By Charles Mc Grath
The years between 1900 and the outbreak of World War I, it has often been remarked, were a golden age in Britain for the writing of children’s books. Among the books published then are most of what we remember of Beatrix Potter; several of E. Nesbit’s novels; Kipling’s “Jungle Book” and “Just So” stories, J. M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens,” which became the basis for the stage play; Kenneth Grahame’s “Wind in the Willows”; and “A Little Princess” and “The Secret Garden,” by Frances Hodgson Burnett, who eventually became an American citizen but was born in Manchester, England. In hindsight these books seem to reflect the long, sunny afternoon of Edwardian England, a moment of arrested innocence before the outbreak of the Great War. Many of them also yearn for a rural, preindustrial England that was already vanishing. Part of their appeal is that they’re nostalgic, as we are, for childhood itself, or for a simpler past that seems to embody childhood virtue.
An illustration of “Toad’s Escape, 1927,” from the “The Annotated Wind in the Willows,” edited by Annie Gauger.
Of all these books “The Wind in the Willows” may be the oddest and most endearing. Too late for the centennial of its original publication in 1908, but a century and a half after the birth of the author, it has been reissued in two large-format annotated editions — one edited by Seth Lerer and published by the Belknap imprint of Harvard University Press, the other edited by Annie Gauger and published by Norton as part of its well-established series that already includes “Alice in Wonderland,” “The Wizard of Oz,” and three volumes of Sherlock Holmes.
“The Wind in the Willows” is probably most famous for a single line, Rat’s remark to Mole: “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” But the boating adventures, charming as they are, are the least of what makes the book so singular. “The Wind in the Willows” is a children’s book that, unlike most, doesn’t describe a world without grownups; instead, it parodies the grownup world. The characters — Rat, Mole, Badger, Otter, Toad — aren’t just woodland creatures with a few anthropomorphic traits. They’re of indeterminate scale — Toad is toad-size in some scenes but in others big enough to disguise himself as a human — and they have full-blown adult personalities, more nearly Edwardian clubmen than rodents, burrow-dwelling mammals or amphibians. Toad, who has certain traits in common with the overweight, fun-loving King Edward, even parts his hair in the middle, a detail that Beatrix Potter famously took exception to. “A frog may wear galoshes,” she wrote. “But I don’t hold with toads wearing beards or wigs!”