Archive for the ‘A.A. Milne’ Category

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.


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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A.A. Milne His Life by Ann ThwaiteAs soon as I started reading A.A. Milne’s works this year, it was inevitable that I was going to pick up A.A. Milne: His Life by Ann Thwaite.  As much as I have loved getting to know Milne through his own writings (especially his autobiography), there is nothing like a really good, well-researched biography to compliment and enrich my knowledge of my newest favourite author.

For those (which I imagine encompasses everyone other than Simon) unfamiliar with Milne’s life, a brief and rather poorly-written outline: he was born in 1882 in London, the youngest of three boys.  He was never close with his eldest brother Barry (and they grew even more distant as adults) but his brother Ken, who was only a year older than him, was his partner in everything.  When Milne started writing, it was with Ken.  After Cambridge (where Milne edited and wrote for Granta), he moved to London and started writing professional, eventually finding a home as an editor and writer at Punch.  After the war, he started writing plays at an extraordinary rate, a number of which were very successful both in England and America.  He wrote a few novels but it was his children’s verses and the Winnie-the-Pooh stories that made him famous.  He had a conflicted relationship with this fame (though nowhere near as conflicted as his son, immortalized as Christopher Robin, had).  He was a life-long pacifist (and wrote an extraordinarily powerful book about his beliefs in 1934) who passionately supported the fight against Hitler.  He had no outrageous scandals – the worst was probably his denunciation of P.G. Wodehouse after Wodehouse’s wartime broadcasts from Berlin – and had a generally quiet, though not precisely peaceful  – there were always tensions with other family members, first his brother and then his son -, life.  He died in 1956.

The chapters on Milne’s early years (before he won a place at Westminster School) draw mostly on the information in his autobiography, so I didn’t find that section particularly enlightening.  Where Thwaite really started adding value was in describing Milne’s time at Cambridge.  In his autobiography, Milne claims that “What distinguishes Cambridge from Oxford, broadly speaking, is that nobody who has been to Cambridge feels impelled to write about it.”  A fine sentiment, to be sure, but not a useful one.  Thwaite fills in all the details that Milne left out in his account, telling us about his friends and fellow students, showing how they all fit together in the literary world they would soon shape.  While he does very little namedropping in his own writings, he knew some truly fascinating people.  As a young writer in London, he was in contact with, among others, J.M. Barrie, H.G. Wells, P.G. Wodehouse, Denis Mackail, and R.C. Lehmann (who, in our corner of the blogging world, is probably best known as the father of the novelist Rosamond Lehmann).

As much as I admired Milne’s reticence to discuss his relationships in detail in his autobiography and understood his reluctance to examine the more difficult periods in his life, I am thankful that Thwaite did address these topics.  As wonderful as Milne’s memoir is, it is his edited version of his life and excludes quite a lot of the details that the public really had no business knowing, certainly not during his lifetime.  Thwaite is able to fill in these gaps that Milne very consciously left.  She is of particular value in looking at Milne’s life during the 1930s, arguably the most difficult decade for him in the wake of the extraordinary success of his children’s books – which, as someone who considered himself first and foremost a playwright, was difficult to deal with – and the deaths of first his beloved brother Ken and then his father:

 All the family had gone; all the links with his childhood were severed.  And somehow his own life, too, seemed to be slipping away.  He was fifty.  All his adult life, he had been looking forward to the next book, the next play, full of optimism and enthusiasm.  It had always seemed that he was still making his reputation.  But now he had to accept that he had made it, and it was not the one that he had wanted.

