The Wind in the Willows is much more than a story from a bygone age. It is, frankly, one of the finest children's books ever written. One hundred years after it was first published, Kenneth Grahame's masterpiece can be picked up and read to any young child, and it will have a mesmerizing effect.
Mole, Ratty, Badger and Toad are some of the most famous characters to ever emerge from children's literature. The image of the proud and vain Toad dressed as a washerwoman is as memorable as ever – even though today's kids won't be familiar with the profession of washerwoman.
While Grahame's book concerns friendship, foolishness and loyalty, the real story behind the author's life is decidedly sad. Edinburgh-born Grahame worked in finance at the Bank of England but loved writing far more than banking. He published several books - including Golden Age in 1895 and Dream Days in 1898 – but never succeeded in making enough money to escape the daily grind of the City of London. He was even wounded in an attempted bank robbery.
His son, Alastair, was born with sight problems and eventually committed suicide under a train while at Oxford University. The author became reclusive after the tragedy. It had been Grahame's bedtime stories for his son that served as the basis for The Wind in the Willows.
Incredibly, Grahame struggled to find a publisher for Wind in the Willows but Methuen's decision to take it on was to pay dividends – by 1951, there were 100 UK editions alone. The book could also have faded away into obscurity but AA Milne, author of Winnie the Pooh, produced a highly successful 1929 stage version called Toad of Toad Hall which thrust Grahame's story back into the public consciousness and helped to guarantee enduring success. Milne's stage play is still a favourite today.
The Wind in the Willows did not originally include illustrations but over the years a large number of artists have added their interpretations of the tale. The most famous of these being by Wyndham Payne (who illustrated the first edition with artwork), the Ernest H. Shepard editions, and those drawn by Arthur Rackham. The 1908 first edition first printing has a striking frontispiece by Graham Robertson.
Despite the enormous success of the book, Grahame did not revisit the characters from the story but others have tried. In 1981, English author Jan Needle wrote Wild Wood retelling Wind in the Willows from the viewpoint of the residents of the Wild Wood. All the interactions between the working class residents of the wood and Toad's upper class friends take on an entirely new meaning. In the 1990s, William Horwood created several sequels including, The Willows in Winter, Toad Triumphant, The Willows and Beyond and The Willows at Christmas.
Grahame's bittersweet life, where he won public acclaim for his classic story but suffered great personal tragedy, has also inspired several biographers - Peter Green's Kenneth Grahame: A Biography from 1959 is probably the best.
Guide to collecting The Wind in the Willows
Under The Willow Books has kindly provided a guide to collectible editions of The Wind in the Willows.
The 1908 first editions have just a frontispiece illustration by the noted British artist (Walford) Graham Robertson. The first and second UK editions, published by Methuen and Co, were published in the same month. Look for the gilt green cloth binding. Extremely collectible and they don't come cheap.
The first US edition was also published in 1908 by New York's Charles Scribner's Sons. It is dated 1908 on the title page and states "Published October, 1908" on the reverse. It has a green cloth binding and gilt border. Thanks to its larger print run and less attractive binding, this edition is more affordable.
First editions with artwork by American Paul Bransom (contains 10 color plates throughout the book, pictorial endpapers, a title page vignette and attractive cover artwork)
The first US Bransom edition again came from Charles Scribner's Sons and was printed in 1913. It is dated 1913 in Roman numerals at the foot of the title page and states "Published October, 1913" on the reverse. It has a blue ribbed cloth binding with an attractive design on the cover in yellow, green and blue with a gilt border and lettering in red and blue against a white background. The first UK Bransom edition came from Methuen in the same year.
First editions with artwork by the American artist Nancy Barnhart with 12 color plates
First UK Barnhart edition came from Methuen but the title page is undated. The reverse states "This Illustrated Edition First Published in 1922" followed by a list of all editions ending in "Twelfth Edition... January 1922.” It has blue cloth binding with a black vignette and gilt lettering to the cover. The UK edition has plain endpapers and a pictorial border to the title page.
