Downton Abbey
Critical Contexts

By Category By Season Assignment

"Edith Crawley and J. Thaddeus Toad: Tradition vs. Change"

Caitlin Messer (Spring 2014)

The Dowager Countess of Downton Abbey is well known for her quick wit and hilarious one-liners. While the things that she says are quite funny, many contain great insight into the characters and drama of Downton Abbey. Her remark about Edith driving a tractor is no exception. When the Dowager Countess learns that Edith has volunteered to drive a tractor for a local farmer in the second episode of the second season, she has definite opinions. Aghast, Lady Violet admonishes Edith, “you are not Toad of Toad Hall.” By comparing Edith to the radical character of J. Thaddeus Toad from The Wind in the Willows, Lady Violet brings up a major theme of the conflict between tradition and change in the show. If this conflict is viewed through Edith, the series asks us to be on the side of change. While there is potential for Edith to be in support of either tradition or change, her personal desire trumps the pull of tradition.

The Wind in the Willows and more specifically the character of J. Thaddeus Toad represents a struggle between tradition and change similar to the conflict we see throughout Downton Abbey. Written by Kenneth Grahame and published in 1909, The Wind in the Willows follows the tale of Rat, Mole, Badger, and most famously, J. Thaddeus Toad, a wealthy estate owner in early 20th century England. Toad is constantly looking for the next fad and his actions are purely selfish in nature. At the beginning of The Wind in the Willows Toad purchases a canary-yellow gipsy caravan in which he plans to travel the open road: “Here to-day, up and off to somewhere else to-morrow! Travel, change, interest, excitement! The whole world before you, and a horizon that is always changing” (Grahame 21). Toad is a proponent of change. He rejects the traditional role that Rat, Mole, and Badger try to convince him to fill. When Toad first sees a car, he contracts “motor-mania,” and no one can persuade him to change his mind. Toad ends up sneaking away from his friends, stealing a car, and being sentenced to twenty-three years in prison. While there are major consequences for his actions, Toad continues to advocate for change through his self-centered desires and decisions. However, by the conclusion of the novel, Toad has apologized for his behavior and learned to accept his place in traditional society. While the end of The Wind in the Willows resolves the conflict of tradition versus change on the side of tradition, Toad’s character will always be remembered as a radical proponent of change.      

The claim that Toad’s self-centered behavior is one of his most memorable character traits is evidenced through early reviews of the novel. Some reviews, like the one for the New York Times in 1913, expressed disappointment. The review called The Wind in the Willows “incongruous” and “grotesque,” finding the “bare realism” of the novel to be “disappointing” (Current Fiction).The reviewer went on to describe Toad’s penchant for change and excitement as “luxurious indulgence” (Current Fiction). A week after this review was published a letter to the editor appeared to counter these claims. The letter countered that no one could dislike “the delightful pompousness of ‘Great Mr. Toad’” (Lucas). Both reviews referenced Toad’s “indulgent” and “pompous” behavior, proving that it was Toad’s selfish motivation for change that stood out in the eyes of the reader.  

Even seventy-four years after its publication, The Wind in the Willows continues to provide grounds on which the conflict between change and tradition could flourish. When the novel came out of copyright on January 1, 1983 the English Tourist Board took prints from The Wind in the Willows, and used them to advertise “ancient monuments and small villages virtually untouched by social and economic change” (Watkins 34): “The advertisements, which depicted Toad, Mole, or Rat riding in a vintage car or consulting a map on their way to a castle, bore the slogan ‘The Real England: Make a Break for it’” (Watkins 34). Conversely, the Shell Oil Company utilized the same images with a goal of promoting travel by means of automobiles, a major symbol of both social change and Toad’s selfish desires. The uses of images from The Wind in the Willows in advertisements that encourage clinging to tradition as well as embracing change illustrate the complicated nature of the struggle between change and tradition in the novel. The image of the infamous “motorcar” that both organizations used, calls to mind not the ending of the novel, but the spirit of adventure that the motorcar represents. Even today, Mr. Toad is remembered for his adventurous spirit and selfish motivations.

