My last two posts have demonstrated, beyond a reasonable doubt, the pervasive and thematically significant allusive presence of A.A. Milne’s The Red House Mystery in the shadows of the storyline of Julian Fellowes’s Downton Abbey. As a bonus, this post will demonstrate the additional presence, in those increasingly crowded shadows, of one of Milne’s literary icons, Kenneth Grahame.
In late 2011, BBC News ran the following story:
“Julian Fellowes is to write a new musical adaptation of Kenneth Grahame's novel The Wind in the Willows. …Fellowes said: "The Wind in the Willows is one of our greatest classics and as true and entertaining now as it has ever been….I am delighted and tremendously flattered to have been asked to write the book [narrative] for the new musical. In fact, I suspect this is something I've been wanting to do subconsciously for many years.…The book itself is packed with music and songs so I can't wait to find the sounds to score Ratty, Mole, Badger, Toad and their adventures."
That announcement coincided with the airing in the UK of Season Two of Downton Abbey, as to which Wikipedia alerts us to the following:
“In Season 2, Episode 2 of Downton Abbey, the Dowager Countess says to Lady Edith Crawley, "Edith! You're a lady, not Toad of Toad Hall!," after Lady Edith announces at dinner that she has volunteered to operate a tractor at a nearby farm because the men who normally operate it are away fighting in World War I.”
As I will now quickly outline, this was no coincidence!
Countess Violet Crawley seems to be alluding to Toad of Toad Hall, AA Milne’s famous adaptation of Grahame’s classic:
Wikipedia: “Toad of Toad Hall is the first of several dramatisations of Kenneth Grahame's 1908 novel The Wind in the Willows. The Wind in the Willows tells the story of Mole, Ratty and Badger and their adventures in the beautiful, rural landscape of Edwardian England, with much of the action focusing on the comic antics of aristocratic wastrel Mr Toad….Toad of Toad Hall was written by A. A. Milne [in 1921, but not staged until 1929], with incidental music by Harold Fraser-Simson.
Milne extracted the adventures of Mr. Toad (which form only about half of the original book) because they lent themselves most easily to being staged. Milne loved Grahame's book, which is one of the reasons he decided to adapt it. The play has four main characters: Rat, Badger, Mole, and Toad. Toad's caravan and car adventures are included, as well as his imprisonment, escape, and subsequent fight with the weasels and stoats to regain his home with the help of his friends. Although not a musical, the play contains six songs.”
However, I was deeply puzzled by Fellowes’s allusion, because it would mean that he had been guilty of anachronism. I.e. , how could the Dowager Countess, speaking in 1916, be referring to Milne’s dramatization, as if Edith should know what she was talking about, if Milne would not even be writing his adaptation of Grahame till 1921 and it would not be performed publicly until 1929?
That sort of sloppiness would be utterly inconsistent with the extraordinary meticulousness of historical detail that Downton Abbey prides itself on, as is amply demonstrated in “The Manners of Downton Abbey”, the documentary aired 6 weeks ago on PBS, which gave us all an in depth behind the scenes look at the crucial role of social historian Alastair Bruce in making sure every single onscreen detail was historically accurate.
Then it occurred to me, somehow the Dowager Countess must have been referring, not to Milne’s adaptation, but all the way back to Grahame’s original story! And sure enough, when I searched for the phrase “Toad of Toad Hall” within Grahame’s 1908 text, I was led unerringly to the following smoking gun, a bit of dialog spoken by Mr. Toad himself:
'Yes, yes, that's all right; thank you very much indeed,' said the Toad hurriedly. 'But look here! you wouldn't surely have Mr. TOAD, OF TOAD HALL, going about the country disguised as a washerwoman!'
Bingo!!!! It turns out that there is no anachronism at all. Fellowes, who at that very moment was engaging himself to adapt Grahame’s original work, was spinning off a sly bit of midrash on it in Downton Abbey.I.e., Violet Crawley—who, it seems to me, is Fellowes’s alter ego for expression of his elegantly satirical sense of humor--- was merely demonstrating her quick wit and accurate literary knowledge, by suggesting that Edith taking on the role of a tractor operator would be as much of a fish (or toad) out of water as Mr. Toad disguised as a washerwoman!
When I reviewed the entire chapter in Grahame’s text surrounding Mr. Toad’s haughty ejaculation, the reason for his disguise as a washerwoman became immediately clear—he was in prison, and it was the daughter of a washer woman who proposed the following daring escape plan to him:
“One morning the girl was very thoughtful, and answered at random, and did not seem to Toad to be paying proper attention to his witty sayings and sparkling comments.
'Toad,' she said presently, 'just listen, please. I have an aunt who is a washerwoman.'
'There, there,' said Toad, graciously and affably, 'never mind; think no more about it. I have several aunts who ought to be washerwomen.'
'Do be quiet a minute, Toad,' said the girl. 'You talk too much, that's your chief fault, and I'm trying to think, and you hurt my head. As I said, I have an aunt who is a washerwoman; she does the washing for all the prisoners in this castle—we try to keep any paying business of that sort in the family, you understand. She takes out the washing on Monday morning, and brings it in on Friday evening. This is a Thursday. Now, this is what occurs to me: you're very rich—at least you're always telling me so—and she's very poor. A few pounds wouldn't make any difference to you, and it would mean a lot to her. Now, I think if she were properly approached— squared, I believe is the word you animals use —you could come to some arrangement by which she would let you have her dress and bonnet and so on, and you could escape from the castle as the official washerwoman. You're very alike in many respects—particularly about the figure.'
'We're not,' said the Toad in a huff. 'I have a very elegant figure—for what I am.'
'So has my aunt,' replied the girl, 'for what she is. But have it your own way. You horrid, proud, ungrateful animal, when I'm sorry for you, and trying to help you!'
'Yes, yes, that's all right; thank you very much indeed,' said the Toad hurriedly. 'But look here! you wouldn't surely have MR. TOAD, OF TOAD HALL, going about the country disguised as a washerwoman!'
'Then you can stop here as a Toad,' replied the girl with much spirit. 'I suppose you want to go off in a coach-and-four!'
Honest Toad was always ready to admit himself in the wrong. 'You are a good, kind, clever girl,' he said, 'and I am indeed a proud and a stupid toad. Introduce me to your worthy aunt, if you will be so kind, and I have no doubt that the excellent lady and I will be able to arrange terms satisfactory to both parties.' END QUOTE FROM WIND IN THE WILLOWS
And, as with the sophisticated complex allusion to Iago hidden in plain sight in Downton Abbey, this turns out to be an equally subtle and apt allusion---it has been shown since the beginning of the series that Edith repeatedly experiences her life as a privileged heiress at Downton Abbey, and more generally as a woman living in sexist Edwardian England, as a metaphorical prison from which she would wish to escape.
And this theme is still being played out in Season 5, more saliently than ever, as Edith’s “crime” against the societal norm prohibiting sex outside marriage is on the verge of being revealed, with some sort of “punishment” imposed on her!
So, to those who think that Downton Abbey is a mere frothy confection designed to appeal to as wide an audience as possible by playing up its own soap opera aspects, think again—Julian Fellowes is once again having his commercial cake and eating his literary cake too!
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P.S.: I do not have the DVD of Season 2 of Downton Abbey that includes commentary, so if anyone does, I would be grateful if you’d listen to that scene, and see if Fellowes or any other commentator happens to refer to the above-discussed scene as being derived from the prison escape scene in Grahame’s novel.