Wind in the Willows (was Re: HP review)

Charles Butler hannibal at
Fri Jul 4 10:21:16 EDT 2003


> If I were looking for the working class in WitW I would probably suggest
> that the niche is filled by the rabbits and the field-mice.  I don't think
> there is all that much authorial anxiety about them and their behaviour...

Well, I wasn't particularly looking for the working class in WitW - as I
said, class relations are easy to observe in it without any allegorical
excavating. But if I *were* looking, I'd agree that the rabbits and
field-mice to resemble a type of working class person who 'knows their
place', and are thus not going to be found threatening. Unlike those
anarchists who take over empty buildings and have the temerity to live in

> The Stoats and the Weasels are a criminal gang, terrorising everyone, for
> my money.  Or, given the quasi-military nature of their organisation, a
> gang of mercenary soldiers taking over an area after they finish with a
> somewhere.

Criminality may be in the eye of the beholder here. Toad, for example (the
only convicted criminal in this book), has been guilty of reckless driving,
multiple counts of robbery, and breaking jail. His friends are all
accessories (in that they did not report his whereabouts to the
authorities), and the whole lot them engage in a mass physical assault on
the stoats and weasels squatting in the unoccupied Toad Hall rather than
applying the courts to have them evicted... Now, I don't say that the book
'encourages' us to sympathize with the mustelidae against the
rodent/amphibian axis - clearly it does not. But I just ask - why do we take
the criminality of the stoats and weasels seriously, and not that of toad
and friends? Why are some kinds of crime, and of criminal, more alarming
than others? Is it not partly to do with the fact that Toad is a landed
squire, and that his crimes - no, 'larks', perhaps - therefore don't really
matter, and that the structure and narration of the book all militate
towards this
conclusion? (No scene showing how the bargewoman became destitute after the
theft of her horse, for example, or how the laundry-woman lost her job and
had to go to the workhouse... But for Toad to be deprived of the opportunity
to fritter away the rest of his inheritance, it's made very clear, would be
real disaster!)

In this book, as in the society in which it was written, double standards
apply. (Remember Ambrose Bierce's definition of a kleptomaniac - 'a rich
thief'.) When an Edwardian undergraduate of Oxford University (where they
know all there is to be knowed) commits criminal damage he may get a night
in the cells to sober up, but his coeaval from the Town may well get sent to
jail. That's just the way it was (is?) in England. Such attitudes are there
in WitW, and there to be seen, without worrying about subtexts or hidden
meanings or authorial intentions or whether the book was meant for

> Not liking the Mustelidae in general (Badger and Otter excepted) is a very
> reasonable thing for any country-dweller, anyhow, without any stuff about
> them representing the working classes. They are smelly, vicious,
> unreasonable creatures with sharp teeth, in the main, and have a
> (which they absolutely deserve) for going into a mindless killing frenzy
> when they have once shed blood and smelt it.

I think you may be mixing up real stoats and weasels with the ones in
Grahame's book. The latter are threatening, but - like Hannibal Hayes and
Kid Curry - they never kill anyone. Nor do water rats really go around in
rowing boats. In fact the book is riddled with factual inaccuracies of this
sort, as one of its early reviewers complained! (Why except Badger and Otter
from the general country-dweller condemnation of the mustelidae, by the way?
Badgers have frequently been gassed by farmers fearing the spread of bovine
TB to their cattle; and as for otters, you should see what Izaak Walton has
to say about this pernicious fish-stealing vermin in *The Compleat Angler* -
which is no doubt why those nature-loving country-dwellers hunted it to near

And I promise you, WitW, really *is* one of my favourite books. That's why
I'm so hard on it. In America they call it tough love...


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