- “When the Cup Has Been Drained”:Addiction and Recovery in The Wind in the Willows
The year 1908 was a watershed in the publication of children’s literature in Britain, Canada, and the United States. In Canada, the year ushered in Anne Shirley of Anne of Green Gables; in the United States, L. Frank Baum brought out the fourth of the Oz books, Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz; and in England, Beatrix Potter introduced Jemima Puddleduck, while Kenneth Grahame gave us Mole, Rat, Badger, and Toad of Toad Hall. Yet even as these very public debuts occurred in the literary field, a number of important developments took place behind the scenes that bear on childhood studies. In Britain, that year brought the passage of the Children Act of 1908, which granted authorities the power to deprive “inebriates” of custody of their children; it was also the year in which a parliamentary committee issued an official inquiry into the body of legislation known as the Inebriates Acts (Valverde 87, 69). Both of these actions had potentially momentous consequences for the lives of alcoholics and their families, especially their dependent children.
The Children Act of 1908 and the earlier Inebriates Acts may seem improbably remote from the idyllic world of The Wind in the Willows. Yet the public debate over the causes and consequences of excessive drinking, as well as possible cures, held profound personal significance for its author. For before Fowey, the Cornish hamlet where Grahame enlivened letters to his son with early versions of his animal stories; and before Cookham Dean, the village on the Thames that provided the immediate inspiration and setting for the novel; and before Cranbourne, where Grahame spent his later childhood, there was his boyhood home in Argyllshire, and prior to that the family’s fashionable Edinburgh townhouse, both of which slipped away under the influence of a father’s uncontrollable drinking. In fact, the dissolution of these early homes, linked to the perceived dissoluteness of James Cunningham Grahame, resulted in the removal of the Grahame children to their grandmother’s home in Cookham Dean: an event that led, many years later, to the composition of The Wind in the Willows. In his published work, Grahame seldom made reference to the period before Cranbourne, yet he claimed unusually vivid memories of his early childhood, once commenting: “I feel I should never be surprised to meet myself [End Page 42] as I was when a little chap of five, suddenly coming round a corner. . . . the queer thing is, I can remember everything I felt then, the part of my brain I used from four till about seven can never have altered” (qtd. in Gooderson 7).1 Consistent with this assertion, numerous scenes and incidents in The Wind in the Willows suggest that Grahame’s early exposure to alcoholism (or “inebriety,” as the Victorians termed it) worked its way into the narrative as a sequence of imaginatively transformed memories.
Literary historians from the mid-twentieth century onward have explored a variety of uses of intoxication in literary texts. Such scholars as Anya Taylor point to the Romantic duality that allows inebriation to expose a monstrous aspect of human nature even as it provides access to an inspired, perhaps divine, state of being. Thomas L. Reed, J. Gerard Dollar, and Robin Warhol have investigated, respectively, the Victorians’ preoccupation with the moral, legal, and physical consequences of drinking; the sin/sickness models of inebriety; the link between alcoholism and the psychological notion of a divided self; and the impact of Victorian attitudes toward inebriety on twentieth-century treatment protocols. Meanwhile, critics of modern American literature like Thomas B. Gilmore and John W. Crowley have further contributed to an understanding of the complex role of intoxication and addiction in literary texts, by analyzing simultaneously the biographical impact of alcoholism or heavy drinking and the thematic use of inebriation and alcohol dependence within twentieth-century novels, poetry, and plays. Taken together, these critics reveal how alcohol as a signifier carries numerous meanings, some complementary, and others contradictory.
The Wind in the Willows bears a veiled affinity to the literary texts these critics have mined, but it also differs...