“No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally –and often far more– worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.” C S Lewis – hat tip for this quotation to Catherine @MeltonBook
This proposition was tested and approved at our annual picnic last Tuesday evening. The setting of Louise’s house and our choice of book was a remarkably good fit. Following Doreen’s excellent reading of the picnic basket section* of Wind in the Willows (WITW) during our foodie evening last month, we decided that WITW might be a lighter alternative to the previously-planned Nemirovsky novel and this was borne out on the night.
In his introduction to The Folio Society edition of WITW (hat tip Margaret), Alan Bennett defines a classic as “a book everyone is assumed to have read and forgets if they have or not”. He goes on to point out that Grahame’s writing resembles in one particular way the writing of A A Milne, Lewis Carroll and Tolkein – “the capacity to create self-contained worlds; their books constitute systems of literary self-sufficiency….it is a kind of cosiness.” (For examples of this all-enveloping literary comfort blanket see the extracts at the end of the blog).
But where Bennett’s introduction really comes into its own is his gentle analysis of the gender balance in the book. Only three women and all minor characters. Rat, Mole and Badger are described as “confirmed bachelors.” Bennett describes Bachelordom as “a status that had more respect (and fewer undertones) in Grahame’s day than it has now…. Some bachelors are more confirmed than others, and the bachelordoms of Mole, Rat and Badger vary.” The differing bachelordoms bring into relief Grahame’s great gift characterization. The main characters are such individuals we are lulled into forgetting we’re supposed to be reading about animals and think they are real people.
To celebrate the centenary of WITW in 2008 the Financial Times published an article by Emily Stokes entitled “Who are you in ‘Wind in the Willows”? (hat tip Doreen). It’s suggested that David Miliband is Mole “a thoughtful creature …who tends to go along with other’s plans”. Water Rats “tend to make people feel at ease while inciting them to action” – David Cameron and Jamie Oliver are suggested Rats. But I think the writer does Badger a disservice when she likens him to Gordon Brown. My view of badger is that he had natural authority and didn’t need to throw his weight around. And so to boastful, larger-than-life Toad – well plenty of candidates here – Boris Johnson and Russell Brand to name but two and we added Alex Salmond especially after the condescension of his exchange with Anna Soubry this week.
Who would have thought that an Edwardian children’s classic written in high flown language would generate such lively discussion?
Extract 1 – Here’s a taster of the passage which sparked off this discussion
The Mole waggled his toes from sheer happiness, spread his chest with a sigh of full contentment, and leaned back blissfully into the soft cushions. “What a day I’m having!” he said. “Let us start at once!”
“Hold hard a minute, then!” said the Rat. He looped the painter through a ring in his landing-stage, climbed up into his hole above, and after a short interval reappeared staggering under a fat, wicker luncheon-basket.
“Shove that under your feet,” he observed to the Mole, as he passed it down into the boat. Then he untied the painter and took the sculls again.
“What’s inside it?” asked the Mole, wriggling with curiosity.
“There’s cold chicken inside it,” replied the Rat briefly; “coldtonguecoldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkingsaladfrenchrollscresssandwidgespottedmeatgingerbeerlemonadesodawater –“
“O stop, stop,” cried the Mole in ecstasies: “This is too much!”
“Do you really think so?” inquired the Rat seriously. “It’s only what I always take on these little excursions; and the other animals are always telling me that I’m a mean beast and cut it very fine!”
Extract 2 – Here is the very essence of cosiness – the appealing passage where Mole stumbles upon the scent of his modest little home and is drawn irresistibly towards it
He stopped dead in his tracks, his nose searching hither and thither in its efforts to recapture the fine filament, the telegraphic current, that had so strongly moved him. A moment, and he caught it again; and with it this time came recollection in fullest flood.
Home! That was what they meant, those caressing appeals, those soft touches wafted through the air, those invisible little hands pulling and tugging, all one way! Why, it must be quite close by him at that moment, his old home that he had hurriedly forsaken and never sought again, that day when he found the river! And now it was sending out its scouts and its messengers to capture him and bring him in……
….The weary Mole turned in without delay, and soon had his head on the pillow in great joy and contentment. But ere he closed his eyes he let them wander round his old room, mellow in the glow of the firelight that played or rested on familiar and friendly things which had long been unconsciously a part of him and now smilingly received him back without rancour.”