Places tell stories in Grahame’s work. In this fine biography, Matthew Dennison takes his lead from his subject, following the small boy with his fantasy-filled atlas away from the Berkshire house — where he was sent to live with his grandmother after his mother died and his father descended into alcoholism — first to boarding school in Oxford, then to lodgings in London.
This must have been a difficult book to write, as everything that really mattered to Kenneth Grahame went on inside his head; and there is a limit to the amount of trawling that can be done in the depths of someone else's psyche. For Grahame's adult life, seen from the outside, was largely uneventful, the same job all his life, a few close friends and only one, unsuccessful, relationship with a woman. Yet Dennison has managed his tricky task with aplomb.
Dennison has chosen instead to tell a compassionate story of a boy so damaged by a loveless upbringing as to be incapable of sustained adult attachment... Unpicking the myths, Dennison balances regard with disturbing facts... Dennison’s bold criticism stands out in a biography that is scrupulously just to its subject... Only gradually does Dennison allow the facts to add up to something twisted, even dangerous to any human being who ventured too close... In the end this book peels back actions to reveal a phenomenon that may not be all that uncommon: an “eternal boy” who cannot grow up yet manages to appear a specimen of manhood who ticks all the boxes... Drawing on telling quotes from Grahame’s works, Dennison’s book more than meets the challenge of a walled-off man. The result is a sensitively probing and nuanced portrait that makes sense of the darker character furled in the dreamer.
For his new life of Grahame, Matthew Dennison has had to shape and hone the existing material. He skilfully covers the facts, producing a vivid impression of this strange, shy, awkward figure. The result is a highly readable book... Grahame’s life was a sad one, when looked at as a whole, ending up with him pursuing an almost hermit-like existence. There were repeated episodes of loss and abandonment, experiences that informed his writing. Born in 1859 (he always considered himself a ‘mid-Victorian’) into a large and well-respected Scottish family, descended on his mother’s side from Robert the Bruce, he lost both parents at a young age. His mother died giving birth to her third son (her last words were ‘It’s all been so lovely’); his father, Cunningham Grahame, declined into alcoholism, deserting his children, who were sent to live with their grandmother at The Mount, her house in Cookham Dean, by the Thames. Dennison shows how this gentle, lush landscape became essential to Grahame’s imagination, linked with his image of himself as an eternal Wordsworthian child, with access to special perceptions sorely lacking in the adults surrounding him.
Dennison, in this finely written book with its sometimes bejewelled vocabulary (how pleasant to make the acquaintance of the word “tracasserie”), has dug deep into some of the complex truths that underpin The Wind in the Willows and give it its layers of resonance. It is, he says, “an aggressively conservative book and its targets include socialism and any form of faddishness or craving for novelty”.
It is undeniably that; but at its core, what it celebrates, despite adventures and crises, is a quintessentially English dolce far niente, a refusal of the real, a quiescence that is almost mystical. As such, it embodies the odd, half-life so elegantly described by Dennison in this biography, perhaps the most haunting of whose revelations is that the figure of Toad was inspired by little Alistair, the lost child of lost parents.
The research here draws on a wealth of Grahame’s writings; enough space is given to Grahame’s own words that even someone unfamiliar with his work will get a good sense of his style. Dennison also writes with atmospheric detail about the late Victorian and Edwardian bohemian sets that Grahame tentatively embraced when he wasn’t desk-bound... Dennison’s prose can be clumsy, but this shouldn’t hamper readers. I flew through this book, eager to read more of Dennison’s insights that connect Grahame’s lonely bookish life with his artistic vision, one rooted in boyhood innocence and a kind of pantheistic conservatism.
Eternal Boy tells me much I didn’t know. It is a very deftly written biography, snappy, thorough and to the point. Once again (Lewis Carroll and little girls, J M Barrie and little boys), the author of a children’s classic is unmasked as somewhat tormented.