Archive for January, 2018

badge-4Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Linda from Silly Little Mischief that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries.

At the Strangers’ Gate by Adam Gopnik – another one off my list of 2017 new releases I didn’t get to last year.  New York during the 1980s isn’t usually something I’d have much interest in but I am interested in Gopnik.

A Beggar in Purple by Rupert Hart-Davis – having just finished the first volume of Hart-Davis’ letters with George Lyttelton, I turn now to this selection of entries from his commonplace book.

Judgement Day by Penelope Lively – I have been so looking forward to reading more Lively for a Century of Books!  Thomas at Hogglestock read this last year and thought it was one of the best novels he read all year so it seemed like a perfect place to start.

Thank You, Nelson by Nancy Spain – I’ve had this on my TBR list since 2012 when I read Ann Thwaite’s excellent biography of A.A. Milne.  In 1945 he reviewed this book, an account of Spain’s time in the WRNS, very favourably for the Sunday Times.  Since I’d like to believe A.A.M. knew a good thing when he saw it, I thought I’d finally follow his advice and give it a try.

Lagom by Niki Brantmark – I can’t help it.  I love to flip through these craze books on how X country has figured out the secret to a happy life and congratulate all the people who are making money on them.  Well done publishers.  You will never get any of my money but you do have my admiration.

Any good week at the library involves pulling a lot of random books off the shelves and bringing them home with no really firm commitment to read them this time around.  Sometimes it’s just nice to have them close to hand in case a very, very specific reading mood hits.  I brought three such books home this week:

Dear Fahrenheit 451 by Annie Spence – as we know, I cannot resist a book about books.  Here, a librarian writes letters to the books in her life.

Sourdough by Robin Sloan – I was combing through old NPR book reviews and immediately after reading a loving review for this I found it on my library’s display shelf.  Kismet.

Living the Dream by Lauren Berry – I’ve had this on my radar since Sarra Manning recommended it last summer 

What did you pick up this week?

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The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh edited by Charlotte Mosley is a doorstopper of a book.  And the five-hundred plus pages (first published in 1996 but since reissued as a Penguin Classic) become even more daunting when you realise they cover less than thirty years of correspondence between the two novelists.  But rarely are any of the pages wasted.  Mitford and Waugh write to entertain one another and, it must be said, show off.  They want to share the best gossip, make the cleverest comment, and score points in the ongoing competition that is their friendship.  The results are fabulous.

Approximately the same age (Waugh was born in 1903, Mitford in 1904), the collection begins during the Second World War.  They had become friends during the 1920s when both were dashing about London as “Bright Young Things” and the friendship had endured.  It flourished though at a distance.  As Charlotte Mosley, the book’s editor (and Mitford’s niece by marriage), states:

Concealing their feelings behind a barrage of banter, they found it easier to conduct a friendship on paper rather than in person.  When they did meet, Evelyn’s bad temper and Nancy’s sharp tongue – qualities which enhance their correspondence – often led to quarrels.

It is easy to imagine.

Waugh is plagued by a hatred for mankind but is generally sort-of kind to Mitford.  There are very few people he admits to loving and even those, like Mitford’s sister Debo, future Duchess of Devonshire, are not immune from his criticisms:

I saw Debo at the ball & took up a great deal of her time.  She was in fine looks but lacking in elegance.  The same dress she wore at her own party last year and all her friends look like recently demobilized G.I.s.  Should not a girl with her beauty, wit and high position make a bit more of herself?  (6 August 1947)

And if he really didn’t like you, watch out.  He bullied Cecil Beaton all through their school days and continued loathing him all his life.  Hamish Hamilton, poor man, was also the target of Waugh’s ire – but for absolutely no reason, as Waugh admits: “Why do I dislike him?  I don’t know him at all & he has done me no injury, but I wish him boiled in oil” (25 May 1950).  Randolph Churchill is continually derided but, to be honest, Randolph always deserves at least a bit of it.  He was quite a mess of a human being.  However, he also provides some excellent comic highlights for Waugh’s wartime letters, when the two men worked closely together:

