Carefully meditated but curiously upsetting ... The story of Elspeth and Kenneth’s marriage is depressing; but Dennison’s account of their child’s life is heartbreaking ... Dennison, in this finely written book with its sometimes bejewelled vocabulary has dug deep into some of the complex truths that underpin The Wind in the Willows and give it its layers of resonance ... at its core, what it celebrates, despite adventures and crises, is a quintessentially English dolce far niente, a refusal of the real, a quiescence that is almost mystical. As such, it embodies the odd, half-life so elegantly described by Dennison in this biography, perhaps the most haunting of whose revelations is that the figure of Toad was inspired by little Alistair, the lost child of lost parents.
Dennison’s bold criticism stands out in a biography that is scrupulously just to its subject. His frequent reminders of the blows Grahame suffered will speak to rational minds. The reminders are necessary because the blows, as they happen, are oddly unmoving. We have to understand the reasons why this child developed so extreme a version of an escapist self. Only gradually does Dennison allow the facts to add up to something twisted, even dangerous to any human being who ventured too close ... Drawing on telling quotes from Grahame’s works, Dennison’s book more than meets the challenge of a walled-off man. The result is a sensitively probing and nuanced portrait that makes sense of the darker character furled in the dreamer.