When my friend Nigel, who was brought up in England, asked me what my favorite book was, I said it was Wind in the Willows.
“I didn’t know you were a Tory at heart,” he replied.
I didn’t know what he was talking about.
I was seven when I first read Wind in the Willows. I laughed at Toad and wanted his friends to reclaim Toad Hall from those nasty ferrets, stoats, and weasels. And every time I read the book – again and again, each year well into my forties – I never questioned its politics.
How could I have missed it? Grahame makes us love Toad when maybe we shouldn’t. Toad carelessly cracks up one car after another. He treats those of lesser station imperiously. It’s funny when he has to get out of jail wearing a laundress’s dress, and it’s not just because he’s in drag (a laundress’s dress! On a squire!). He is a spoiled, undeserving megalomaniac. Grahame also makes us hate those weasels, stoats, and ferrets who take over Toad Hall. I realize now that they embody conservatives’ fear of disorder at the time Wind in the Willows was published (1905) and presage the proles of the Russian Revolution who took over the houses of the rich not long after.
To me, an American kid growing up in the 1930s and 1940s in New Jersey, who saw how ducks dabbled in the pond outside the dairy, who loved a little river with its grassy banks, and who spent hours in a woods with sentinel trees that could have been Pan’s home (I even called myself a pantheist) – well, the politics went completely over my head. The landscape that Toad, Ratty, Badger, and the other animals populated was so like the place where I lived that I never saw the differences between those English animals and me.
I then had a notion of class and privilege that seems, in retrospect, very confused. We little girls wanted to be princesses, even as we realized, uneasily, that we were no more princesses than we were Shirley Temple, and even as we puzzled over those real English princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret Rose, so near our age, who seemed nothing at all like the princesses in fairy tales: they were just sturdy little girls and not the prettiest. My brother, my sister, and I played with rich kids at their houses up on Chestnut Ridge Road. They seldom came to ours. We didn’t go skiing in the Laurentians – they did, and we knew why. I remember asking my mother if I had peasant hands (and that was not a good thing) when I found it difficult to span an octave. Still, in spite of those stubby fingers, I knew that I was as smart (if not smarter) as those rich kids and I thought I could grow up to do anything I wanted to.
It never occurred to me to aspire to be Toad, even though I was fond of him. My identification was with Ratty, a good and ordinary guy (and a peasant?). I was too young to imagine myself as wise Badger. A weasel? Certainly not. It never entered my mind that the main characters in Wind in the Willows were all male.
What does this say? That children read differently from adults, that I can be very dense, that fiction has insidious power? Maybe all three.