Home » Fiction

Classics Illustrated

By (July 1, 2009) 2 Comments

The Wind in the Willows: An Annotated Edtion

By Kenneth Grahame, edited by Seth Lerer
Belknap Harvard, 2009

Might I be allowed a small confession as we begin? I adore annotated editions. One almost must, mustn’t one? If you fall completely, hopelessly in love with a text, where else will you end up? First comes the reading, then the re-reading, then perhaps the collecting of different editions, then the viewing of various adaptations, but in the end you keep coming back to the original book, and even the most devoted fanatic can only read those well-known words so many times. After years and years of returning to those sacred volumes, one yearns for some learned commentary – partly out of curiosity and partly, one fears, as a way of justifying the aforementioned years and years of compulsive reading and re-reading.  

This is certainly how I felt about William Baring-Gould’s massive Annotated Sherlock Holmes when it hove into view in 1967. Here were stories I had been lovingly obsessing over for my entire life, newly decked out in gorgeous hardcover volumes positively festooned with notations whose very extent comforted me by demonstrating (in black and white, as it were) that I wasn’t alone in my obsession. In part the joy even borders on the illicit – learning all these background details Baring-Gould and similar editors dig up about one’s iconic books is akin to overhearing two women (perhaps both discarded mistresses?) carry on a heated, whispered conversation about one’s husband of forty years. The old standby is suddenly, thrillingly new.

The World’s Only Amateur Consulting Detective might be one thing – but surely the idea of exhaustively annotating a beloved children’s classic like Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows must give even such aficionados as myself pause? What’s next, an annotated Winnie the Pooh? Perhaps an annotated Miss Suzy? What about a footnoted version of these twittering things my grandson produces with such distracting regularity? At what point do we concede that nothing, in fact, is ephemeral anymore?

I’d have weighty answers prepared on such philosophical inquiries, but I’ve been too busy lately being absolutely overjoyed by Seth Lerer’s new annotated Wind in the Willows, recently published by Belknap Harvard. I know nothing of Lerer, except that he’s as deft an editor as they come: he’s managed to cover one of my favorite books in exposition without dimming the joy of the thing at all.

You are all familiar with the story, I’m certain. Since its first publication in 1908, Grahame’s gentle, enchanting fable of Mole, Ratty, Badger, and of course Toad of Toad Hall has lodged in the collective reading psyche like a Greek myth, as congenial as a lawn party, as invigorating as walk in open country, as refreshing as a summer rain shower. Rat introduces Mole to the quintessentially British fun of “messing around in boats,” they have adventures, they worry about their ebullient, impressionable friend Toad, who’s infatuated with motor-cars but not very good at operating them (he’s been in many accidents and accumulated many fines), they share their worry with Badger, who orchestrates a kind of sit-in at Toad Hall – an intervention from which Toad escapes in order to have many adventures of his own, during which Toad Hall is taken over by scurrilous weasels, who are driven from their conquest at the end by our steadfast group of friends, who live happily ever after.

illustrations by Ernest H. Shepard, from this edition

It’s such a sweet, breezy tale that you’d assume no good could come of linking it in any way with the Franco-Prussian War, but Lerer is a wizard, and he manages even this without upsetting the apple cart (when Grahame ends his book by assuring us that the four friends experienced no further “risings or invasions,” he’s opening the door to any academic who wants to expatiate on the theme of invasion-fear in Edwardian literature … better Lerer do it than some dreadful time-server with no sense of humor). He has poured over every line of the book, and he has ferreted out detail upon recondite detail with impressive results. Time and again while reading this volume (oversized but comfortably so, with sewn binding and very lovely paper-stock), I found myself thinking “my heavens, I hardly knew this book at all” – and that too has its undeniable appeal, as discomfiting as it is. After all, who of us hasn’t perversely wished that we might roll back our acquaintance with some beloved book, to have the joy of experiencing it for the first time all over again?

The Wind in the Willows may be many things,” Lerer states in his brief Introduction, “but it is first and foremost an essay in English style.” And by style he means not sartorial but literary – Grahame was steeped in Ruskin and the great Romantic Poets, and Lerer misses no opportunity to hunt down the hundreds of echoes throughout the book, as when Badger reassures Rat that his house has many short cuts back to his own home and Lerer, on the spot, notes: “See Keats, “Cap and Bells,” xxiii: “He ‘knew the city,’ as we say, of yore,/And for short cuts and turns, was nobody knew more.” Lerer straight away makes his case for this skullduggery, and it’s the case every annotator makes: that the better we understand an author’s readings, the better we will understand his writings. Thus, tracking all these antecedents and possible influences amounts to an extended act of scholarship for Lerer, a way of pushing Grahame forward as a candidate for further study.

