BOOK REVIEW / An eternal child at a fairy-tale dinner: Kenneth Grahame - Alison Prince: Allison & Busby, pounds 17.99

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The Independent Online
THE Wind In The Willows is a wonderfully subversive book. Its pagan celebration of nature frees it from moral homilies. The great comic character Toad - the children's Falstaff - is loveable entirely for his faults, and although he reforms by the end, all know this is only a temporary process. In addition, the passionate feeling for the importance of home, whether lost, rediscovered or triumphantly reoccupied, is surely unequalled.

But paradoxically this story also strongly endorses the excitement of getting away from it all. A canary- coloured caravan, car, railway engine, barge and horse all help characters escape in the name of personal freedom. A story appealing so powerfully to such irreconcilable instincts - to stay safe and to explore - is bound to be fascinating.

Alison Prince's biography of Kenneth Grahame cannot rival the pleasure of reading the master himself. She makes plain the personal cost of Grahame's particular genius. His feeling for place owes much to a childhood in which a mother who died young and an absent, drunken father made the business of trusting anyone too dangerous.

The images of escape are tied to the emotions of a gifted young man cooped up at the Bank of England when he yearned to go to university. The intense identification with the little animals of his story stems from a long cultivation of the idea of imagination as a bolt hole safely apart from the unsympathetic attentions of the elderly relatives with whom he was forced to live when young. Because Grahame in his one and only novel was directly addressing his own difficult and ultimately doomed son Alastair, the narrative is always crystal clear.

He was also writing at a time when many others were rhapsodising about the glories of childhood. He was not the only adult who possessed a roomful of wind-up toys or who once attended a fairy- tale dinner where guests dressed up and toasts were drunk in rowan wine. This cultural whimsy offered support for children's writers as never before or since. Grahame received numbers of fan letters from other adults over the years, including several from Theodore Roosevelt, the US president.

But staying young in the imagination can be dangerous. The excruciating baby talk with which Grahame approached his wife, another child-adult, and the disaster of a sexual relationship based on shared childishness is all too apparent here. These days children sometimes seem to age too quickly; a childhood too long protracted also has its problems.

Alison Prince describes the grim story of Grahame's marriage and fatherhood squarely and sensitively. Hers is the first biography since Peter Green's 35 years ago, but she has little new to say. For Green, the marauding stoats and weasels in The Wind in the Willows represents the threat of the suburban classes encroaching upon the riverside dwellings preferred by Rat, Toad and by Grahame as well. Prince suggests a Jungian interpretation, with the Wild Wood standing for every aspect of the adult world that the reticent Grahame found so hard to deal with.

But as a gifted children's writer herself, Prince is otherwise disappointingly uncommunicative about this great story. Its shaping influence on subsequent children's literature is unexplored. By themselves, the lives of Grahame, his wife and his suicidal son make sad reading. Yet out of this misery a strange, unforgettable masterpiece was born. This is surely the most important aspect for any biographer to focus upon.