This background on the character of Mr. Toad makes the reference to Toad of Toad Hall in Downton Abbey all the more significant. The reference occurs in the second episode of Season Two. World War has broken out, Edith decides to learn to drive the car, and Branson agrees to teach her. When Edith discovers that a local farmer has lost all of his help to the war and couldn’t even plow his own fields, she decides to step in and help by driving the tractor. When Edith’s decision is brought up one night at dinner, the Dowager Countess is appalled. She exclaims: “Edith! You are not Toad of Toad Hall!”  What Violet means isn’t that Edith is not behaving like Toad but that Edith shouldn’t behave like Toad of Toad Hall. Violet’s tone makes it clear that she does not approve of the antics of J. Thaddeus Toad. Her condescending tone further implies that she disapproves of Edith’s plan as well. The situation of the quote within the series comes at a time when tradition versus change is a major concern. This moment sets up a lens through which to view Edith’s actions through the end of season four.

After Violet’s comparison of Edith to Mr. Toad, Edith becomes more like the character the Dowager Countess disapproves of. She begins rejecting traditional societal norms right and left. First she drives the tractor for the farmer, then she becomes involved in a relationship with him that is seen as objectionable on several levels. Tradition demands that Edith not be romantically involved with someone below her rank and all levels of society discourage relations between single ladies and married men. Edith chooses to reject the pull of traditionalism and make a decision that could only have negative consequences both for her and the farmer. Her choice does not benefit anyone except herself. The situation with the farmer quickly came to an end, but Edith refused to be contained by tradition. After being left at the altar, Edith begins writing a newspaper column where she is able to express her views and not be limited by her sex. Edith further becomes involved in a romantic relationship with another married man, Michael Gregson, the editor of the paper she is writing for. As the seasons go on, Edith becomes more and more like Toad as she rejects the power of tradition in favor of the freedom of personal choice. While Lady Edith is influenced by the pull of tradition during the first three seasons of Downton Abbey, she also makes a lot of decisions that look toward change.

This development of Edith’s character toward willful defiance of tradition for personal desires is best illustrated by the events of the fourth season. She deals with the knowledge of her pregnancy by herself until it is no longer possible to conceal. Although she is influenced by Rosamund and the Dowager Countess  in her decision of travelling to France and giving the baby up for adoption, she ends the fourth season by making a bold decision. Deciding to bring her baby to the estate at Downton Abbey is a highly risky choice. It goes against what is in the best interest of Edith’s family. The entire Crawley family has something to lose if it is discovered that Edith had a child out of wedlock, especially if the child is being hidden right on Crawley property. The decision to bring the child back to Downton is arguably not in the best interest of the child either. Rosamund mentions in one of the episodes that the baby will have a better life in France than Edith can give her hidden away at Downton Abbey. Even though Edith knew that her decision would not be supported by her family, especially the Dowager Countess, she chooses to do it anyway, motivated by her own selfish desires. Reflecting on the fourth season, and the series as a whole, we see that the majority of Edith’s decisions that defy tradition are done for her own personal desires rather than for the good of others.

Using the lens of Toad of Toad Hall to view the conflict between tradition and change in Downton Abbey, the series seems to ask the audience to be on the side of change when motivated with personal desire. The conflict between tradition and change, one of the biggest themes in Downton Abbey, is perfectly illustrated in Kenneth Grahame’s character, J. Thaddeus Toad.  By comparing Edith to Mr. Toad, the Dowager Countess provides a new lens through which to view Edith’s character and the series as a whole. The Wind in the Willows’ ability to perfectly capture the tension between tradition and change allows us examine the world of Downton Abbey in an important way. By viewing Edith’s decisions in light of Toad’s character, the series asks us to take the side of change over tradition because of the importance of personal desire in decision making.            

Works Cited

“Current Fiction.” New York Times. 2 November 1913: pg BR600. Proquest. Web. 3 April 2014.

Downton Abbey. Masterpiece Theatre. PBS. KTWU, Topeka. Television.

Grahame, Kenneth. The Wind in the Willows. New York: Barnes and Noble. 2012. Print.

Lucas, Anne E. “Views of Readers.” New York Times. 9 November 1913. Proquest. Web. 3 April 2014.

Watkins, Tony."'Making a Break for the Real England': The River Banks Revisited." Children’s Literature Association 9.1 (1984): 34-35. Proquest. Web. 30 March 2014.

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