In the hope of keeping him quiet for a few hours Freddy & I have bet Randolph £20 that he cannot read the whole Bible in a fortnight.  It would have been worth it at the price.  Unhappily it has not had the result we hoped.  He has never read any of it before and is hideously excited; keeps reading quotations aloud ‘I say I bet you didn’t know this came in the Bible “bring down my grey hairs in sorrow to the grave”’ or merely slapping his side & chortling ‘God, isn’t God a shit!’ (12 November 1944)

And, speaking of a book he’d been reading:

The last [book] I had was an attempt to whitewash Bryan Guinness called Belchamber which I enjoyed enormously.  I lent it to Randolph who was so much moved that he said he could never commit adultery again – at any rate not with the same innocent delight. (25 December 1944)

Oh Randolph.

Waugh is also not terribly keen on his children (of which he had six living – a danger of Catholicism) and constantly complained about them in his letters to Mitford.  Mitford, having suffered several miscarriages and an ectopic pregnancy that necessitated a hysterectomy, would have loved children of her own but generally cloaked her sadness in her letters to Waugh with blithe dismissals:

Don’t be depressed about your children.  Childhood is a hateful age – no trailing clouds of glory – & children are generally either prigs or gangsters & always dull & generally ugly. (7 January 1946)

The letters cover the most productive years of both authors careers and cover their great successes:  both Brideshead Revisited and The Pursuit of Love were released in 1945.  And it is around this time that they pick very different paths.  Mitford, long estranged from her husband and in love with a French colonel, moves to France and begins to make a delightful life for herself:

I wish you were here.  The food is utterly delicious, all cooked in butter, & such meat that has never seen a Frigidaire, I’d forgotten the taste.  I go for huge walks, see beautiful dream houses to buy & have seldom been more contented.  Only I must write another book, to support life, & can’t think of one.  Trollope’s Autobiography is too much to bear – how could he write all those hours every day?  (21 August 1946)

Waugh, on the other hand, remains in bleak post-war England becoming more and more cantankerous as the years go by:

I’m bored here by lack of company.  If only country neighbours would talk like Jane Austen’s characters about gossip & hobbies.  Instead they all want to know about Molotov & de Gaulle. (16 October 1946)

The geographical separation was probably a very good thing for their relationship.  They are able to gossip continually about mutual friends (especially Diana and Duff Cooper and the extended members of Mitford’s family) and, in Waugh’s case at least, provide critical feedback on the other’s writings.  What they don’t do much of is share their souls or even updates on the meaningful things going on in their own lives.  Mitford keeps her hurt over her French colonel’s disinterest in commitment to herself and Waugh just becomes a misanthrope who wants to complain about everything:

Jolly decent of you to write.  No, I am not at all busy – just senile.  Since we last met (when?) I have become an old man, not diseased but enfeebled.  I read my letters & work at The Times crossword & never set foot out of doors.  I was mildly ill in Menton in February & so spoiled Laura’s hols.  I am making up for it by taking her to Spain in October.  I don’t like the food & can’t speak the lingo & don’t much look forward to it, especially as I must write an article at the end. (6 August 1964)

Yes, he’s a funny misanthrope but such a contrast from Mitford.  She manages to remain optimistic, to find happiness in a new dress she can’t afford or something terribly Parisian she’s just encountered or a ridiculous thing a member of her family has just done (so many to choose from).  She manages to continue living and taking pleasure in that long after Waugh has given up.  It does not come as much of a surprise then when the letters end with his death in 1966, age 62.

This was my first encounter with Waugh and I can’t say it did anything to make me warm to him.  But Mitford, on the other hand, her I love even more than before.  She could write devastatingly cruel things with incredible wit but these letters show what lay on the other side of that: the warmth and optimism that sustained her.

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

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Library Lust

Bowood House (credit: Simon Upton)

Keep your large, wood-paneled libraries. This colourful, light-filled room is the one for me.

