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Archive for the ‘A.A. Milne’ Category

Reading The Truth About Blayds by A.A. Milne, I had no difficultly understanding why it was one of Milne’s favourites of his many plays.  Written in 1920, during his most productive period, it is devoted to the thing he loved to write about most: middle class struggles with morality.  And, for once, that struggle doesn’t take the form of bigamy, something we can only be thankful for (see Mr Pim Passes By, Michael and Mary, and, to some extent, Belinda for Milne’s delight in that subject).

We open on the household of Blayds, the great Victorian poet, the (as some call him) “Supreme Songster of an Earlier Epoch”.  His family is gathering to celebrate his birthday, which is delightful because it gives Milne a chance to introduce them all one at a time.  Milne excels at character descriptions in his stage directions and he surpasses his usual genius here.  Those gathering include Blayds’ two adult daughters, his grandson and granddaughter, and his overly attentive son-in-law.  It is for this son-in-law that Milne truly shines:

William Blayds-Conway was obviously meant for the Civil Service.  His prim neatness, his gold pince-nez, his fussiness would be invaluable in almost any Department.  However, running Blayds is the next best thing to running the Empire.

Can’t you just picture him?  A man who not only added his wife’s name to his own upon marriage but who has made it his life’s work to serve as secretary to his great father-in-law, curating every slip of paper that has passed through Blayds’ blessed hands, recording every word he utters in order to capture the brilliance for posterity.  Blayds, old but no fool, can see exactly what his son-in-law is doing and what the future will bring, as he explains to a birthday visitor, Mr Royce:

Blayds: My son-in-law, Mr Royce, meditates after my death a little book called “Blaydsiana.”  He hasn’t said so, but I see it written all over him.  In addition, you understand, to the official life in two volumes.  There may be another one called “On the Track of Blayds in the Cotswolds” but I am not certain of this yet.

While Mr Blayds-Conway is happy to have his life’s direction set by his relationship to Blayds, his children are not.  Both daughter and son feel that they are held slightly captive, particularly twenty-something Oliver who has found himself working in politics despite his love of mechanics:

Oliver: Do you think I want to be a private secretary to a dashed politician?  What’s a private secretary at his best but a superior sort of valet?  I wanted to be a motor engineer.  Not allowed.  Why not?  Because the Blayds in Blayds-Conway wouldn’t have been any use.  But politicians simply live on that sort of thing.

They need to live up to the Blayds name and find that takes quite a lot of work.

But then the critical discovery is made that Blayds’ fame is based on a grand deception.  This comes after his death so there are many things for the family consider.  Money, legacy, and the value of their own name all weigh heavily as they try to decide what to do.  Perhaps the Blayds name wasn’t such a curse, not really, not when it came with respect and a healthy income, and served to open so many doors into the best places.  As the Blayds-Conway family members rationalise their selfish instincts into a protective cocoon of moral comfort, Blayds’ younger daughter and the journalist Conway can only look on in amazement and repulsion.

It’s all very neatly done, with excellent dialogue throughout and a tidy ending, but it doesn’t have as much heart as Milne’s best plays.  Here it seems the concept was very much the thing, not the characters.  He carries it off very well but I still longed for the world of The Great Broxopp or, bigamy and all, Michael and Mary, with real-feeling characters.

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The Great Broxopp by A.A. Milne is often referred to as prophetic.  Written in 1921, it features a man who feels his life has been blighted by his father’s commercial success with the baby food he used his infant son to advertise.  Milne’s own son was still an infant when this was written – years away from being immortalized as Christopher Robin – but the parallels are very clear.  But, sadly for Milne, the fictional son is much more forgiving than his real one would one day be.

The play opens, perfectly, on young Mrs Broxopp conferring with her maid of all work, giving instant insight into the family finances:

Nancy: Yes, Mary?

Mary: It’s about the dinner, ma’am.

Nancy: (With a sigh.) Yes, I was afraid it was.  It isn’t a very nice subject to talk about, is it, Mary?

Mary: Well, ma’am, it has its awkwardness like.

Nancy: (After a pause, but not very hopefully.) How is the joint looking?