But it’s also an irresistible game of ‘bet you didn’t know,’ as when we’re helpfully informed that comfrey is “a flowering plant of streams and ditches, recorded in English from Anglo-Saxon times; Symphytum offincale,” or that a mullion is “a vertical bar dividing the panes in a leaded window,” or that “cloop” is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the sound made by drawing a cork from a bottle.” If this is your sort of thing (it very much is mine), you’ll find a nearly endless amount of it in this edition of The Wind in the Willows. And if it isn’t your sort of thing, you can at least turn the page – imagine with deep pity the poor dinner guest who draws the seat next to Lerer and innocently lets fall the word “selvedge.”

Toad’s house arrest

As in the case of any enthusiasm, this game can be taken too far. Occasionally (though not nearly so often or so egregiously as the wary reader might expect), Lerer is in danger of margin-noting beautiful passages quite to death, as he does when some swallows are trying to explain their annual wanderlust to poor Rat:

First, we feel it stirring within us, a sweet unrest; then back come the recollections one by one, like homing pigeons. They flutter through our dreams at night, they fly with us in our wheeling and circling by day. We hunger to inquire of each other, to compare notes and assure ourselves that it was all really true, as one by one the scents and sounds and names of long-forgotten places gradually back and beckon to us.”

That’s quite as lovely as I remembered, and its loveliness is done not one little favor by Lerer’s grinding assistance:

Note on ‘they flutter through our dreams at night’: a perfect line of iambic tetrameter poetry. Contrast Thomas Gray, “Ode on the Spring”: “Alike the busy and the gay/But flutter through life’s little day.” And John Clare, “Childhood”: “We even fancied we could flye/And fancy then was true/So with the clouds upon the sky/ In dreams of night we flew.”

As with Lerer’s punctiliousness, so too with his primness: certain Edwardian phrases alarm him, or rather, he’s afraid they might alarm readers coming to the material for the first time. When Toad tells Mole and Rat that he “wants” them badly, the note is almost suspiciously prompt:

Toad does not desire Rat in any sense; his phrase means, rather, that he misses him or feels the lack of his company. The verb “want” originally meant to lack or be absent of something.

And there are odd (very infrequent) missteps, things one would automatically forgive in passages by, say, literary critics (or other such wretched creatures) but which somehow feel more alarming when committed to paper by an annotator as painstaking as Lerer. He seems to note everything, for instance, but whereas for the title of Chapter 11, “Like Summer Tempests Came His Tears” we’re given a full explanation of its origin (it’s a misquote of Tennyson), the title of Chapter 5, “Dulce Domum,” which goes to the bother of being in an actual foreign language (and a dead one at that), is given no note at all. While Rat is a guest in Mole’s house, a mention of a sardine-opener prompts the note: “In The Code of the Woosters by P. G. Wodehouse, Captain Jack Fosdyke boasts that he ‘killed a lion with a sardine-opener’ but the note elucidating the name of Mole’s home, Mole End, mentions Felix Holt and Howard’s [sic!] End but makes no mention of the most famous ‘End’ address of them all, Bag End, the home of Bilbo Baggins. It’s perfectly understandable that in an undertaking of this size Lerer’s attention should wander now and then (although that apostrophe is difficult to forgive – it’s the most famous missing apostrophe this side of Finnegans Wake, after all), but it’s unsettling all the same.

More unsettling still are those odd and frustrating occasions when Lerer has done the work and caught the requisite references but still seems not to grasp his own most important point. When Mole peers into a travel-mesmerized Ratty’s eyes and sees they “were glazed and set and turned a streaked and shifting grey” we get this note:

Can we tell the person or the animal by the eyes? Kipling thought so, and the relationships between human and animal in the Jungle Books often hinge on looking someone in the eye. The boy Mowgli differs from his animal compeers: “The look in his eyes was always gentle. Even when he fought, his eyes never blazed as Bagheera’s did. They only grew more interested and excited.”

Yes, one wants to say, but there’s more to it than that, as you must know if you know to bring up The Jungle Books at all. Since Mole in that moment of eye-contact overmasters his friend’s strange new compulsion and makes him behave himself, surely the more apropos Kipling quote is not from “Red Dog” but from “Mowgli’s Brothers,” in which there is not only the eye-contact Lerer rightly points out as important but also an implied struggle of wills, in which Mowgli is always the victor, even against his enormous black panther friend Bagheera:

“But why – but why should any wish to kill me?” said Mowgli.