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I have a new book on my list of favourites and, much to my surprise, it’s by an author whose writing I had previously described as “a long-winded mess” and “a chore to work through to the finish”.  What is this delightful, joyful, life-changing (at least in my attitude towards its author) book you may ask?  The Flowering Thorn by Margery Sharp.

Published in 1933 (but recently reissued), the book begins several years earlier as twenty-nine-year old Lesley comes to a startling realisation after a dud of a date: she is not a woman that men fall in love with.  Yes, they flirt with her and try to get her into bed but when she meets a man she’d actually like to fall in love with – nothing.  No sparks whatsoever.  And if that is the case, she begins to wonder, what is the point of the whirlwind social life among artists and other bright young things, and the obsession with powdering, plucking, and painting herself into a modern beauty?

And so, in search of a purpose, she decides to adopt an orphaned four-year old boy (Pat) whom her aunt has unexpectedly been left in charge with.  In doing so, she realises she will have to leave her beloved London flat (no children allowed) and, at least for the next four years until he can be sent to boarding school, completely upend her well-ordered life.  It begins with a move to the country after having discovered she can’t afford anything suitable in town.  The suburbs, when suggested to her by estate agents, are completely out of the question:

Lesley listened incredulously: it was as though they advised her to try Australia.  There were the suburbs, of course, through which one occasionally passed in a car, and where people out of Punch borrowed each other’s mowers; but as for living there –

In the country, not surprisingly, everyone immediately assumes Pat is Lesley’s child.  She after all has all the markings of a frivolous, moral-less young thing likely to get herself into such a situation and then brazen it out.  It’s important to clarify the truth to a few people – the vicar and his wife, for instance, not because Lesley has taken up religion in any way but because they have four young children for Pat to play with which nicely occupies the bulk of his day – but after that Lesley couldn’t care less.  She is a practical young woman: what does it matter what the villagers think as she is only going to be there for four years?

But, inevitably as the years pass, Lesley finds herself being absorbed by country life.  She is on friendly terms with the neighbours but, most importantly, she makes a dear friend of Sir Philip, her landlord and an old school friend of her uncle’s.  Despite an awkward beginning (at their first meeting Sir Philip, a racy late Victorian at heart, was encouraged by her backless dress and painted beauty into a rather unwelcome advance) they become good friends able to speak very frankly to one another:

‘You are enjoying yourself,’ said Lesley.

Sir Philip grunted.

‘The modern woman,’ he said.  ‘Your grandmother, my dear, or even your mother, would at once have flown to my pillows.  Take some sherry.’

‘But your pillows are beautiful,’ protested Lesley, doing as she was told.  ‘Why should I come and disarrange them?’

‘Because I should like you to.  Because every man, when feeling a trifle uneasy, likes to believe that his women are feeling even more so.  It panders to our sense of superiority.’

Socially, that’s all Lesley requires.  Part of the joy of the book is that young Pat is relegated firmly to the background.  Lesley grows to care about him but, as other characters wonderingly remark, she doesn’t really love him or try to mother him.  She is simply there providing a modicum of adult supervision and, increasingly, fondness.  Lesley is much more interested in spending time with Sir Philip or making improvements to her awkward little cottage.  It is a life completely removed from the social whirlwind in which she used to exist and she blossoms.

But her London life does intrude every so often. Old friends descend on her cottage for a weekend, bringing with them noise, rudeness, and plenty of alcohol and cigarettes.  Her greatest London friend, Elissa, who “when given time to arrange her thighs, looked as thin as a toothpick”, soon forgets all about Lesley mouldering in the country and it is up to Lesley to keep up the friendship.  But encounters with her old crowd only serve to remind her how far she has drifted from them – and how happy she is to have done so.  She retains her love for London – for theatres and galleries and intellectual discussion – but is done with all the artifice of her former life.  She has figured out what matters to her and, as the book ends with Pat going off to school and Lesley regaining much of her freedom, she knows exactly how she plans to live.  And it seems her new life has room for that thing she had given up on only a few years before – love.