It was during this time that he and his wife (Daphne) appear to have drifted apart somewhat.  Marriages –both fictional and non – fascinate me so I am always interested to observe how different ones function and evolve.  There is very little solid evidence about the personal conduct of both Milne and Daphne but both appear to have strayed – she with an American (she travelled there frequently without Milne) and he with an English actress.  Thwaite isn’t able to draw on any concrete proof but friends all said that yes, these affairs happened.  Still, it does not appear that their marriage was in danger and they grew closer as the years went on.  The entire portrait presented here of Daphne is interesting, perhaps for the sheer lack of detail.  Thwaite suggests that she was more sophisticated and outgoing than Milne (which would not have been difficult), more interested in appearances and less interested in the topics that concerned him most.  For a man who had gone into marriage with the most romantic ideas about perfect companionship, it must have been difficult to realise how different their priorities and interests could be:

Milne did not have, as Daphne observed, ‘the disagreeable temperament so usually associated with famous men, and, in fact, has a most even and genial disposition.  He makes life very interesting and amusing for us.  He doesn’t save up his best thoughts for strangers.’  Under his quiet exterior, Milne had not just a genial disposition but a romantic and passionate one.

He had the highest and most romantic expectations of marriage and this would in itself cause problems.  He had never accepted the view that was becoming common (and which one of his characters had expresses in Ariadne) that ‘love and marriage are two different things.’

The two best things about this book – what makes it more than just a compilation of Milne’s autobiography and his various autobiographical sketches – are the inclusion of many of his letters and quite a few reviews from his critics.  The reviews are exciting simply because I have been reading so many of his plays and articles this year and am delighted to compare my opinions to those of reviewers working at the height of Milne’s fame:

…George Jean Nathan decided, damningly, that Milne was the best exemplar of those British playwrights who suffer ‘from their heavy effort to be insistently light.’  He said that going to a Milne play was like going to a dinner party ‘where at all the exceptionally dull guests have endeavoured to be assiduously amusing.’  This would seem to us, today, a reasonable description of The Dover Road anyway; a reading of it earned from the contemporary playwright, Michael Frayn, the epithet ‘terrible’.

Those who remember how much I loved The Dover Road will not be surprised to hear how angry I became on hearing it dismissed this way.  On the other hand, I’ve never liked Michael Frayn or enjoyed his writing so feel perfecting comfortable in dismissing his opinion altogether.  But I do think that George Jean Nathan has a point: Milne wrote a huge number of plays, mostly comedies, and a number do feel laboured.  Some are outstanding but most are a bit pedestrian.

While the reviews give us insight into what the rest of the world thought of Milne, his letters show us what he thought of the rest of the world.  Here, for once, we see Milne the man, not Milne the professional writer.   There are passionate, intelligent letters to newspapers about political and philosophical issues that roused him, with some especially powerful ones from the 1930s, when the lifelong pacifist watched with horror as the League of Nations failed and the world began to ready itself for war.  But the best letters are the ones to his favourite brother and best friend, Ken, and, after Ken’s early death, to Ken’s family.  Not only do these letters show how close and affectionate these relationships were, they also give a very detailed picture of Milne’s daily life, complete with his reactions to world events and personal milestones.

I am so happy that I read a really good sampling of Milne’s work before I read this. It meant I was able to enjoy reading about the context in which his works were written, to delight in identifying quotes or episodes Thwaite pulled from writings I was familiar with, and to greet The Rabbits, that wonderfully exuberant group of friends, as old acquaintances when they were mentioned.   I could appreciate the compliment from The Times when they said“when there is nothing whatever to say, no one knows better than Mr Milne how to say it” and Thwaite’s statement that:

It is not easy to quote from Milne at his funniest.  That ‘sparkling irrelevancy’ R.C. Lehmann admired depends on a cumulative effect, on a sequence of remarks and on high spirits and on a juggling with words that never seems to flag.

Having written so many reviews of his plays and sketches this year, I know how true that is!  I could never capture in my own poor words the brilliancy of Milne at his best and to quote him in small bits never does justice to the sustained humour he was so good at.

