One wet afternoon this past summer in Oxford, I decided to take a walk to visit the grave of Kenneth Grahame, the author of The Wind in the Willows. I had loved the book as a boy, as many do. “One does not argue about The Wind in the Willows,” wrote no less than A.A. Milne about it. “The young man gives it to the girl with whom he is in love, and, if she does not like it, asks her to return his letters. The older man tries it on his nephew, and alters his will accordingly. The book is a test of character.” It was a drizzly day. My wife was sleepy, the boys deeply involved in their iPods, and so out I went for a solitary walk, involved in a test of character of my own.
Grahame is buried in Holywell Cemetery, where the grass and weeds are allowed to grow wild. It is evidently an urban conservation site, kept as a habitat for various types of wildlife. I would love to say I saw a mole or a badger scuttling by in the brush while I was there, but not even a squirrel was to be seen in the inclement weather. Grahame’s headstone wasn’t too hard to find. He is buried there together with his son Alisdair, for whom his books had been written, a sad boy who, as an Oxford undergraduate, committed suicide after repeated failures at his college exams. I had known this story before I arrived, yet, while I wasn’t surprised to see father and son in the same plot, still, it was a little unsettling.
The rain started up again and I left, though not before thanking Grahame out loud and saying how sorry I was about Alisdair. I felt silly doing that, but some word seemed called for, and what should you do when you’re standing at an author’s tomb, anyway? The rain, the overgrown cemetery, the elegaic Victorian tone of The Wind in the Willows itself, all of these were weighing on me as I found my way to a quiet coffee shop in town for a pot of tea to think it all over.
I quoted A.A. Milne above, the author of Winnie the Pooh, but there is another observation about Grahame’s work I like even more by his son, Christopher (yes, Christopher Robin himself, another famous literary son who grew up with his own burden of fame). In his memoir, The Enchanted Places, he remarked, “A book that we all greatly loved and admired and read aloud or alone, over and over and over: The Wind in the Willows. This book is, in a way, two separate books put into one. There are, on the one hand, those chapters concerned with the adventures of Toad; and on the other hand there are those chapters that explore human emotions–the emotions of fear, nostalgia, awe, wanderlust.” For Christopher Milne, there is a great depth of feeling in the stories of Rat and Mole, while Mr. Toad’s tales are more clownish and ridiculous. Who can disagree? Like Milne’s mother, I also choke up a little at the end of the chapter called “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn,” with its description of the great god Pan’s miraculous appearance.
But on the other hand, I have to say I really love Mr. Toad. To my mind, there are few scenes in all of literature to match the moment when Toad, Rat, and Mole have almost been run over by a new-fangled motorcar. His companions curse the car unreservedly, but “Toad sat straight down in the middle of the dusty road, his legs stretched out before him, and stared fixedly in the direction of the disappearing motor-car. He breathed short, his face wore a placid satisfied expression, and at intervals he faintly murmured ‘Poop-poop!'” Isn’t that great? Though he’s nearly been killed, Toad, instantly in the grips of a new obsession, can only bring himself to imitate the sound of the car-horn.
Toad is a complete fool, but such a lovable one that you can hardly hold it against him. Throughout my childhood, I thought of Toad Hall as a delightful, rambling mansion filled with the cast-off items of his passing fancies. “‘Once, it was nothing but sailing,’ said the Rat, ‘Then he tired of that and took to punting. Nothing would please him but to punt all day and every day, and a nice mess he made of it. Last year it was house-boating, and we all had to go and stay with him in his house-boat, and pretend we liked it. He was going to spend the rest of his life in a house-boat. It’s all the same, whatever he takes up; he gets tired of it, and starts on something fresh.'”
There are a few great homes on the Thames in Oxfordshire that can fairly lay claim to have been the source for Grahame’s Toad Hall. But for me, growing up as a boy in Boston, Toad Hall was an amalgam of a two structures that I got to see only on occasion. The first was the Cardinal’s residence on the campus of St. John’s Seminary in Brighton, a Norman Chateau built in the 19th century of Brighton puddingstone and brick and modeled after Saint-Sulpice in Paris. We would pass by it on the way to my grandmother’s, and from Chandler’s Pond across the street from her house, we would look up at the imposing mansion of our local Prince of the Church. I think I remember skating on that pond with some seminarians as a boy, but perhaps it is one of my mother’s stories that I’ve taken as my own. But it was like that, the pond and the nearby palace, a place of dreamy half-recalled events.
The other building was not a home at all but an enormous garage, the Museum of Transportation in Brookline, housed in the former carriage house of the wealthy Boston Brahmin, Larz Anderson, and his wife Isabel Weld Perkins. In addition to being a businessman and diplomat, Anderson was an avid collector who’d amassed an impressive collection of horse-drawn carriages, sleighs, and vintage automobiles. Upon his death in the 30’s, Anderson willed his property to the city of Brookline as public park, where my father would take us in the summers to play and the winters to sled. Although his twenty-five room mansion was torn down, Larz Anderson’s carriage house remains standing with its fleet of motorcars inside. It’s not hard to see why I associated it with Mr. Toad.
When I think of them as an adult, these buildings don’t seem all that charming. The Andersons’ automobile collection strikes me now as an ostentatious display of Gilded Age indulgence, and I have little fondness for the Cardinal whose residence would be sold as part of the settlement following the pedophilia scandals of the 90s. But the reveries of childhood were hard to shake that rainy afternoon in the Oxford coffee shop. Though I was close to the weedy banks of the Thames, where Rat and Mole could easily be imagined “messing about in boats,” on my mind were faraway Toad Halls, and fragmentary memories of places my parents used to take us, to skate and sled, to visit my grandmother, and to indulge our own passing fancies.
The clever men at Oxford
Know all that there is to be knowed
But they none of them know one half as much
As intelligent Mr. Toad!