Saturday, 19 February 2011

Kenneth Grahame's lesser-known works: part 1

On Wednesday a customer was asking about the early works - prior to Wind in the Willows - of Kenneth Grahame. I was aware of these, but have never seen copies in book form. As it happens, they're all old enough to be out-of-copyright, and are on the Internet Archive. They are:

Pagan Papers (1893, Internet Archive ID paganpapers04grahgoog)
The Golden Age (1895, Internet Archive ID goldenage01grahgoog)
Dream Days (1898, Internet Archive ID dreamdays01grahgoog)
The Headswoman (1898, Internet Archive ID headswoman01grahgoog)

These were all written when Grahame was pursuing a very successful career as a banker, were what made his critical reputation. In contrast, the critics disliked The Wind in the Willows. In the long term, however, it came to largely eclipse the early works.

Pagan Papers is a compilation of Grahame's essays written from 1888 onward in publications including The Yellow Book, St James's Gazette and the National Observer.  A quick summary of the topics:

  • The romance of the road: on the exhilharating experience of walking the Ridgeway of the north Berkshire downs.
  • The romance of rail: on the imaginative delights of planning rail journeys.
  • Non libri sed liberi: on the habit of buying books, even getting them custom-bound, and never reading them.
  • Loafing: on the merits of aimless passive enjoyment of an upper Thames village.
  • Cheap knowledge: on the pros and cons of free libraries.
  • The rural Pan: in praise of countryfolk, personified as Pan, in contrast to the Apollo and Mercury city denizens.
  • Marginalia: on the practice of annotating books.
  • The eternal whither: in praise of people who know what they want from life, via the example of clerks who took criminal holidays.
  • Deus Terminus: on the Roman god Terminus, god of boundary markers, and mourning the days when no such demarcations of land existed.
  • Of smoking: in praise of pipe and cigar smoking.
  • An Autumn encounter: an extended description of passing a scarecrow.
  • The white poppy: on the benefits of forgetting.
  • A Bohemian in exile: an account of "Fothergill", who opted out of society to roam the country roads with a donkey cart.
  • Justifiable homicide: on dealing with annoying relatives.
  • The fairy wicket: on moments that offer brief glimpses of the magical.
  • Aboard the galley: an extended exploration of the metaphor of officer workers as galley slaves.
  • The lost centaur: a lament at humanity's divide from animals, and failure to acknowledge kinship.
  • Orion: the constellation is explored as a symbol of the hunter that remains in us all.

The general tone is wry and whimsical. While they're not at all bad reading, I found them variable in quality: some come across as throwing an excess of erudition and style at extremely slight topics. But others express the powerful emotion, a very deep and very English yearning, evoked by the countryside. The repeated themes - pastoral escape, urban encroachment on the countryside, the urge to transgress against the system either by idleness or crime or primitivity, the recognition of our animal nature, the appearance of Pan - are highly recognisable as similar to those of The Wind in the Willows. They could be read as the unsurprising fantasies of a man reacting to the confines of his highly formal job, but a number of biographies note that Grahame (like a number of late-Victorian writers) was actively interested in neopaganism ...

Neither his visions of escape from modern society nor the anti-authoritarian philosophy of his essays was particularly original to Grahame; they were shared by many of his contemporaries, as was a variety of neopaganism that the title of his first gathering of essays, Pagan Papers, reflects.
- Writers for children: critical studies of major authors since the seventeenth century, Jane Bingham, 1988

... and the essay "A Bohemian in exile" contains a fairly explicit statement of this.

When old Pan was dead and Apollo's bow broken, there were many faithful pagans who would worship at no new shrines, but went out to the hills and caves, truer to the old gods in their discrowned desolation than in their pomp and power. Even so were we left behind, a remnant of the faithful.

Contemporary reviews were mixed. A standard critical comment was to view them as derivative of Robert Louis Stevenson's essays such as the 1876 Virginibus Puerisque. Patrick Reginald Chalmers, in his 1933 Kenneth Grahame: life, letters and unpublished work, mentions one reviewer who said that Grahame was "only one in a whole generation who turns out a "Stevensonette" as easily and lightly as he rolls a cigarette", and another who evidently felt the writing to be precious, proving the author to be "one of Mr. Henley's very clever young men". However, plenty of other reviews took a less complicated view, and were unstinting in their praise of the book. For instance:

The sense of virility, of wholeness, which one gets from this book is not its least claim upon the regard of all who care for literature. In these essays Mr. Grahame shows himself a lover of boats, of the fresh free life of the . fields and the downs, of old books, of the poets; he gossips cheerily of them all, adding to the clearness of his observation and his extreme sanity a sense of the value of word and of phrase, which makes each short paper excellent reading.
- The Review of Reviews, Volume 9, 1894

- Ray

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