Mostly I am glad I had read so many of Milne’s books beforehand because it meant I knew him and Ann Thwaite did not get the chance to shape my opinion of him.  Enrich it, yes, but not shape it.  I occasionally felt like Thwaite had some contempt for what Milne viewed as his ‘real’ work and I suppose writing at the end of the 1980s there could hardly have been a time where the plays, novels, and pieces for Punch could have been more unfashionable.  She is only explicit in her praise for the children’s books and, indeed, the amount of information about those books and their success far exceeds even my keen interest .  Regardless of Thwaite’s own feelings about his writing (and they do not intrude, not really), I became even more fond of Milne while reading this.  Thwaite is an extraordinarily good biographer (and her skill here was recognized: this was the Whitbread Biography of the Year in 1990) and her account of Milne the man and the author is brilliantly researched, gracefully written, and compulsively readable.  I wouldn’t recommend it to those only familiar with Milne from his children’s writings but it is the perfect book to read after you’ve sampled his plays and novels and are longing to get to know the man who should be remembered for so much more than just Winnie-the-Pooh.

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Michael and MaryMichael and Mary by A.A. Milne is my last Milne play of the year (most likely) but it was an excellent one to end with.  Published in 1930, it combines elements from many of the earlier plays I also read this year, which greatly added to my enjoyment.  After reading play after play where Milne toyed with the idea of bigamy for comic effect, it is nice to see him finally treat it seriously and not entirely conventionally (as though I would expect anything less of AAM).

Michael and Mary meet in the British Museum in 1905.  To me, this brought to mind Topaz’s mention in I Capture the Castle of her assignations there with Mr Mortmain before their marriage; these two books have nothing else in common, I just like the idea of the British Museum as a backdrop for clandestine affairs.  Michael, a bright young man and aspiring writer who seems to have much in common with his creator, is there for an assignation.  Mary, distraught and tearful, definitely is not.  Abandoned by her husband and utterly alone in the world, she is facing a horrifyingly bleak future.  Michael, noticing the poor girl, immediately strikes up a conversation and it isn’t long before he has uncovered her sad story and is trying to help her.  I think it is fair to say that Michael’s idea of “help” is more than generous, especially given his own youth and relative poverty:

MICHAEL:  Well, now I’ve got £200 in the bank which my mother left me.  I’ve rooms in Islington, if you know where that is.  I don’t know why, except that it’s a cheapish part of London, and Lamb used to live there.  I’m trying to be a writer…Even if I don’t earn anything for a year, I can almost live on half my balance – well, I can quite if I try.  The question is, Can you live on the other half?

MARY (incredulous).  Me live for a year on a hundred pounds?


MARY. Well, of course!

MICHAEL (looking at her thoughtfully).  I suppose I eat more or something.  Anyhow I can do it, and I will.  That gives us a year each, apart from what either of us earns in that time, which is bound to be something.  How old are you?

MARY. Twenty.

MICHAEL.  You child…And I’m twenty-three.  Both young enough to do anything.  And we’ve got a hundred pounds each.  It looks good enough.  What about it?

MARY. You mean you – Your father doesn’t give you an allowance?

MICHAEL. Good Lord, no.  He couldn’t if he would, and he probably wouldn’t if he could.  To a father “writing” just means shirking a real job.

MARY. So that’s all you have in the world?

MICHAEL. Except a fountain-pen with a gold nib. (He displays it proudly.)  A golden nib, indeed, as you shall see one day.

MARY. And you’re going to give me half of all you have in the world?

MICHAEL. Don’t keep on saying “all you have in the world” as if it included a couple of yachts and a coalmine.  I’m going to give you the extremely small sum of £100.

It is an extraordinary gesture and one that changes both their lives.  A year after befriending one another, and now quite in love, Michael and Mary decide to get married – ignoring the difficultly of Mary’s most-likely-still-alive husband.

Michael finds success as a writer, they have a much-adored son, and everything is going quite well until Mary’s husband surfaces after the war; having discovered his wife’s crime, he is now eager to blackmail the couple.  But in the middle of this attempted blackmail he falls down dead: it is convenient for Michael and Mary in that he can no longer blackmail them, but not so convenient in that they now have a dead body in their apartment and must explain its presence to the police without revealing who the man was.  It is a strange act, between the drama of the confrontation, the death, and the interview with the police, not to mention the moral questions that ensure in the wake of Mary’s husband’s death.  Should she and Michael get married again, legally this time?  Would that change anything?

