I felt a bit of pressure taking on The Wind in the Willows. The introduction to Robert Ingpen's beautifully illustrated 100th anniversary edition calls it "one of the best loved children's books ever". That's a big call. I know it's famous. I know it's beloved. I remembered hearing actor John Gaden gush over it on Radio National's Bookshow last year. He spoke with such passion and enthusiasm for it. He rereads it as an adult. I had tried to read it before, and not got beyond the first few pages. I named it one of my Top Ten Books I Can't Believe I've Never Read. What if I didn't like it? What would that mean?
I was so very relieved to find that I did love it. I now understand John Gaden's enthusiasm and rereading. The language is so wonderful and evocative- cudgel, dank, turbid, flagon, lest, folly. There is even a character named Portly! Gaden dismisses it somewhat as "Edwardian rubbish", but his fondness for it shines through.
It is a story of it's time. The characters have smoking rooms. They write poetry and drink beer. It is wonderful to meet these characters that are possibly more famous than the book. Ratty,Toad, Mole and Badger. You don't need to read The Wind in the Willows to know that Toad lives at Toad Hall.
The descriptive passages are so beautiful.
It was a cold still afternoon with a hard steely sky overhead, when he slipped out of the warm parlour into the open air. The country lay bare and entirely leafless around him, and the thought that he had never seen so far and so intimately into the insides of the things as on that winter day when Nature was dep in her annual slumber and seemed to have kicked the clothes off. Copses, dells, quarries and all hidden places, which had been mysterious mines for exploration in leafy summer, now exposed themselves and their secrets pathetically, and seemed to ask him to overlook their shabby poverty for a while, til they could riot in rich masquearade as before, and trick and entice him with the old deceptions. It was pitiful in a way, and yet cheering- even exhilarating. He was glad that he liked the country undecorated, hard, and stripped of its finery. He had got down to the bare bones of it, and they were fine and strong and simple. He did not want the warm clover and the play of seeding grasses; the screens of quickset, the billowy drapery of beech and elm seemed best away; and with great cheerfulness of spirit he pushed on towards the Wild Wood, which law before him low and threatening, like a black reef in some still southern sea.
Wow. That is the start of my favourite chapter. The Wild Wood, where Mole sets off by himself to try to find Badger. He gets lost in the wood, and as his fear takes over, he imagines faces everywhere. He hears things that my or may not be there. It is a most wonderful description of swelling anxiety as Mole becomes more and more lost in The Wild Wood.
I was surprised that the most famous quote is so early on in the book
'Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing- absolutely nothing- half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.'
And also surprised that that quote is so famous when a few pages later we have Toad saying
"Boating! Silly boyish amusement. I've given that up long ago."
Which is much more my point of view.
I wish The Wind in the Wilows had been part of my own childhood. I wish that I had given it to my son as part of his childhood. I think it would make a wonderful read aloud book, especially read in a wonderful English accent. I see the BBC audibook is read by Alan Bennett. Tempting. Very tempting. I've only begun to reread in recent years. Pride and Prejudice is my most reread book at this stage. I can see myself rereading The Wind in the Willows. I hope I do.