The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame (1908) 245 p.

The Wind in the Willows has always been the first thing that comes to mind when I try to think of a quintessentially English book. I’d never actually read it before, but it’s yet another one of those works whose reputation precedes it. You pick up bits and pieces about it from all kinds of adaptations, and it’s left an influence on a whole lot of other literature.

Set in the Thames Valley where Grahame (ironically a Scotsman) grew up in the 19th century, The Wind in the Willows follows a cast of anthropomorphised animals through the pastoral idylls and turning seasons of the iconic English countryside. It begins with Mole abandoning his house during spring cleaning, escaping into the fresh air of the countryside where he discovers the great river and befriends the Water Rat; shortly we’re introduced to the wise and gruff Badger and the irascible Toad, a wealthy and excitable young fellow who is forever pursuing new hobbies. In terms of structure it’s a weird sort of book, based on a collection of bedtime stories Grahame used to tell his son; one chapter is a plotless description of a cosy Christmas dinner, while another (very strange) one is about an encounter Rat and Mole have with the god Pan, and it’s all loosely connected by a narrative backbone concerning Toad’s conviction for stealing a motor car, his eventual escape from prison and his return to Toad Hall, where he finds it’s been occupied by stoats and weasels who must be driven out.

The Wind in the Willows is quite reminiscent of the novels of Tolkien in the way that it idealises the English countryside; although I suppose it’s not really idealisation, because back in 1908 the countryside hadn’t yet been compromised by the plague of modernity. (There are still beautiful places in England, but few views which will not be marred by some Ballardian interloper like a motorway or a Tesco superstore.) It’s a lovely, sentimental story full of streams and meadows and flowers and narrowboats and villages.

From a modern viewpoint, though, there are a few jarringly dated moments. I’m sure it’s not what Grahame intended, but Mole and Rat are totally a gay couple. More disconcertingly – because it very much was intended, or was at least an inescapable part of Grahame’s world view – the rigid British class system is everywhere. Mole is regularly scolded for “forgetting his English” when he lapses into his working class accent, and he’s ashamed of his small and shabby house in comparison with middle class Rat’s more opulent riverside digs. More obviously, Toad is a privileged gentleman of leisure: a rich Bertie Wooster figure who spends his money on all manner of ridiculous pursuits, and escapes jail to find that – shock, horror! – his mansion is now full of working class squatters. (This also reminded me of Tolkien, when the hobbits return home from their adventures to find the Shire occupied by Saruman’s authoritarian regime. I don’t necessarily buy this, but the most amusing take I’ve read about that segment is that it’s an analogy for the British officer class returning from World War II to find the Labour Party in government.) At the end of the book the four main characters drive the weasels and stoats out of Toad Hall and back into the Wild Woods where they belong, and the last page or two talks, in a roundabout sort of way, about how those wicked animals were suitably chastened and respectful of their social betters for the rest of their lives. It’s all relatively mild stuff for its era, but still quite funny.

It reminded me quite a bit of the anthropomorphic animal tales of my own childhood: Brian Jacques’ Redwall novels, which have copped a lot of flak for what appears to be a fairly rigid racial analogy in which mice, moles, badgers and otters are unfailingly good, while rats, weasels, stoats, ferrets and foxes are – almost without exception, across twenty-two novels – evil. Besides that, the fingerprints of The Wind in the Willows are all over the Redwall series: a bucolic countryside, lavishly described meals, a battle to reclaim a country manor from verminous occupiers. I always skip introductions when I read classic novels, so it was almost too good when I looked back at it after finishing and realised that this edition’s introduction was penned by none other than Jacques himself. Here’s a taste:

Oh, those weasels! Armed with clubs and daggers, some even brandishing blunderbusses, they stalk the unwary traveller. One can instantly identify a weasel: they snarl nastily, dress in stripy jerseys and greasy waistcoats, they wear flat-peaked caps too, and carry gunnysacks marked ‘Swag’. What an unsavoury lot.

Make of that what you will.

It’s one of the contradictions of life, I suppose, being a latte-sipping Guardianista keenly aware of the injustices of the world, but nonetheless enjoying the nostalgia factor of The Good Old Days when the landed gentry enjoyed fine breakfasts in their elegant mansions, and adventure could be found in the far-flung corners of the grand British Empire. I’ll gladly criticise Brian Jacques, because he was writing in the 1990s and should have known better, but Kenneth Grahame was alive at the same time as Dickens. You can’t judge people based on their time. The Wind in the Willows, while dated in some aspects, is nonetheless a beautiful, timeless classic of children’s literature.