I adored this book.  Yes, the central message tends a little towards “reject modern womanhood and you will be healthier, happier, and more loveable” but it is so funny and so extraordinarily well written.  The completely lack of sentimentality is what really did it for me.  The premise – beautiful spinster adopts small boy – could be terrifyingly twee in another author’s hands but Sharp, who lives up to her name, wisely doesn’t try to turn Lesley into anything maternal.  In fact, Lesley almost immediately after taking charge of Pat wants to give him back.  They do not bond or say winsome things to one another, they merely get on in a spirit of peaceable companionship, each concerned with their own interests.  How wise!  I finished it completely delighted by its wit and heart and determined to read much, much more by Sharp.  Many thanks to Jane for organizing Margery Sharp Day (as part of her Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors), which gave me the impetus to read this.

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In April 1917, a not particularly important but rather enjoyable thing happened: Wurzel-Flummery by A.A. Milne premiered in London.  It was his very first play, had absolutely nothing to do with the bloody war going on, and started off a career that would establish him as one of the better-known playwrights of the time.  And most importantly, it is very, very funny.  During its initial run, the play was part of a trio of one act plays (the other two by Milne’s friend and advocate J.M. Barrie) for eight weeks and was well-reviewed “with words such as ‘witty’, ‘delightful’, and ‘brilliant’ freely used” (so Ann Thwaite tells us in her excellent biography of A.A.M.).  Exactly so.

The concept of the play is fantastical and fun: two MPs, one old and pompous (Robert), one young and earnest (Dick), are approached with an incredible offer.  A man unknown to either of them has left them each £50,000 in his will, the caveat being that they must change their respectable, well-known family names – names they have spent their careers trying to make known – to the absurd Wurzel-Flummery.

The way they approach the dilemma is typical of their characters.  Dick, the younger, has been staying with Robert’s family and has fallen in love with Viola, the daughter of the house.  Their engagement is a secret one as the play begins, largely because they are concerned how Robert will react.  He is, as Viola reminds her fiancé, not terribly keen on the younger man:

VIOLA: He said that your intellectual arrogance was only equalled by your spiritual instability.  I don’t quite know what it means, but it doesn’t sound the sort of thing you want in a son-in-law.

A man of principles and strong ideals, it is easy for Dick to reject the offer outright.  He will not compromise his honour and make himself a laughing stock!  However, bills must be paid and wives, his future one assures him, have a habit of running these up.  Soon he starts to waver.

Robert, on the other hand, brazens through.  He tries to convince himself it is a noble thing he is doing, fulfilling a dying man’s wishes and taking a good old (almost noble, really) English name – even when he’s bluntly told by the executor of the will that it is no such thing.  He is a man who can convince himself of anything to preserve his dignity – a dignity that could be much better supported if he had an extra £50,000 in the bank.

It’s a quick, sparkling play and amazing assured for someone who was just starting as a playwright.  And, delightfully, it includes one of the revealing character introductions invisible to the audience but which are to me such a characteristic element of A.A.M.’s style and always a pleasure to read:

Enter MARGARET.  MARGARET has been in love with ROBERT CRAWSHAW for twenty-five years, the last twenty four years from habit.  She is small, comfortable, and rather foolish; you would certainly call her a dear, but you might sometimes call her a poor dear.

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“Daffodils” by Arthur Baker-Clark

The sun is out here this afternoon and everyone is wandering around, staring with confusion at blue skies, shadows, and other consequences of sunlight that have become foreign to us over the last few months of near-constant rain.  Most importantly, it feels, if only for a few hours, like spring is really coming and that the snow drops aren’t just here to lure us into a false sense of optimism.  Here’s hoping.

I’ve spent an entertaining weekend acting as moral support for my mother, who, at age 63, has decided she wants to sew again after abstaining for more than thirty years.  My grandmother was extraordinarily talented and my mother once upon a time was very good herself – they may have been poor when they immigrated to Canada but they were extraordinarily well-dressed.  My mother’s powder blue jumpsuit circa 1970 is still remembered fondly by every boy/man who ever saw her in it.  However, a busy corporate career, two time-consuming children, and a healthy disposable income had my mom cheerfully turning away from her sewing machine for the last several decades.  Now semi-retired and looking for hobbies, she’s decided this is the way to go.  I remember absolutely nothing about sewing so am in no way useful but I am a cheerful and positive presence (I am told) and am enjoying the entire process immensely.