“Look at me,” said Bagheera; and Mowgli looked at him steadily between the eyes. The big panther turned his head away in half a minute.

“That is why,” he said, shifting his paw on the leaves. “Not even I can look thee between the eyes, and I was born among men, and I love thee, Little Brother. The others hate thee because their eyes cannot meet thine; because thou art wise, because thou hast pulled out thorns from their feet – because thou art a man.”

The question that arises here is one equally fatal to museum docents: is he pointing out the right things in his endless discourse, or would I be better off with a different guide? There is at least one other annotated version of The Wind in the Willows currently available, and upon finishing this one I naturally had it out from the library. It’s a bit thin by comparison, though: you couldn’t do better than to stick with Lerer, especially since the moments when he frustrates are so few and so isolated. It’s true he brings up Ruskin so often one sometimes wonders if one has wandered into to the wrong book – but his textual analysis is so thorough and so convincing that there can be no doubt Ruskin really was that influential, on Grahame and all of his contemporaries. And we must reserve our final loyalty for an editor as indefatigable as Lerer; his endless gossip about this beloved classic serves mostly to evoke smiles and a bit more love. I’m certain I was not the only young person of my time who spent long wet afternoons by the riverside, imagining Toad Hall. How interesting, then, to learn this from the note on it:  

Toad Hall evokes the feel of many of the great riverbank manors that lined the Thames near Grahame’s haunts of Cookham and Pangbourne. Among those that scholars have singled out for comparison are Mapledurham House (a sixteenth-century red brick manor, with additions and modifications made throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries); Harleyford Manor (also of red brick, originally built in the 1740s); and Cliveden (an estate built in 1851 on the site of the seventeenth-century residence of the Duke of Buckingham, owned by the Astor family in Grahame’s lifetime, and now a hotel)

(In addition to all this editorial fervor, the book also sports many dozens of quite ravishing illustrations – The Wind in the Willows being, after all, one of the most frequently illustrated books of all time – including the black-and-white spot illustrations of Ernest H. Shepard that many readers of a certain age will associate with this book and these characters far more readily than they will the later and perhaps technically superior drawings of Arthur Rackham.)

And Lerer possesses perhaps the single most important quality in a village explainer: he knows when to hold his tongue. Once the full flood of his marginalia got underway, I was worried that it would swamp all the perfect, delicate bits that so generously litter Grahame’s book, the shining, treasured moments I have loved for so many decades. The more often Ruskin’s name cropped up, the more worried I was, since Ruskin subjects the glories of the Renaissance to exactly that kind of dutiful dunking. But I needn’t have concerned myself – Lerer is quite as alive to the small beauties of his text as any spellbound reader. I turned to a passage from early on, one I have always loved, to my mind a perfect evocation of the allure of a quiet life. I was quite relieved to find it un-annotated:

As he hurried along, eagerly anticipating the moment when he would be at home again among the things he knew and liked, the Mole saw clearly that he was an animal of tilled field and hedge-row, linked to the ploughed furrow, the frequented pasture, the lane of evening lingering, the cultivated garden-plot. For others the asperities, the stubborn endurance, or the clash of actual conflict, that went with Nature in the rough; he must be wise, must keep to the pleasant places in which his lines were laid and which held adventure enough, in their way, to last for a lifetime.

Honoria St. Cyr was an executive secretary in London for forty-five years and now enjoys her retirement years in Islington, tending to her garden and her books. She still enjoys messing around in boats.

Join the Open Letters facebook page

Return to the Main Page


  • Michael Duke says:

    Lerer makes errors such as the following:

    “Onion sauce” jeeringly called out by Mole to the rabbits is vaguely annotated: it is really about the fact that onion sauceis used in rabbit stew, as the gypsy has in the further adventures of Toad.

    He derives “cutting it fine” from slicing but it is an obvious cricket reference – as in the position “fine leg”.

    He says “perished” means “lost” – nonsense – it means “cold”

    He says Badger lives in an excavated church – again nonsense – it is an excavated Roman city – like Pompeii or Herculaneum.

1 Pingbacks »

Leave a comment!

Add your comment below, or trackback from your own site. You can also Comments Feed via RSS.

Be nice. Keep it clean. Stay on topic. No spam.

You can use these tags:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

This is a Gravatar-enabled weblog. To get your own globally-recognized-avatar, please register at Gravatar.