the politics of Wind in the Willows

I recently read Kenneth Grahame’s classic to my 9-year-old. As you may remember, Toad is the heir to the local manor and fortune and the one character in the neighborhood with an advanced education. He begins as an awful person–arrogant, selfish, pretentious, wasteful, lazy, and a menace on the road. He takes some hard knocks and finally learns to be a good squire. His transformation is shown by two major signs: his behavior at a banquet in his own Hall, and his friendships. Whereas in the bad old days Toad used to make risibly arrogant speeches at dinner parties, the new Toad, “by pressing delicacies on his guests, by topical small talk, and by earnest inquiries after members of their families not yet old enough to appear at social functions, managed to convey that this dinner was being run on strictly conventional lines.” Meanwhile, he shows genuine respect and admiration for his three main friends–the acknowledged best of whom, Mr Badger, speaks with a notably uneducated accent and dresses roughly.

(As for Toad’s friend Mole–he is a wonderful caricature of a provincial middle-class suburbanite. “On the walls [of his garden] hung wire baskets with ferns in them, alternating with brackets carrying plaster statuary–Garibaldi, and the infant Samuel, and Queen Victoria, and other heroes of modern Italy.”)

This is a conservative vision. No one gains any rights vis-à-vis Mr. Toad. He is not compelled to act better, nor to renounce any of his wealth or prestige. He isn’t (for example) taxed to fund better education for the myriad little rabbits who live in the Wild Wood. Instead, he helps to restore the ancient social equilibrium by acting responsibly and generously and thereby winning the respect of the neighborhood.

It’s not my ideal. I’m glad the real Mr. Toads of England had to pay inheritance taxes, and the real Moles and Rats got subsidized access to higher education. But The Wind in the Willows has a moral core as well as charm. In our era of billionaire celebrity heiresses, we could do worse.