What I am expert at is reading.  I’ve been reading steadily and am entertaining myself right now by flipping back and forth between The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh and The Blue Zones of Happiness by Dan Buettner.  The Blue Zones book looks at happiness research from around the world and identifies habits, attitudes, and structures from these places that people around the world can imitate to improve their own happiness.  Evelyn Waugh could have used some of these.  In his thirties he appears to have been merely rude and intent on making several enemies per year.  As he aged, he became exceeding ornery and determined to make enemies of everyone he met.  His much more charming correspondent, however, remains sunny and optimistic even when going through her own personal struggles.  And Mitford got to live in dynamic Paris rather than dreary England so that surely helped (echoing an important lesson of Buettner’s book: it’s hard to be happy in depressing surroundings, especially when all the people you see are also miserable).

These are probably the two most interesting books I’ve read all month.  Here’s a taste of a few other things I’ve been reading that weren’t quite worthy of getting their own dedicated posts:

Yeoman’s Hospital by Helen Ashton (1944) – this story of a day in the life of a country hospital was a bit too slow moving and detailed for me.  I like the idea and the doctor characters were nicely done but the story dragged terribly every time the focus shifted to the nursing staff.  While there is no obvious war-related storyline, it’s interesting to see how social changes wrought by the war are integrated into the story.  For example, when the senior doctors are considering filling positions they remark on how the most capable young doctors available are generally women since the best men are enlisted.  This is certainly reflected in their hospital staff: one of the central characters is a very accomplished female doctor whose skills are never in doubt.  She does have a needlessly overwrought romantic life, though, which makes for one of the tiring plotlines in an already tired novel.  Definitely not Ashton’s best and easily skippable.

The Magic Apple Tree by Susan Hill (1982) – I found a book where Hill isn’t immensely annoying in every second paragraph!  This chronicle of a year of country life is beautifully observed and elegantly written.  It isn’t quite up to the standard of books like A Country Life by Roy Strong or Adrian Bell’s trilogy (starting with Corduroy) but it was a very pleasant read.  She is particularly good in writing about winter and autumn (her favourite season) and conjuring up cosy indoor scenes and spartan outdoor ones.

Miss Billy by Eleanor H. Porter (1911) – this sounded charming: the story of an eighteen-year old girl who, when her last surviving relative dies, seeks out her father’s closest friend (William) after whom she (Billy) was named.  William generously invites her to come make her home with him and his two younger brothers only realising her gender when he goes to meet her at the train station.  Cute, yes?  In execution, it’s awfully bad.  Billy is annoying from her first appearance, not a single character is fleshed out enough to ever become interesting, and the plot is both flimsy and absurd.  Billy is paired up with each of the brothers at one point or another and it’s all very unconvincing.  The main point in the book’s favour is how short it is and I finished it with relief.  What is truly horrifying is that there are two sequels!

There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather by Linda Åkeson McGurk (2017) – McGurk, Swedish by birth, was living and raising her children in Indiana with her American husband when her father became ill.  Wanting to be closer to him while he went through treatment, she moved to Sweden for six months with her two daughters while her husband remained in America.  Having been frustrated by how difficult it was to get her girls in America to enjoy the outdoorsy lifestyle she grew up with (concerned neighbours often stopped their cars to offer her a life when they saw her – well dressed for the elements – out walking in rain, snow or cold weather) she is excited to see how they will react to life in Sweden, where active lifestyles are the norm and schools prioritize outdoor playtime.