First US Barnhart edition came from Charles Scribner's Sons in 1923* (a 1922 edition may exist but this is unconfirmed). It is dated MCMXXIII on the title page (with just 1908 and 1913 copyright notice on reverse). It has the same binding as the UK edition. The US edition has the old Bransom pictorial endpapers and part of the cover vignette is used as a title page vignette.
First editions with artwork by the British artist Wyndham Payne with 20 plates in black, yellow, and white
The first UK Payne edition was published by Methuen in 1927. The title page is not dated, but the reverse shows a list of all editions ending in "Twenty-fifth Edition (Illustrated by Wyndham Payne), 1927". Comes in blue cloth binding with gilt lettering
First editions of AA Milne's adaptation for the stage, Toad of Toad Hall, not illustrated:
In 1929, Methuen produced 200 copies of a limited UK edition of Toad of Toad Hall that were signed by Milne and Kenneth Grahame. A very collectible book.
The first UK trade edition of Toad of Toad Hall was published by Methuen in 1929. It is not dated on the title page but states on the reverse "First Published in 1929". Bound in blue cloth with a gilt toad vignette to the cover and gilt lettering on the spine
The first US trade edition of Toad of Toad Hall was published by Charles Scribner's Sons in 1929. It is dated 1929 on the title page and shows "Copyright, 1929" on the reverse. Bound in paper-covered boards with an interesting Art Deco yellow and red design on the cover
First editions with artwork by the noted British artist Ernest H. Shepard with black and white illustrations throughout
In 1931, Methuen produced a limited edition run of 200 copies signed by Grahame and Ernest Shepard. Perhaps the most desirable illustrated editions thanks to Shepard's fame as an artist.
In the same year, Methuen published the first UK Shepard trade edition. The title page is not dated and the reverse shows a list of all editions ending in "Thirty-eighth Edition (Illustrated by Ernest H. Shepard, 1931). Bound in green cloth with a gilt vignette to the cover and gilt lettering to the spine.
The first US Shepard trade edition came from Charles Scribner's Sons in 1933. The title page is dated 1933 and reverse shows copyright dates 1908, 1913, 1933. There seem to have been several jackets for the US edition dated 1933. It is bound in blue cloth with the same gilt vignette to the cover and gilt lettering to the spine.
In 1971, Methuen once again persuaded the elderly Shepard to re-visit the book and color all the original artwork which he first produced 40 years earlier. There was a limited edition run of 250 copies of this colour version signed by Shepard. UK trade editions from 1971 need the reverse of the title page to indicate it was first published that year.
First editions with artwork by the noted British artist Arthur Rackham (the artist's last book and published after his death)
A US limited edition of 2020 copies was produced by New York's The Limited Editions Club in 1940. They had quarter cloth binding and a cream cloth spine with gilt lettering over decorative paper-covered boards. There are 16 mounted color plates and a green vignette to the title page
Published by New York's Heritage Press in 1940, the first US Rackham trade edition features all the Rackham black and white illustrations but four fewer color plates. The keys to identifying this edition are the binding and the title page showing "The Heritage Press". It has a red buckram spine with yellow lettering over blue cloth-covered boards and a yellow vignette to the cover.
The first UK Rackham trade edition came from Methuen in 1950. The title page is not dated but the reverse shows "This book was first issued on October 8th, 1908, since when it has been reprinted in a variety of editions, illustrated and un-illustrated, 96 times, Ninety-seventh edition, 1950". Bound in green cloth with gilt lettering to the spine, there are 12 color plates and 15 black and white vignettes
In 1951, Methuen produced the 100th UK edition – a Rackham edition limited to 500 numbered copies. The title page is not dated, but the reverse shows "This book was first issued on October 8th, 1908, since when it has been reprinted in a variety of editions, illustrated and un-illustrated, 99 times. This one hundredth edition, published in 1951, is printed on handmade paper and is limited to 500 copies..." Bound in white leather with gilt lettering to the spine, the book has 12 tipped-in color plates and 15 black and white vignettes