Mary: Well, it’s past looking like anything very much.

Nancy: Well, there’s the bone.

Mary: Yes, there’s the bone.

Nancy: (Gaily.) Well, there we are, Mary.  Soup.

Mary: If you remember, ma’am, we had soup yesterday.

Nancy: (Wistfully.) Couldn’t you – couldn’t you squeeze it again, Mary?

Mary: It’s past squeezing, ma’am – in this world.

Broxopp, you see, is not yet great.  But the first act is brief and by the time we meet him again twenty odd years later, greatness has been achieved.  A born salesman, he has built a successful business and established a comfortable life.  He and his wife live in a large home in the best part of town.  They have a butler who used to work for a duke.  Their son, Jack, went through Eton and Oxford and is now pursuing his dream of becoming an artist (heavily subsidized by his father).  They have the success they dreamed of and are proud of it, with the Great Broxopp still excited each day to look for ways to make the business – and the name of Broxopp – even greater.

Young Jack, on the other hand, wants to abandon the name entirely.  He has fallen in love and plans to marry the lovely, eminently sensible Iris.  But Iris – and even more importantly Iris’s father, the masterful Sir Roger Tenterden – can’t stomach the name of Broxopp and the commercial activities that it is associated with.  Jack, for his part, is more than happy to abandon a name that has plagued him all his life:

Jack: I’m simply fed up with Broxopp’s Beans.

Broxopp: (Surprised.) But – but you haven’t had them since you were a baby.

Jack: (Seeing the opening.) Haven’t had them?  Have I ever stopped having them?  Weren’t they rammed down my throat at school till I was sick of them?  Did they ever stop pulling my leg about them at Oxford?  Can I go anywhere without seeing that beastly poster – a poster of me – me, if you please – practically naked – telling everybody that I love my Beans.  (Bitterly.)  Love them!  Don’t I see my name – Broxopp, Broxopp, Broxopp – everywhere in every size of lettering – on every omnibus, on every hoarding; spelt out in three colours at night – B-R-O-X-O-P-P – until I can hardly bear the sight of it.  Free bottles given away on my birthday, free holidays for Broxopp mothers to celebrate my coming of age!  I’m not a man at all.  I’m just a living advertisement of Beans.

Broxopp shows his greatness in what he does next.  He accepts his son’s point of view and, to smooth his son’s way into a respectable future with no taint of business, he sells the business and changes the family name to Chillingham, his wife’s maiden name.  And then they retire to the country to live sedate, unexceptional lives in beautiful surroundings.

When we meet them again, all seems to be going well enough but the Great Broxopp is not so great anymore.  Country life does not suit him and he yearns to be back at work, to have something to strive for every day.  Jack is married but still living off his parents, not making much of an effort at his art, and Iris’s father, Sir Roger, has been left in charge of everyone’s money but will tell no one about any of it.  And then the inevitable happens: the money disappears.  Mismanaged by Sir Roger (with a final, artful push from Mrs Broxopp), the Broxopp fortune is lost.  But the loss brings a new beginning for everyone and no one could be happier than the Great Broxopp, now facing a challenge worthy of his ambitions.

Milne’s dialogue is not up to his snappiest best but I loved this play.  It had a huge amount of heart and the central relationship between Mr and Mrs Broxopp was wonderful, a true and supportive partnership.  They worked together to build Broxopp’s Beans and we have no doubt as the play ends that they will work together again to make the name of Chillingham just as great.

Knowing Milne’s life, it’s not difficult to see the factors from his own life at play here.  From all I know of Daphne Milne, I suspect her family would have shared Sir Roger’s prejudices about being too closely associated with business.  And I know for certain Milne himself felt that work and success were something to be proud of and celebrated, not looked down upon.  But the one thing he couldn’t foresee was that he would put his own son under a spotlight many, many times greater than the one Jack Broxopp grew up in.  And his son, unlike Jack Broxopp, would never quite forgive him for it.

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I love fairy tales and I love A.A. Milne.  When you put them together, I’m a happy woman.  And thankfully Milne used fairy tales – or at least fairy-tale-esque settings – in a number of his writings.  I’d already encountered this happy combination in his early novel, Once on a Time, in his one-act play, Portrait of a Gentleman in Slippers, and in his uproariously funny play, The Ugly Duckling, so I was delighted to find it again in The Ivory Door, a play from 1928. 