The third act is the best.  After more than twenty years of marriage, Michael and Mary are perfectly happy.  They adore each other and worship their now adult son, David.  When David arrives home with his wife, having unexpectedly eloped, they decide to tell him the truth about their own marriage.  Milne heightens the tension around the reveal with David’s prim comments on morality and his ideas about the conventionality of his parent’s youth.  Like most children, he can’t imagine that his mother (known as Bubbles) and father indulged in anything beyond the most timid and unexceptional courtship, little dreaming of anything so extraordinary as that initial encounter in the British Museum:

DAVID (smiling at MICHAEL affectionately).  I suppose you and Bubbles, having obtained the co-operation and consent of your respective Papas and Mamas, got solemnly engaged to each other, and were allowed five minutes alone in the drawing-room together, after promising that you would be careful with the aspidistra and only kiss each other once?

It is David, not his parents, who is the conservative member of the family, though he is slightly ashamed to admit it, even to his wife:

DAVID.  I’ve got a confession to make.

ROMO. A very bad one?

DAVID. It is rather.  (Solemnly.)  I believe I’m Early Victorian.

ROMO. What a nice thing to be.

DAVID. It’s not really modern –

ROMO. I wonder sometimes if any of us are; if it isn’t just an invention of the newspapers and the novelists.

But some people are modern: just not the ones David or Romo would expect.  Poor innocents, with their affectionate contempt for the ”stodgy” older generation.

The parent-child bond here is as perfect as any could be – probably as AAM hoped his would be with Christopher (Robin) when he grew up – so of course David’s affection and respect for his parents never wavers, despite their shocking revelation.  The scene between them is sentimental but affecting.

To be perfectly honest, I like when Milne indulges his sentimental side.  There is an entire preface to the play in which he refutes the criticisms the play received when it ran, most of which seem to have focused on expressions of honest goodness and affection, whether it be Michael offering to share half of his worldly possessions with a total stranger and expecting nothing in return or David, moved by his parents’ confession, kissing their hands.  Goodness was just as unfashionable then as it is now.  This was not the sort of thing 1930s audiences wanted from Milne, whose comedies with their quick-witted nonsense were better received, but, having read so much of and by him this year, this romantic, more emotional side seems just as much a part of him, if less frequently expressed.  The father-son exchanges are particularly poignant, capturing first the awkwardness between Michael and his clergyman father and then the closeness and comfortable affection between Michael and David.  I found the image of Michael’s father leaving him after a not altogether successful encounter, filled with love for his son but only able to awkwardly express it, particularly moving:

MICHAEL. It’s awful cheek to say it, but however many other commandments I may break, I do honour you, father.  There’s something about sheer goodness that always gets me.  Mind you, I disagree with you profoundly about everything under the sun, sometimes you irritate me intensely – and – and yet (with a little ashamed laugh) I believe I love you.  Good-bye.

(But however near FATHER has come to SON in this speech, the VICAR is always between them)

ROWE (coldly). I don’t think you need break any commandments, Michael.

MICHAEL (lightly).  Well, you never know.  Pray for me, father.  I’m not so bad as you think.

ROWE (gravely).  I pray for you every night.

MICHAEL.  You would…Well, I try to be good, and I daresay I make a mess of it, and shall make a worse mess later on.  But anybody who sees into my heart knows that I try.  Well, good-bye and – er – thanks awfully.

ROWE. God be with you, my son.

MICHAEL (opening the door).  He will, if you ask him…I’ll come down with you.

ROWE (going out).  No, no.  You have work to do.

(He goes down the stairs…to the station…to the lonely Bedforshire vicarage…saying over in his mind all that MICHAEL said to him, all the loving things which he meant to have said to MICHAEL.  We shall not see him again; only little bits of him in MICHAEL, perhaps even in MICHAEL’s son.)

