
would be on Curtis Brown: the reviews were tepid or puzzled when not actively hostile. (It was left for the inimitable Voice of Printing House Square to proclaim that 'as a contribution to natural history the work is negligible.') But we all know what happened. The Wind in the Wil- lows not only caught on; it became a national, indeed an international, institution. It has been translated into nearly every major language, and still sells something in the region of 80,000 copies a year, which must please Bodley's Librarian no end. Like the Alice books, it can safely be quoted in a Times leader without ascription, and with- out any suggestion of undue frivolity. Perhaps through modesty, or because they're beyond that sort of ostentation by now, Methuens have not numbered their new edition (which, incidentally, contains eight new coloured illustrations by that evergreen and inimitable artist, E. M. Shepard); but it must be well past the hundred mark.
What is the secret of this astonishing and
perennial success story? The Wind in the Willows (as 1 have suggested at greater length elsewhere) has the timeless quality of a myth; and, like all true myths, it exists on several levels. The same is true of its predecessor, The Reluctant Dragon,* now tacitly topped and tailed of its prologue and epilogue, and reissued with rather scrappy line.2drawings scattered through the text. More interesting, perhaps, is the question of reader- ship. Who buys these books, and why? Mr. A. J. Jenkinson examined the question, just after the war, in a fascinating work entitled What Do Boys and Girls Read? His graphs and analyses show beyond doubt that Kenneth Grahame is the middle- and upper-middle-class children's author par excellence; and no one who goes through the canon with his social eyes open ought to find this surprising.
The Wind in the Willows (as Arnold Bennett, for one, realised the moment it was published) is a good deal more than the simple fun Grahame said it was. At bottom it is a book about Us and Them, River-Bankers versus Wild Wooders. The ethics are simple and revealing. If you face up to your responsibilities in the squirearchy, and don't go haring off in motor-cars (which exposes you to criticism from the lower orders), you can live a nice happy bachelor existence for ever, having enormous picnics and messing about in boats- presumably on the proceeds of your investments. The Reluctant Dragon, looked at in these terms, is a kind of moral boost for the Establishment virtues of compromise and face-saving, with St. George and the Dragon amiably rigging their fight off-stage. No wonder Grahame leaves work- ing-class children cold.
But for professional and middle-class children the world over, Grahame's pre-1914 river-magic, with its rich humus of literary allusion and faint hint of personal tragedy, still has the power to hypnotise and enthral. We would be churlish indeed if, in this centenary year, we did not pay tribute to his quiet but indisputable genius. I like to think that somewhere a Norwegian devotee of 'Duck's Ditty' is humming to himself: Endene svommer rundt i ro og fred. Halen er oppe, hodet er ned!
-a stanza which (without being unkind) I feel several publishers should be compelled to learn by heart, and sing in public, to the accompani- ment of nose-flutes, every time they turn down a masterpiece because it wasn't what they got the time before.
* THE RELUCTANT DRAGON. By Kenneth Grahame. Illustrated by Peggy Fortnum. (The Bodley Head, 7s. 6d.)