We begin with King Hilary and his son, young Prince Perivale, in the throne room having a friendly chat about life.  Perivale is eight- or nine-years old and starting to make sense of the world and his place in it.  His father, however, is making things a bit difficult by throwing in his king-ly perspective:

PERIVALE. […] Kings are the wisest men, aren’t they?

HILARY .It is commonly said so.

PERIVALE. And the handsomest, and the best swordsmen, and the cleverest painters, and the greatest generals, and – and everything.

HILARY. It is well that the people should think so.

PERIVALE. Shall I be when I grow up?

HILARY. So it will be said.

PERIVALE. But shan’t I be?

HILARY. It is almost too much to expect of one man, Perivale.

PERIVALE. Even if he is the King?

HILARY. The more so if he be the King.

And here we have our theme, ladies and gentleman: the gap between perception and reality, what people desire to be true and what is actually so.  It’s hard on a king to try and live up to romantic expectations and legends, as Perivale will discover.

But he will not discover it quite yet.  For now, he moves on to questioning his father about the mysterious ivory door in the throne room.  He’s been told it leads to hell or at the very least that to enter it means certain death.  And his father, wise as he might be (for all kings are wise), cannot tell him differently.  He can only tell him that what lies on the other side is unknown but the kings who have passed through the door have never been seen again.  It’s a legend that looms large in their kingdom – the Ivory Door that leads to certain death – and for Perivale the need to know the truth is intense.  But the key is lost so the door – and what lies on the other side – remains a mystery.

Years pass, good King Hilary dies, and Perivale becomes king.  But he has never lost his inquisitive nature and now he finally has the key to the Ivory Door.  And on the eve of his wedding, he decides he cannot live with the uncertainty any longer.  So he opens the door and goes through.

The legend of the Ivory Door, as one of the characters says, “…is our own; something which joins us together.  We talk of it often.  We tell each other stories.  We could not lose it.”  So when Perivale emerges unscathed and alive, having discovered the door merely leads to a passage that ends outside the palace walls, it is deemed impossible.  Perivale must be an impostor or some wicked soul switched in hell with the true, good King Perivale.  The arrival of his fiancée, Princess Lilia, only complicates matters.  After all, everyone in the kingdom knows their great secret: that the two met while in disguise as peasants and fell in love only to then discover one another’s true identities.  It is always thus for kings and princesses.  Except Perivale and Lilia had never set eyes on one another and the lack of recognition only serves to further condemn Perivale.  He may look like their king but King Perivale passed through the Ivory Door and therefore gone forever.  It is inconceivable, despite all the evidence, that Perivale could have lived.

On the Milne spectrum of silliness, The Ivory Door should be classed on the more serious side.  It has its moments of levity thanks to Milne’s typically snappy dialogue but is primarily a cautionary tale.  Perivale’s people had lived for generations with the legend of the Ivory Door.  It formed part of their identity.  And, as Perivale says, “when I came safely through the Door, I was telling each one of my people that he was a fool and a coward.  A fool to believe, a coward to fear.”  It is never safe to be the person who makes other feels like fools and cowards.  Only bad things can come from that.    

Bad things for Perivale, yes, but good things for the reader.  I really enjoyed this (as I always enjoy Milne) and loved that it was of a more serious bent than some of his other plays of the era.  I love a good comedy of errors about bigamy but a change is nice.

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Many authors regret their first book.  They wish for it to disappear completely, never to be seen or heard of again, completely disassociated from any future career they might make for themselves.

Sometimes that wish is well founded.

In 1905, Lovers in London by A.A. Milne was published and it is exactly the kind of book he would rather everyone forgot about.  He certainly tried to himself; he considered The Day’s Play, published in 1910, his first book.  And as it is miles better than this I don’t wonder at that.  But these days it is all too easy to revive even the deeply forgettable and Lovers in London is now readily available from Bello as both an e-book and a print-on-demand paperback.

