June Reading

Books Acquired

  • No Country For Old Men | Cormac McCarthy
  • Tasman’s Lay | Peter Hawes
  • Not Her Real Name and Other Stories | Emily Perkins
  • The Moon’s a Balloon | David Niven
  • Bring On the Empty Horses | David Niven
  • The Great Railway Bazaar | Paul Theroux
  • The Wind in the Willows | Kenneth Grahame
  • It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken | Seth
  • Trees for the New Zealand Countryside | John & Bunny Mortimer
  • The Complete Book of Baskets and Basketry | Dorothy Wright
  • The Loved One | Evelyn Waugh
  • Meetings with Remarkable Trees | Thomas Pakenham
  • The Owl That Fell From the Sky | Brian Gill

Books Read

  • The Wind in the Willows | Kenneth Grahame
  • It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken | Seth
  • The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction | Alan Jacobs [again]
  • Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down | Rosecrans Baldwin
  • Are you My Mother? | Alison Bechdel [abandoned]
  • Galileo’s Dream | Kim Stanley Robinson
I still buy books faster than I can read them. But this feels completely normal: how weird it would be to have around you only as many books as you have time to read in the rest of your life. —Julian Barnes

Although Kenneth Grahame’s 1908 The Wind in the Willows (TWITW) is usually viewed as fantasy literature, it is in fact science fiction in the style of H.G. Wells. The difference between fantasy and science fiction lies in the violation, or not, of physical laws; fantasy always contains some form of “magic”, whereas SF is a realistic portrayal of a society where one or more plausible conditions have been changed, either by setting it in the future, or in the present or past under different historical circumstances. Thus Watership Down is fantasy; The Wind in the Willows, with its internally-consistent materialist setting, is SF.

witw2It is science fiction because Grahame describes a society mirroring 1908 England, with one notable exception—the presence of human-animal hybrids living alongside, and aping in their dress and customs, human beings. The hybrids closely resemble those described in Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), monstrous creatures produced by vivisection, and book explores how these creatures assimilate into Edwardian Britain, presumably after being relocated from their island prison. Toad’s rich “father”, described by Badger as “my old friend”, may even be Moreau himself.

It is important to mention at this point that the familiar illustrations of the characters, created by Ernest H. Shepard in 1931, are somewhat inaccurate. Their apparent size, for example, varies enormously from page to page: in one depiction, three tiny animals are trying to subdue a horse, and are obvously no taller than the hub of a caravan wheel; in another, one is driving a full-sized motor car with little difficulty. Shepard is obviously not aware of their human-animal hybrid nature; for example, toads are hairless in life and in his illustrations, but Toad is twice described as hirsute (“He shook himself and combed the dry leaves out of his hair with his fingers…”, “[Toad] parted his hair in the middle, and plastered it down very straight and sleek on each side of his face…”). We should see past misleading visuals and rely on a closer reading of the text for clues to what these creatures represent.

One valid reading, for example, is that Grahame is satirising British attitudes to race and class at a time when money was turning old social distinctions topsy turvy. All four main human-animal characters are independently wealthy (from inheritance and property), and are fully accepted by neighbouring humans as a consequence, much as the pigs in Animal Farm are when they become capitalist bosses. In contrast, the hybrids who reject human society—implicitly, Western civilisation—are naked savages, living a marginal Hobbesian existence in the Wild Wood.

witw1A more interesting reading of TWITW, though, is as an allegory of gay life in Edwardian Britain. The idea of homosexuality as repressed animal nature is implicit in Stevenson’s 1896 The Strange Case of Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde. For a gay reading of Stevenson, see Colm Tóibín, LRB 34(9):3–8; in an early draft Hyde’s bestial urges included soliciting men in the street. Homoeroticism in English boarding schools was, indeed, commonly described as “beastliness”. The animal/human protagonists of TWITW are all male, the plot revolves around Toad’s skill as a “female impersonator” (in early 20th century British English, a drag queen), and Ratty and Mole’s “particular friendship”, complete with hand-holding, is the love that dare not speak its name—at least not in a book ostensibly for children.

Grahame’s satirical point seems to be that no matter how hard the protagonists try to “pass”—meticulously observing the trappings of English custom and class—they are plainly and obviously not human, condemned forever to be the Other, and able to exist only thanks an English social milieu too polite to mention their “monstrosity”. Thus we can view The Wind in the Willows, for decades mistaken for an innocent children’s story, as a science fiction allegory (and an important early influence on Animal Farm) satirising the closeted gay subculture of Edwardian Britain.

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