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Mr. Badger’s Family History

On the most unusual character in The Wind in the Willows.

I have recently embarked on a campaign to civilize the natives who live on my land—that is to say, my children—with a program of collective prayer and improving reading. (Reading aloud; the natives remain illiterate.) We have started Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, one of the few children’s books I have read more than once as an adult. The genteel life and manners of the river-bankers will, I think, prove an ideal introduction to the pleasures of settled existence for these savage peoples.

As a rule, I dislike the game I think of as “interpretation unto fanfic”—finding your pet subjects in a text and coming up with extravagant explanations justifying why they are there. English-speaking Catholics, who are aliens in their own tongue, tend to be especially guilty of this; in certain quarters, the theory that Billy Shakes was a Catholic persists on pretty thin evidence. (Do you really think the man who wrote King John had anything but unsophisticated Anglican feelings about praemunire?)

So it is with some trepidation that I put forward what follows. Upon rereading The Wind in the Willows, my conviction has grown only stronger that Mr. Badger of the Wild Wood comes from a very old Catholic recusant family.

Enthusiasts will remember that the climactic Battle of Toad Hall is won with a sneak attack enabled by Badger’s knowledge of secret passage leading into the butler’s pantry at that residence. That passage had been disclosed to Badger by Toad’s father. “Your father,” he explains to Toad, “was a particular friend of mine, and told me a great deal he wouldn't have dreamt of telling you. He discovered that passage—he didn't make it, of course; that was done hundreds of years before he ever came to live there—and he repaired it and cleaned it out, because he thought it might come in useful some day.” A secret passage leading from the servants’ corridors at a great house built some centuries before the reign of Edward VII—Badger is clearly describing a priest hole, an escapeway for Catholic priests celebrating secret Masses for the remaining English faithful.

Why is Badger the only person Toad père consults about the priest hole?

Consider then the description of Badger’s home in the Wood. It is on the site of an ancient town, ruinous, and far removed from the fashionable world of the River Bank, the kind of dwelling for a very old and once-prominent family that can no longer keep up; what’s more, it is in a neighborhood mostly populated with the more turbulent races of creatures, the stoats and weasels, whom Badger is expected to keep in good English order. Consider Badger’s own social bearing: While he is regarded as a local grandee, a cut above even the gentry-class Otter, Rat, and Toad, he mostly eschews their company (“Simply hates Society!”), and has oddly low manners. (He drinks his tea from a saucer.) His family’s position is both visibly elevated and isolated. What class of people had such a place in the England of 1908?

Did Grahame actually write Badger as the animal equivalent of old recusant stock? It is impossible to say. Yet it does not seem far-fetched for the author of Pagan Papers and Dream Days, an old boy of the notoriously Anglo-Catholic St. Edward’s School in Oxford, a friend of Beardsley and a contributor to the Yellow Book who (as both his published writing and his correspondence shows) remained fascinated by the Church throughout his life.

I always think of Grahame as the great Edwardian, a collector of types in that happy sunset of a civilization—the foppish Toad and Otter, the artistic Rat, the liberal Mole (an admirer of Garibaldi!). Why should not Badger be another type conspicuous in the era, the shabby-genteel Catholic aristocrat? It was under the rule of jolly King Bertie, Ronald Knox’s formative years, that optimists could field the last hopes of a corporate reunion between Canterbury and Rome. Eduardus Rex himself maintained Catholic devotions to Our Lady, whose medal he would wear and whose shrine at Lourdes he would visit from Biarritz—rumors have it that he was something rather more than an Anglican on his deathbed. And now rumors will have it that Mr. Badger was something rather more, too.

We leave it as an exercise for the reader to show that Mole is clearly a Methodist.