So what is this relic from Milne’s youth?  It’s a collection of linked short stories (sometimes it is referred to as a novel but clearly those people haven’t read it) about, you’ll be shocked to hear this, two young lovers in London.  The eager young Teddy is delighted when his American godfather comes to London with his family, including his lovely daughter Amelia.  Teddy, already half in love with Amelia based on her photograph, falls totally when he meets her and dedicates himself to her amusement (and wooing) with trips throughout London.

Teddy is a classic Milne young man: eager, romantic, inclined to whimsy, attempting to make a living as a writer, and terribly fond of cricket.  He is someone his twenty-three-year old author was clearly comfortable writing, since he basically was Milne at this stage in his life.  And Amelia is the prototypical Milne young woman, happy to go along with her suitor’s flights of whimsy and give as good as she gets, though Milne’s skills at writing women would improve greatly.

Crucially, his skills at writing would improve greatly in the years to come.

Milne had spent years writing and editing at Cambridge but when this was published hadn’t yet started his prolific career at Punch.  Punch, clearly, was where he refined his skill and these stories are sloppy compared to the clever economy of the excellent pieces he would write for the magazine over the coming years.  Some of the stories in this collection ramble terribly – Milne was a master of witty rambling but hadn’t yet managed the witty part at this stage – and Teddy indulges in far too frequent (and occasionally incoherent) fantasies about how he could impress Amelia.  In such a short book, so much repetition grates.  Teddy, as our narrator, express his own (and his author’s) opinion on how the book is going at one point:

Most of my stories have a way of avoiding anything that approximates to a plot.  They do this of their own intention, not regarding the wishes of the author.  Often have I longed, regretfully, in the retrospect for a plot.

The good news is that Milne would, eventually, find out how to write both with and without a plot and do it delightfully.  He just wouldn’t figure it out for a few more years.

As a Milne completist, I’m glad I read this.  It’s a fascinating step in his evolution as a writer.  However, on its own, it simply doesn’t have much merit.  (I will note that Simon read it back in 2012 and had kinder things to say.)

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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I need a pipe to recover from this…

There I was, happily reading The Lyttelton Hart-Davis Letters (between former schoolmaster George Lyttelton and publisher Rupert Hart-Davis) and enjoying all the literary gossip when suddenly my favourite of all names popped up: A.A. Milne.  It was 1 February 1956 and Milne had died the day before.  Lyttelton, remembering Milne vaguely from their overlapping years at Cambridge, wondered if his younger publishing friend has ever encountered Milne – as he seemed to encounter everyone else – while sharing his own memories of the author:

Did you know A.A. Milne?  I met him twice at Cambridge half-a-century ago, but cannot remember his saying anything at all; he was extremely shy.  I liked his Punch things, though of course the lighthearted “Rabbits” belong to a long dead world, and all our John Wains and Amises would bury them deep in the lumber-room whose door bears the fatal damnation “Escapist”.

If you weren’t around during 2012, you may not know of my love for the Rabbits, a group of young people whose adventures Milne chronicled over the years as they caroused, married, and reproduced.  It is a deep and abiding love and if I ever go into publishing the first thing I will do is bring out a single volume collection of all the Rabbit stories. (Or, if you are in publishing already, feel free to steal this idea and save me a great deal of effort and expense.)  This is how much I love them.  Understandably, I was feeling quite well disposed towards Lyttelton after that (he being decidedly against the John Wains and Amises of the world, though that might not be clear in the above) and the book in general.

But then Hart-Davis replied:

I can’t say I knew A.A. Milne, though I met him sometimes at the house of his father-in-law, Martin de Selincourt, and saw him quite a lot at the Garrick.  Not a likeable man, I should say.  On top of great natural shyness he cultivated a deep grudge – against life, I suppose, though I can’t imagine why.  The combination rendered him pretty well unapproachable…

Gone was my trust in Hart-Davis.  To have found Milne unlikeable – particularly in later life when he was haunted by the success of his children’s books – was common enough but I had hoped Hart-Davis was more discerning than that.  From there on I read with narrowed eyes, skeptical of his every judgement.

Apparently, I can be a little over sensitive when it comes to my literary heroes!

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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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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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