Originally published in 1895 by The Bodley Head without any illustrations, my copy is also published by them and is the 1928 first edition illustrated by Ernest H Shepard who is probably best known for his Winnie the Pooh drawings for A A Milne’s classic children’s works. The book is simply beautiful even before you open it with the cover silhouette and text embossed into buckram covered boards. Kenneth Grahame of course is famous for his own children’s classic ‘The Wind in the Willows’ which was published thirteen years after ‘The Golden Age’ and was converted into the play ‘Toad of Toad Hall’ by Milne in 1929. Surprisingly after such a major hit with ‘The Wind in The Willows’, and despite living for another twenty four years after that, he published no more books and ‘The Golden Age’ is the second of just four other books he wrote before ‘The Wind in the Willows’.
Kenneth Graham was born in Edinburgh in 1859 but when he was only five years old his mother died and his father, who was probably alcoholic, couldn’t look after Kenneth and his three siblings so they were sent to live with their grandmother in a small village in Berkshire. This sudden change from the centre of a Scottish city to a rural English parish had a lasting effect on Grahame and his explorations as a child of the countryside surrounding him undoubtedly led decades later to ‘The Wind in the Willows’. His earlier writings, especially ‘The Golden Age’, feature a group of children having fun growing up in just such an idyllic environment written entirely from their point of view and are clearly fictionalised versions of his own life in the mid to late 1860’s in Cookham Dean. The book is made up of seventeen short stories and a prologue which refers to the, largely distant, adults as The Olympians and the children as the Illuminati because only they could see the pirates, knights, soldiers, wild animals etc. of their playing and truly enjoy themselves.
Looking back to those days of old, ere the gate shut to behind me, I can see now that to children with a proper equipment of parents these things would have worn a different aspect. But to those whose nearest were aunts and uncles, a special attitude of mind may be allowed. They treated us, indeed, with kindness enough as to the needs of the flesh, but after that with indifference (an indifference, as I recognise, the result of a certain stupidity), and therewith the commonplace conviction that your child is merely animal. … These elders, our betters by a trick of chance, commanded no respect, but only a certain blend of envy—of their good luck—and pity—for their inability to make use of it. Indeed, it was one of the most hopeless features in their character (when we troubled ourselves to waste a thought on them: which wasn’t often) that, having absolute licence to indulge in the pleasures of life, they could get no good of it.From the opening paragraph of The Golden Age
The stories are delightfully and really evoke a long gone period in mid-Victorian England, as well as harvest time depicted above they encounter mounted soldiers in one of the lanes all dressed up in regimental finery with red jackets and plume helmets so very different to the modern military. There are stories of Charlotte, the youngest girl, playing with her dolls and telling them off for misbehaving, the three boys are always in and out of the river or exploring the woods or generally being where and doing what they shouldn’t be, often in the company of Charlotte if not her elder sister Selina. The relatives the children were staying with were clearly quite well off, the house appears to be quite large and there are servants hence the opportunity for them to enjoy their childhood despite regular complaints about having to do schoolwork. For those wondering ‘dreeing his weird’ is a Scottish expression meaning to accept your fate, so clearly Harold had ended up with a tummy ache after all that raw turnip but had recognised that his illness was entirely his own fault so wasn’t complaining about it. None of Grahame’s actual brothers and sisters match the names of the children in the book or its sequel ‘Dream Days’ where Charlotte appears again in the short story ‘The Reluctant Dragon’ which of all of Grahame’s short stories is easily the best known although the rest of ‘Dream Days’ doesn’t really live up to this gentle fantasy.
The illustrations by Ernest H Shepherd are as charming as you would expect from this master of book illustration but for me the real joy in the book are his silhouettes, they are just so beautifully done and as can be seen above sometimes continue across a double page spread. The children are enjoying some ginger beer purchased with the reward for Edward being steadfast under the dentists attention and having a tooth removed that morning. The misunderstanding as to what corked wine meant with the subsequent worry about expanding pieces of cork being dangerous inside you is quite funny and behind Selina can be seen one of the children’s rabbits chosen as the “most self-respecting of the rabbits … let loose to grace the feast”.
The book is still easily available and as far as I can tell has never gone out of print in the 125 years since it was first published, maybe not very well known now but still worth searching out. I’ll leave the last word however to Kenneth Grahame himself.
Well! The Olympians are all past and gone. Somehow the sun does not seem to shine so brightly as it used; the trackless meadows of old time have shrunk and dwindled away to a few poor acres. A saddening doubt, a dull suspicion, creeps over me. Et in Arcadia ego—I certainly did once inhabit Arcady. Can it be that I also have become an Olympian?Closing paragraph of the prologue to The Golden Age