The verdict?  The secret to Swedish parenting is to make your children go outside in all weather and to teach them from childhood to enjoy nature as part of their daily life.  I grew up and live in a very outdoorsy place so there was lots familiar from the Swedish approach but the institutional issues McGurk saw in the US education system (particularly reduced time for outdoor play during recess and lunchtimes) are definitely things we’re seeing – with concern – here in Canada as well.  Overall, very entertaining and sensible.

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Library Lust

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I love this. I have no particular dreams to move to Paris but if I could be guaranteed this apartment I’d consider it.  All that light and all those bookshelves!

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badge-4Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Linda from Silly Little Mischief that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries.

There is a clear theme to my loot this week: correspondence.  I am delighted to live in the age of book blogs, where I can instantly communicate with so many people around the world about what we are all reading, but I do think our blogs (like all things good and bad about the internet) came about at the expense of detailed, intelligent letter writing and the relationships built around such correspondence.  I can just about manage to put aside my disappointment at the lost art of literary letter writing as long as I have plenty of other people’s letters to read – even if they aren’t written to me.

Sylvia and David: The Townsend Warner/Garnett Letters edited by Richard Garnett – Remember how I spent my whole review of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Diaries saying how much better her letters were?  Time for even more letters now, this time between STW and David Garnett (author of Lady Into Fox).

The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh edited by Charlotte Mosley – so glorious!  I am halfway through these gossipy, snobby letters and am enjoying every second.  But wasn’t Waugh awful?

The Lyttelton Hart-Davis Letters, Vol 1 – In 1955, when retired Eton master Lyttelton complained that no one wrote to him anymore his former pupil, publisher and editor Rupert Hart-Davis, “accepted his challenge.”  They kept up a vigorous correspondence until Lyttelton’s death in 1962 which eventually filled 6 volumes.  As someone who adores reading letters – particularly between such educated correspondents – this has been recommended to me time and again.

How I Came to Know Fish by Ota Pavel – a collection of poignant stories inspired by the author’s childhood in Czechoslovakia between the wars.

Resistance is Futile by Jenny T. Colgan – Math jokes and aliens and rom com moments (plus lots of Doctor Who references) made this a very fun read (I sped through it as soon as I brought it home).

There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather by Linda Åkeson McGurk – It is now the Scandinavians, not the French, who know everything about how children should be raised.  I find books like these deeply entertaining to read as I have no children to worry about messing up either way.

Journey’s End by R.C. Sherriff – This glimpse into an officers’ dugout in March 1918 remains a highly-regarded piece of war writing and one of the most enduring plays of the 1920s.

The Flowering Thorn by Margery Sharp – Jane has put together a birthday book of underappreciated lady authors, highlighting authors whose works she wants to read more of and whom she thinks deserve a little more attention.  This month – on January 25th – she’ll be celebrating the birthday of Margery Sharp and I thought I’d join in.  I’ve had mixed feelings about Sharp in the past but think I’ve picked an excellent on this time (on the recommendation of my favourite Sharp aficionado).

Heidi’s Alp by Christina Hardyment – I’ve had this memoir about children’s literature-inspired travels in Europe on my to-be-read list since early 2013 (when Danielle read it).  Looks like an interesting twist on the regular travel memoir!

Travellers in the Third Reich by Julia Boyd – I finally got my hands on this!  You may recall it from my list of 2017 releases I hoped to get to in 2018 so I’m understandably excited to start reading.

The Blue Zones of Happiness by Dan Buettner – I find happiness research endlessly fascinating.

Swans on an Autumn River by Sylvia Townsend Warner – I’m clearly in a STW mood this month and am excited to read this collection of short stories.  Simon read this late in 2017 and enjoyed it so much it made his Best Books of 2017 list – definitely a promising sign!

What did you pick up this week?

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Library Lust

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I feel like this room has all the random things you may never have thought to put in your library.  Zebra rug?  Check.  Portrait of a yellow lab?  Check.  Exquisite red chairs that I would happily steal but which would probably be super uncomfortable for lengthy reading?  Double check.


