Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Pagan Papers, by Kenneth Grahame (1893)

Regular visitors to The Jade Sphinx know of our love for children’s literature.  Few figures of the field loom larger than Kenneth Grahame (1859-1932), author of Wind in the Willows (1908), one of the great classics of the field.

Readers familiar with Wind know that it chronicles the adventures of Rat, Mole, Badger and Toad along the banks of the river.  Rat and Mole are often contentedly picnicking along the riverbank, simply “messing around in boats.”  Badger’s spacious underground abode provides comfort, books and plentiful food.  It is a perfectly sexless idealization of ease and creature comforts.

So it should come as no surprise that one of the recurring themes in Grahame’s oeuvre is that of escape.  Like many of the great children’s authors, Grahame had an ambivalent attitude towards adulthood and its concomitant responsibilities.

Poor Grahame had a tumultuous life.  He was born in Edinburgh, Scotland.  His mother died when he was five, and his alcoholic father gave young Kenneth and his brothers and sister to the children’s grandmother, in Cookham in Berkshire.  Grahame loved the countryside there, and it was there that he was introduced to the pleasures of boating.  These years in Cookham would be remembered as the happiest of his life.

Following his years at St. Edward’s School in Oxford, Grahame wanted to attend Oxford University.  He could not do so, his guardians claiming that it was too expensive.  Instead, this sensitive and introverted boy was sent to work at the Bank of England in 1879, where he rose through the ranks until retiring as its Secretary in 1908.  The reason for his retirement was that an anarchist broke into the bank and shot at Grahame three times, missing each shot.  The incident forever shattered his nerves; he would move back to the country in an effort to find peace.

Grahame published his first book, The Pagan Papers, in 1893.  He would follow this with his first two great novels about children, The Golden Age (1895) and Dream Days (1898).  He would not write again until after marrying Elspeth Thomson in 1899.  They had one child, a son named Alastair (nicknamed Mouse), born blind in one eye and plagued by various mental problems.  Grahame would tell Mouse stories about the woodland denizens around them.  These stories would eventually morph into Wind in the Willows.

Sadly, the stories provided only a limited amount of succor to Alastair, who would commit suicide by lying on a railway track two days before his 20th birthday.

The Pagan Papers is a collection of essays on the general theme of escape.  It has little (or nothing) to do with paganism as is understood today; actually, it was a long mediation on the invasive and horrifying transformations brought about by the machine age, and extolls the virtues of long country walks, rivers, the countryside, and welcoming pubs.

While the tone varies wildly from piece to piece, what is unmistakable is that the book is suffused with a powerful emotion, a particularly English yearning produced by the countryside.  Again and again Grahame urges pastoral escape, transgression against an increasingly urban system, and recognition of the genius of remote places, often represented in pagan figures like Pan.  That these essays were written by a man in the stranglehold of a formal job, distant from his beloved countryside, should come as no surprise.

This reader found many of the passages moving.  This is from his essay in favor of loafing and idleness:

When the golden Summer has rounded languidly to his close, when Autumn has been carried forth in russet winding-sheet, then all good fellows who look upon holidays as a chief end of life return from moor and stream and begin to take stock of gains and losses. And the wisest, realising that the time of action is over while that of reminiscence has begun, realise too that the one is pregnant with greater pleasures than the other — that action, indeed, is only the means to an end of reflection and appreciation. Wisest of all, the Loafer stands apart supreme. For he, of one mind with the philosopher as to the end, goes straight to it at once; and his happy summer has accordingly been spent in those subjective pleasures of the mind whereof the others, the men of muscle and peeled faces, are only just beginning to taste.

Here is another, in a more puckish vein: In these tame and tedious days of the policeman rampant, our melancholy selves are debarred from many a sport, joyous and debonair, whereof our happier fathers were free … 'Tis a sad but sober fact, that the most of men lead flat and virtuous lives, departing annually with their family to some flat and virtuous place, there to disport themselves in a manner that is decent, orderly, wholly uninteresting, vacant of every buxom stimulus. To such as these a suggestion, in all friendliness: why not try crime? We shall not attempt to specify the particular branch — for every one must himself seek out and find the path his nature best fits him to follow; but the general charm of the prospect must be evident to all. The freshness and novelty of secrecy, the artistic satisfaction in doing the act of self-expression as well as it can possibly be done; the experience of being not the hunter, but the hunted, not the sportsman, but the game; the delight of comparing and discussing crimes with your mates over a quiet pipe on your return to town; these new pleasures — these and their like — would furnish just that gentle stimulant, that peaceful sense of change so necessary to the tired worker.

My favorite passage, though, has to do with his friendship with a wandering painter – it is a view of freedom that resonates strongly with anyone in a restrictive job:  This allowed him to take along with him a few canvases and other artists' materials; soda-water, whisky, and such like necessaries; and even to ask a friend from town for a day or two, if he wanted to.

He was in this state of comparative luxury when at last, by the merest accident, I foregathered with him once more. I had pulled up to Streatley one afternoon, and, leaving my boat, had gone for a long ramble on the glorious North Berkshire Downs to stretch my legs before dinner. Somewhere over on Cuckhamsley Hill, by the side of the Ridgeway, remote from the habitable world, I found him, smoking his vesper pipe on the shaft of his cart, the mare cropping the short grass beside him. He greeted me without surprise or effusion, as if we had only parted yesterday, and without a hint of an allusion to past times, but drifted quietly into rambling talk of his last three years, and, without ever telling his story right out, left a strange picturesque impression of a nomadic life which struck one as separated by fifty years from modern conventional existence. The old road-life still lingered on in places, it seemed, once one got well away from the railway: there were two Englands existing together, the one fringing the great iron highways wherever they might go — the England under the eyes of most of us. The other, unguessed at by many, in whatever places were still vacant of shriek and rattle, drowsed on as of old: the England of heath and common and windy sheep down, of by-lanes and village-greens — the England of Parson Adams and Lavengro. The spell of the free untrammelled life came over me as I listened, till I was fain to accept of his hospitality and a horse-blanket for the night, oblivious of civilised comforts down at the Bull. On the downs where Alfred fought we lay and smoked, gazing up at the quiet stars that had shone on many a Dane lying stark and still a thousand years ago; and in the silence of the lone tract that enfolded us we seemed nearer to those old times than to these I had left that afternoon, in the now hushed and sleeping valley of the Thames.

This is a wise and wonderfully wistful book.  It is available at the indispensable, and comes highly recommended.

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