Though I love Milne’s nonsensical bantering in his other plays, it was wonderful to see him treat a serious topic seriously for once, with both sensitivity and intelligence.  Michael and Mary’s ponderings on the morality of their marriage at various stages in their lives is fascinating but, more than anything, I think Milne excelled here at writing about the bonds between family members.  Whether it was Michael and his father or David and his parents, Milne captures the unique blendings of awkwardness and unwavering love that in one case made for a deeply uncomfortable and unsatisfying relationship and, on the other, provided mother, father, and son with immense joy.

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Noah’s Ark – Currier & Ives

I have not one but two books for you today that are essentially biblical fan fiction.  Both Before the Flood by A.A. Milne and Many Waters by Madeleine L’Engle are (as their titles might suggest) based on the story of Noah’s ark but that is all they have in common.

Before the Flood by A.A. Milne is a one-act play but not, I think, the kind of play most churches would pick to perform at any of their events, despite the biblical origins of the story.  Milne imagines the domestic affairs in Noah’s home in the months between him receiving his divine instructions to build the ark and the day when the rains begin.  The question hanging over them all – Noah’s wife, his three sons and their respective wives – is whether the floods will actually come and be quite as extreme as Noah has been ‘told’.  It can be quite amusing at times, as the family debates the ark-related logistics that Noah’s divine instructions do not account for: how can they bring all those animals on board and prevent the predators from eating their natural prey?  If the animals aren’t going to eat one another, what are they going to eat?  Does the family need to bring extra animals on board for catering purposes?  On the whole though, it is not the best of Milne’s work and easily my least favourite of his plays.  I only laughed once, when, after Noah tells his family that they will be the only ones to survive the coming flood, one of the sons turns to his wife and says “Aren’t you glad now that you married into this family?” (or words to that effect).   The book ends when the rain starts to fall, leaving the question of whether Noah is a prophet or a madman unanswered.

Many Waters by Madeleine L’Engle, on the other, leaves no doubt as to the veracity of Noah’s claims.  In fact, Noah is but a minor character and he and his ark are ignored for a large portion of the book.  The focus in this children’s book from 1986 is on the interaction between the earthly and divine in this imagined pre-flood world where angels walk among men.  As soon as I started reading, I remembered why I found this book so weirdly fascinating when I was young.  Not good, necessarily, but fascinating.  It is the fourth book in the “Time Quartet”, the series that begins with A Wrinkle in Time, L’Engle’s most famous book, but it was the only one I ever felt compelled to reread.  The mechanics of L’Engle’s idea of time/space travel never appealed to me but seraphim and nephilim, for some reason, did.

Sandy and Dennys Murry, the teenage twins who find themselves transported back to (they eventually realise) biblical times after disturbing an experiment in their parents’ home lab, are not remotely interesting.  They are flat and really unbelievably stupid at times.  Stuck thousands of years out of their own time period, they are remarkably relaxed, even with their knowledge of what is about to happen.  Having befriended Noah and his family, they are perfectly content to work in the garden, help build the ark when the time comes, and pine after Noah’s youngest daughter, Yalith.  Yalith is far more developed than either of the boys – all the female characters are – but still not very compelling.  Still, she doesn’t need to be.  This is not a book that requires in-depth characterization.  Instead, we get to read a lot about sex, which some might find slightly surprising for such a religious book.  There is a worrying but not entirely consistent tendency to equate sexual promiscuity with evil but the real message is that sex is a good thing for those in a loving relationship (not necessarily marriage) and a lack of emotional involvement cheapens what should be an intimate experience between two people.  That, as well as a general opening of the twins’ minds to outlandish possibilities, seems to be the main lesson they learn over the course of the book.

Honestly, neither book is particularly excellent.  Many Waters can feel stilted in its need to over explain both its scientific and religious elements and Before the Flood, though it asks the questions any skeptic ponders while reading the story of Noah, does not do so with Milne’s usual energy and so the story drags along.  Both author’s approaches are interesting but their execution is lacklustre.