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When I first did A Century of Books back in 2012, I discovered a) that I love reading plays and b) that I adore A.A. Milne.  The two discoveries were not unrelated: I read 15 plays by Milne that year and 22 of his works in total.  But still my work was not finished – there is plenty of Milne still left for me to read, including a number of his plays.  I hope to spread them out through the year but have started with one of his earliest, The Boy Comes Home, a one-act play from 1918.

Twenty-three-year-old Philip has spent the last four years serving as an officer in France.  Now, with the war just over, he finds himself back in his Uncle James and Aunt Emily’s house, living yet again under his uncle’s rules – a strange place for a man who has spent the last four years giving orders and growing up very fast.  Philip, as we are introduced to him, is very much one of Milne’s charming young men, tossing off amusing dialogue while displaying general contentment and disinclination to be ruffled:

EMILY: And did you have a good breakfast?  Naughty boy to be late for it.  I always thought they had to get up so early in the army.

PHILIP: They do.  That’s why they’re so late when they get out of the army.

EMILY: Dear me!  I should have thought a habit of four years would have stayed with you.

PHILIP: Every morning for four years, as I’ve shot out of bed, I’ve said to myself, “Wait!  A time will come.” [Smiling] That doesn’t really give a habit a chance.

Uncle James and Aunt Emily are rather different.  I always love reading Milne’s plays for his authorial asides, descriptions and stage directions.  In this case, I loved his descriptions of these characters: Aunt Emily is “a kind-hearted mid-Victorian lady who has never had any desire for the vote” while Uncle James, Philip’s guardian and withholder of his inheritance until he reaches the age of twenty-five, is “not a big man, nor an impressive one in his black morning-coat; and his thin straggly beard, now going grey, does not hide a chin of any great power; but he has a severity which passes for strength with the weak.”

Uncle James, a profitable jam producer, is very much a man who wants things done his own way – we know this even before he appears since Philip’s request for breakfast at ten upset the entire household, who know that breakfast is only ever served at half past eight.  More crucially, he is one who feels he has made plenty of sacrifices over the last four years so can’t be expected to feel much sympathy for his soldier nephew, as he reminds his wife:

JAMES: I don’t want to boast, but I think I may claim to have done my share.  I gave up my nephew to my country, and I  – er – suffered from the shortage of potatoes to an extent that you probably didn’t realise.  Indeed, if it hadn’t been for your fortunate discovery about that time that you didn’t really like potatoes, I don’t know how we should have carried on.  And, as I think I’ve told you before, the excess-profits tax seemed to me a singularly stupid piece of legislation – but I paid it.  And I don’t go on boasting about how much I paid.

Frustrated by his nephew’s lackadaisical ways (breakfast at ten in the morning!  I ask you!), Uncle James is eager to lay down the law when he invites Philip into his study to discuss the younger man’s career plans now that he is out of the army.  What ensues is either a fantastical nightmare or a bizarre act of intimidation by a cunning and deeply disturbed young man.  Uncle James will never be quite sure and nor will we.

Milne, like Philip, had served in France but for nowhere near as long – he had been invalided back to England after the Somme (in 1916) and spent the rest of the war on desk duties.  But he knew what it was like out there and knew the good and the bad that it did to young men.  And he certainly knew the relief young Philip feels when it is all over:

PHILIP: Uncle James, do you realise that I’m never going to salute again, or wear a uniform, or get wet – really wet, I mean – or examine men’s feet, or stand to attention when I’m spoken to, or – oh, lots more things.  And, best of all, I’m never going to be frightened again.

Though he had been writing professionally for more than a decade when The Boy Comes Home was published, Milne had only published his first play (Wurzel-Flummery) the year before, in 1917.  It was a form he excelled at; he proved to be extremely successful as a playwright (it is what made him famous even before he began writing for children) and, particularly in the 1920s, extraordinarily prolific.  The Boy Comes Home is not quite as skilled as the charming Belinda (also from 1918) but it does show an attempt to engage with more serious subjects.  While this is only a minor effort, it’s a fascinating glimpse into the mind of an ex-soldier at the end of the Great War and an equally fascinating step in Milne’s progression towards mastery of the form.

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