Wind in the Willows ‘was Kenneth Grahame’s gay manifesto’

Still a favourite: Kenneth Grahame’s tails of Mole, Toad and Ratty have engrossed children for generations

Harry Mount for the Daily Mail 

Hidden in a quiet corner of Oxford, in the shadow of medieval St Cross Church, stands a moving pair of gravestones. 

In one of them lies one of the most beloved names in English literature, Kenneth Grahame, writer of The Wind In The Willows, the soothing tale of Mole, Ratty and Toad of Toad Hall. In the other lies his son, Alastair, always nicknamed Mouse.

What could be more comforting — father and son resting together by an ancient church ­nestling beside the River Thames, the setting for Grahame’s gentle masterpiece. 

And yet, look closer at those graves, and a tragic tale begins to emerge. Kenneth Grahame died in 1932, a broken-hearted man of 73, who hadn’t written anything of note since The Wind In The Willows was published in 1908.

The reason for his heartbreak lies next to him — Mouse committed suicide 12 years before his father’s death, aged only 19.

Despite a glittering education at Eton and Christ Church, Oxford, Mouse, a frail child, blind in one eye, was of a fragile, nervous disposition. His father’s immense fame — and unrealistic expectations of his son — didn’t make things any easier.

And so, one evening in May 1920, after dining in Christ Church’s 16th century hall, Mouse strolled down to the Thames — home of Ratty, Toad and Mole. And there he lay down on the railway track running across Port Meadow and awaited the train that would end his misery.  

For all his fame and fortune, Grahame remained a tortured soul untilhis death. Several weeks after his funeral, his coffin was moved to theOxford cemetery from its grave in Pangbourne, Berks.

Grahame was born in 1859 in Edinburgh to an aristocratic, failedlawyer, whose love for poetry was defeated by his love for vintageclaret. The drinking only intensified when Grahame’s mother, Bessie,died soon after the birth of his brother, Roland.

Grahame was only five — his place in the world grew even moreinsecure when, weeks after the death, his father moved the family toCookham Dene in Berkshire on the banks of the Thames. Grahame clung tothe river for the rest of his life.

The young Grahame excelled atschool and was set for high academic honours when another hammer blowstruck. The family finances had dwindled so much that he was forcedstraight into work at the Bank of England.

For the next 30years, he toiled away at the Bank, retiring as its Secretary in 1908,the year of The Wind In The ­Willows. Throughout his career, he hadpublished children’s books and a memoir of childhood — sales were good,and Grahame was well-known before his worldwide smash hit waspublished.

Still a favourite: Kenneth Grahame's tails of Mole, Toad and Ratty have engrossed children for generations

Still a favourite: Kenneth Grahame’s tails of Mole, Toad and Ratty have engrossed children for generations

Despite his eligibility as a literary banker, Grahame remained awkward in the company of the opposite sex. It wasn’t until he was 40 that he married Elspeth Thomson. For all her devotion to him, he remained a distant figure, incapable of demonstrating love.

The same emotional constipation condemned his relationship with poor Mouse, born in 1900. A little premature, Mouse was blind in his right eye; the other had a severe squint.

As an only child, Mouse was subjected to extreme, uncritical affection from his mother, and absurdly high academic expectations from his father. It didn’t help that Elspeth was growing increasingly miserable taking to her bed for much of the day.

By the time he was three and a half, in a haunting prophecy of his death, Mouse amused himself playing a game of lying in front of speeding cars to bring them screeching to a halt. When he was given his presents on his fourth birthday, rather than enjoying them, he set about repacking them in ­complete silence.

All the while, though, this sad, ­pressured little boy was inadvertently helping the creation of one of the great children’s books, a book which is full of a brand of carefree happiness that always dodged Mouse himself.

Grahame was inspired to write The Wind In The Willows by the bedtime stories he read his son. One evening, when Mouse was four, his parents were due to go out for dinner. Waiting for her husband in the hall, Elspeth sent the maid for him.

He had no friends and joined no social clubs. Mouse trudged off towards the railway track. His decapitated body was found the next day

‘He’s with Master Mouse, madam,’ said Louise, the maid, ‘He’s telling him some ditty about a toad.’

Grahametook to transcribing verbatim accounts of the stories, written in thesame baby-talk that he had told them. ‘The Mole saved up al is moneyand went and bought a motor car… Mr Mole has been goin the pace sincehe first went [on] his simple boatin spedishin wif the Water Rat.’

The publication of The Wind In The Willows, though, did nothing to stop the boy’s awful downward trajectory.

Bullied at Rugby School, Mouse was transferred to Eton. There, too, he suffered because of his disastrously superior attitude. He left the school to be privately tutored in Surrey.

His eyesight worsening, and his nerves still tattered, it was a broken, miserable Mouse, then, that turned up at Christ Church in 1918. He failed his scripture, Greek and Latin exams three times over the next year. In 1919, his tutor wrote the words ‘Pass or go’ next to his name in the college records; if he failed the exam again, he would have to leave.

He had made no friends and joined no social clubs. It had all got too much for him. At that last dinner in Christ Church Hall, he downed a glass of port. An undergraduate sitting next to him said later, ‘I had not known him do [this] before.’

Mouse then trudged off across Port Meadow towards the railway track. When his decapitated body was found the next day, his pockets were crammed with religious books for his dreaded scripture exam.

His death did at least bring one ­consolation; in recognition of his ­suffering, Oxford University, for the first time, made special provision for disabled students.

On May 12, 1920, Mouse’s 20th ­birthday, he was buried in Holywell Cemetery next to St Cross Church. His father scattered lilies of the valley over the coffin.

And 12 years later, the shattered genius who wrote The Wind In The Willows was buried beside the doomed little boy who had inspired him.