This might seem an odd one, but this isn’t a collection of books by women, rather a list of ‘books to maketh a woman’ and this book, which I first read at about age 8 or 9 is about deep friendships that change your life – a very good theme for a growing girl. Have you read it? Do children still read it? It seemed another world, another time and certainly another class when I read it as a child in the 1960s.
See the hardship my copy has lived through – my own hard reading, my siblings’, and my two childrens’, and yet it holds together – just.
We lived on the Council Estate in Neston, Cheshire and the world of the river bank was totally out of my ken. That didn’t seem to matter in the slightest.
The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters; then on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of whitewash; till he had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms. Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing. It was small wonder, then, that he suddenly flung down his brush on the floor, said ‘Bother!’ and ‘O blow!’ and also ‘Hang spring-cleaning!’ and bolted out of the house without even waiting to put on his coat. Something up above was calling him imperiously, and he made for the steep little tunnel which answered in his case to the gravelled carriage-drive owned by animals whose residences are nearer to the sun and air.
I didn’t know what whitewash was or how his little underground house could have a gravelled carriage drive – it doesn’t, I was misreading but that didn’t seem to matter either. I knew that it was exciting when Mole met the Water Rat, and when the Mole upsets the boat and is rescued by the Rat, I recognised how idiocy can be saved by friendship, and what a deep comfort friendship can be.
The Rat got hold of a scull and shoved it under the Mole’s arm; then he did the same by the other side of him and, swimming behind, propelled the helpless animal to shore, hauled him out, and set him down on the bank, a squashy, pulpy lump of misery. When the Rat had rubbed him down a bit, and wrung some of the wet out of him, he said, ‘Now, then, old fellow! Trot up and down the towing-path as hard as you can, till you’re warm and dry again, while I dive for the luncheon-basket.’ So the dismal Mole, wet without and ashamed within, trotted about till he was fairly dry, while the Rat plunged into the water again, recovered the boat, righted her and made her fast, fetched his floating property to shore by degrees, and finally dived successfully for the luncheon-basket and struggled to land with it. When all was ready for a start once more, the Mole, limp and dejected, took his seat in the stern of the boat; and as they set off, he said in a low voice, broken with emotion, ‘Ratty, my generous friend! I am very sorry indeed for my foolish and ungrateful conduct. My heart quite fails me when I think how I might have lost that beautiful luncheon-basket. Indeed, I have been a complete ass, and I know it. Will you overlook it this once and forgive me, and let things go on as before?’ ‘That’s all right, bless you!’ responded the Rat cheerily. ‘What’s a little wet to a Water Rat? I’m more in the water than out of it most days. Don’t you think any more about it; and, look here! I really think you had better come and stop with me for a little time. It’s very plain and rough, you know–not like Toad’s house at all–but you haven’t seen that yet; still, I can make you comfortable. And I’ll teach you to row, and to swim, and you’ll soon be as handy on the water as any of us.’ The Mole was so touched by his kind manner of speaking that he could find no voice to answer him; and he had to brush away a tear or two with the back of his paw. But the Rat kindly looked in another direction, and presently the Mole’s spirits revived again, and he was even able to give some straight back-talk to a couple of moorhens who were sniggering to each other about his bedraggled appearance.
When they got home, the Rat made a bright fire in the parlour, and planted the Mole in an arm-chair in front of it, having fetched down a dressing-gown and slippers for him, and told him river stories till supper-time.
Of course there’s Toad and his mad criminal life and corruption in the prison and cross-dressing and the gang warfare with the Weasels and all that stirring stuff, and there is Badger, but for me the centre of the book is friendship, and perhaps even more oddly, some sense of the transcendent. I know I had no idea as a child what the chapter ‘Piper At The Gates of Dawn’ was about but I read it over and over trying to figure it out. Out seeking a lost otter pup at the end of a long and worried night, the friends encounter and are called towards Awe inspiring creature;
Perhaps he would never have dared to raise his eyes, but that, though the piping was now hushed, the call and the summons seemed still dominant and imperious. He might not refuse, were Death himself waiting to strike him instantly, once he had looked with mortal eye on things rightly kept hidden. Trembling he obeyed, and raised his humble head; and then, in that utter clearness of the imminent dawn, while Nature, flushed with fullness of incredible colour, seemed to hold her breath for the event, he looked in the very eyes of the Friend and Helper; saw the backward sweep of the curved horns, gleaming in the growing daylight; saw the stern, hooked nose between the kindly eyes that were looking down on them humorously, while the bearded mouth broke into a half-smile at the corners; saw the rippling muscles on the arm that lay across the broad chest, the long supple hand still holding the pan-pipes only just fallen away from the parted lips; saw the splendid curves of the shaggy limbs disposed in majestic ease on the sward; saw, last of all, nestling between his very hooves, sleeping soundly in entire peace and contentment, the little, round, podgy, childish form of the baby otter. All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still, as he lived, he wondered.
Weird, unimaginable stuff to put into a 9 year old girl’s mind, but I am very glad someone bought me The Wind In The Willows for Christmas.