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Archive for the ‘A.A. Milne’ Category

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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Goodbye, Christopher Robin

Once upon a time (say late 2011), Simon said “Gosh Claire, I really think you’d enjoy the adult works of A.A. Milne.”  And I said, “He seems extremely prolific and eminently useful for A Century of Books so why not?”  And down the rabbit hole I went (this is a particularly good joke if you know about the Rabbits.  Which you probably don’t.  Which is why you should read more A.A. Milne).

Having now read 30+ of his works (22 of which I somehow managed to review here), plus Ann Thwaite’s excellent biography, and Christopher Milne’s autobiographies (The Enchanted Places and The Path Through the Trees), I feel pretty close to A.A.M.  He is one of my favourite authors and, frankly, human beings.  So it was armed with all this knowledge of him that I went this week to see the newly released film “Goodbye, Christopher Robin”.

Simon, the chief A.A.M. advocate hereabouts, also saw the film and had his own thoughts about it.

Covering the period between the First and Second World Wars, the movie looks at Milne’s life as he recovers from his experiences in WWI, becomes a father, and creates the children’s books that would make both him and his son immortal, to their mutual horror and to the detriment of their relationship.

It begins with Milne stumbling through parties and opening nights, haunted by memories of battle that make it difficult for him to function in the swirl of society his wife, Daphne, so adores. Illustrator E.H. Shepard stands stoically by, a fellow survivor, to let him know he is not alone.  To Daphne’s frustration, Milne struggles to finish new works, including the anti-war book he feels passionately about.  A move to the country doesn’t help much and it isn’t until Milne is left alone for several weeks with his adorable son, from whom he has been distant until this point, that inspiration strikes in the form of children’s poems and, eventually, stories.  And then the whirlwind begins.

It makes for a strong narrative in a film that is beautifully shot and competently acted.

However…

I can understand why Milne was portrayed as having writer’s block even though the years covered were some of his most prolific and successful.  I can see why shell shock is a convenient basis for this, even though there is nothing in A.A. Milne’s, Thwaite’s or C.R. Milne’s writings to suggest he actually had it.  And I can forgive the “let’s hit the viewers over the head” approach to the film’s central anti-war message and lack of mention of Milne’s real-life about-face regarding war (despite having been a life-long pacifist (even before serving in the First World War) and the author of the anti-war book Peace with Honour, Milne was incensed by Hitler and felt passionately that the Second World War needed to be fought and there was honour in doing so.  When Christopher wanted to leave Cambridge and join up but was having trouble passing the medical, he turned to his father, who gave him every possible support).

No, what truly bothered me about the film is the misrepresentation of the relationship between A.A. Milne and his son.  It is accurate in parts but robs them of the close and happy years they actually had together before the rift emerged.

In the film, A.A.M. only notices Christopher (or Billy Moon, as he was known to the family) when the womenfolk are away from home and there is no other caregiver for the little boy.  The two play in the woods, A.A.M. recaptures the joy of childhood and is suddenly inspired to write what will become instantly successful children’s poems and stories.  He – and especially wife Daphne – are swept up in the success, essentially abandoning Christopher once more.

While it’s true that Christopher Milne resented his parents for not protecting him from the success of the books and was haunted his whole life by Christopher Robin, the fictional boy with his name, the truth of their relationship was very different, at least during the period covered by the movie.

A.A. Milne really only had two people he was truly close to his entire life: his brother, Ken, and his son, Christopher.  While Christopher was growing up, both before and after the children’s books, he and his father were best friends and did just about everything together.  It was a close and loving relationship that endured as Christopher grew to adulthood.

For me, the most upsetting scene in the movie is between father and son, when Christopher accuses his father of basically only using him for copy and then ignoring him for the rest of his life.  However, in real life it was Christopher who dropped his father and the split didn’t occur until after Christopher had joined up during the war.  Unfortunately, it was a rift that would only grow larger as Christopher grew older.  What the film does get right is that the great tragedy of both their lives was the success of that bear of very little brain.

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I’ve been looking at a lot of photos of A.A. Milne recently (who knew I had so many on my hard drive?) and a startling majority feature Milne’s constant companion: his pipe. I’ve come across several pieces of his writing about smoking (including “Smoking as a fine art“) but was most entertained by a memory his son had of a traumatic instance when Milne found himself without his pipe:

My father smoked a pipe.  In fact he was seldom without a pipe in his mouth.  I remember on one occasion he and I went for a swim together while on one our Dorset holidays.  We had just dressed and were preparing to spend an hour or so reclining on the beach, idly throwing stones into the water, when he felt in his pocket.  ‘My God!’ he cried.  ‘I’ve left my pipe behind.  Quick.  We must go home at once. ‘ And he set off running….

The Path Through the Trees by Christopher Milne

 

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I always have fun making this list but, for the first time, it was easy as well as fun.  There was no struggling over what belong in each spot and no angst-ridden hours spent juggling the merits of one book over another in deciding which deserved to make the list.  These are, without a doubt, the ten best books I read in 2012.  They have stuck in my mind since I read them and I cannot go a day without recommending at least one of them to friends, family members, other bloggers or people I randomly meet on the street (like the woman I met at the coffeeshop on Friday.  Such are the dangers of engaging me in conversation).  Without further ado, here are ten best books I read in 2012:

Best Books of 2012 - Part 1

10. The Home-Maker (1924) – Dorothy Canfield Fisher
This is, quite rightly, one of the best-loved Persephone titles among readers.  It is a wonderfully thoughtful book about gender roles, societal pressure, and personal fulfillment and treats all of its characters – adult or child – with respect for the everyday struggles they face.

9. Two-Part Invention (1988) – Madeleine L’Engle
This book was heartbreaking, beautiful, and, above all, surprising.  It is a portrait of L’Engle’s forty year marriage written during her husband’s final illness but it is also a reflection on her faith and what religion meant in her life.  It is a highly emotional and intelligent book and I cried more tears over this than anything else I read this year.

8. The Siren Years (1974) – Charles Ritchie
No matter how many times I read this (and I have lost count at this point), it remains the best wartime diary I have ever come across.   Ritchie’s diplomatic and social connections in London exposed him to an extraordinary variety of people, from political leaders and petty bureaucrats to authors and exiled royalty.  The joy of Ritchie’s diaries comes from the meld of political details and domestic ones.  I find it just as interesting to hear about how the Canadian High Commission handled refugee claims as I do to discover what Ritchie saw on his walk through London each day on the way to work or what he talked about at lunch with Nancy Mitford.     Best Books of 2012 - Part 2

7. Leningrad (2011) – Anna Reid
I still get chills thinking about this book, which looks at what happened to those trapped in Leningrad while it was under siege during the Second World War.  It is uncomfortable and upsetting to read but so very well done.

6. The Headmistress (1944) – Angela Thirkell
Possibly the most perfectly-formed of Thirkell’s Barsetshire novels, The Headmistress focuses on the experiences of the Belton family during the Second World War.  Mrs Belton, the middle-aged mother of three, is one of Thirkell’s best heroines.  Her struggles to understand her adult children and to live with her constant fear for her sons broke my heart.

5. The Laskett (2003) – Roy Strong
A gardening tome that even non-gardeners would love, this book describes the evolution of Strong’s garden at his country home, The Laskett.  Though there are plenty of details about the garden’s layout and plant choices, what makes this book special are the stories Strong shares about the friends and experiences that influenced the garden’s formation.  This is a garden that clearly reflects both Strong and his wife’s personalities and experiences and it is a book that acts as a tribute to their delightfully unique lives.  Best Books of 2012 - Part 3

4. Good Evening, Mrs Craven (1999) – Mollie Panter-Downes
A wonderfully varied collection of short stories about life in England during the Second World War.  Panter-Downes’ domestic focus exactly suits my tastes as does her interest in the quiet disappointments and muted struggles faced by her characters.  There is nothing sensational about the events in these stories, making them both relatable and, to me, touching.

3. It’s Too Late Now (1939) –  A.A. Milne
2012 was the year of Milne and as much as I loved his plays, his pieces for Punch, his passionate plea for pacifism, and his light verse, it was his autobiography that gave me the most pleasure.  Looking back on the first fifty-odd years of his life, Milne joyously recalls the happy days of his childhood and, later, his determined pursuit of a writing career.  It has nothing in common with gossipy tell-alls and that is part of what I loved about it.  It is a fun book to read and I suspect Milne had even more fun writing it.

2. Fräulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther (1907) – Elizabeth von Arnim
It has been a long time since I’ve fallen as hard for a fictional character as I did for Fräulein Rose-Marie Schmidt.  These letters, written to her erstwhile suitor Roger Anstruther, reveal a woman who is both romantic and practical, youthful and mature.  She is clever and funny and resilient and I want to be her almost as much as I want to befriend her. the-element-of-lavishness

1. The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell  (2001) – edited by Michael Steinman
I read this in January and, honestly, no other book I read this year came even close to eclipsing it in my affections.  I had never read anything by either Warner or Maxwell before and knew very little about either of them but that made no difference.  Through their letters, I got to know both of them intimately and to witness the wonderful warmth and depth of their friendship as it evolved over the decades.  While both were extraordinary writers, it is Warner’s letters I remember the best now, almost a year after I read them.  She wrote beautifully about the domestic details of her life and the letters written between the death of her partner Valentine and her own death are as good a record of aging and loss as I have ever read.

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