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The Playwright’s Predicament

La Première Sortie – Pierre-Auguste Renoir

The advantage which a novelist has over a dramatist is that he is always there to explain his characters.  He can occupy twenty pages in analysis of his heroine’s thoughts as she wonders whether to wear the pink or the heliotrope.  On the stage you merely see her in pink.  If the hero is to commit a murder, his soul will have been laid bare before you in a couple of chapters.  On the stage, now that soliloquy is out of date, the hero can only tell a convenient friend about it; and even then it will be pointed out to the dramatist that one doesn’t usually discuss one’s projected murders with a friend.  In a book, the curate’s sense of humour and the politician’s sentimentality are their own, not the author’s; but, listening to them in a play, you may tell yourself that the author is not very funny and very much too sentimental.

For this reason, since so much is left to its intelligence, a dramatist relies upon his audience; hopefully, if not always with confidence.

Michael and Mary by A.A. Milne

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I have read a lot of A.A. Milne’s work this year.  I have read his autobiography, original plays and adaptations, a children’s book, articles from his days at Punch, even wartime poetry…I have not so much sampled his work as attacked it, attempting to conquer as much as I could as quickly as possible.  It has been a delightful assault but none of it quite prepared me for Peace with Honour.  It is shockingly different from the rest of his work and I think that it is his best book – certainly his most important.

Published in 1934, Peace with Honour is Milne’s plea for pacifism.  None of his other books can come close to matching the passion with which he pleads his cause, his earnestness as he attempts to challenge his audience’s belief in the usefulness and inevitability of war.  He had been a pacifist even before his experiences during the First World War but his time in France certainly brought home the pointless wastefulness of it all and the contrast between the sentimental attitudes in Britain towards the war and its soldiers and the horrifying reality influenced him greatly.  As the 1930s began, with fascism and its accompanying militarism spreading in continental Europe, he wanted to challenge his reader’s notions about the purpose and value of war and ensure that the attitudes that had propelled them into the First World War were routed:

It is because I want everybody to think (as I do) that war is poison, and not (as so many think) an over-strong, extremely unpleasant medicine, that I am writing this book.

Milne argues clearly, intelligently and even amusingly in the best rhetorical tradition, laying out what he views as the obstructions to pacifism and then slicing through them with a blend of factual and emotional arguments.  There is nothing particularly calm or cool about his writing: you have no doubt that this is a book he poured his soul into.  It is literally a matter of life and death and it roused all his emotions.  He knew his aim was idealistic and ambitious, that it would upset people and be next to impossible to implement universally, but he had to try.  With the lives of future soldiers and civilians on his mind, with their deaths on his conscience, he had to try:

Nations fight in order to bring about the complete surrender of the conquered to the will of the conqueror.  That surrender is obtained by deliberate ‘slaughter and ruin.’  The last war involved women and children and the accumulated wealth of civilisation in slaughter and ruin.  The next war will involve them in a much greater slaughter and ruin.  This seems to be a good reason for making the next war impossible.  It does not seem to be a good reason for saying: ‘Can’t we agree to make the next war a nice war like the last war?’

Milne looks at the reasons nations go to war (material gain, honour, prestige, pride), the doubtful role of religion and morality, and, what seems to gall him most, the romantic conventions that surround war, even after the senseless slaughters of the First World War.  People wishing to commemorate their fallen heroes at sanitized memorials, ignoring the lingering deaths and crippling disfigurements that moved far beyond the battlefields, rouse all his anger:

We know […] that, of the casualties of the last war, not all were killed on the battlefield; that hundreds and thousands died painfully of wounds – in bed; that hundreds of thousands died slowly of gas-poisoning or disease – in bed.  Yet the sentimentalist, knowing this, still visualises death in war as something which comes cleanly and swiftly and mercifully, leaving its victim no more time for awareness than is necessary for a last message to his mother.

Milne is horrified that such thinking could have survived the war.  That people can still find ways to justify war as noble when they know how ignobly soldiers died less than twenty years before shocks him.  He has no time for the heroes these people speak of and no stomach for tributes to the glorious dead, who in death have been named as heroes through no act of bravery or impressive accomplishment, simply by virtue of their having died while in military service:

A man is indeed a hero if, longing for life, he accepts death of his own will.  How many heroes do we commemorate each year?  How many of the ‘immortal dead’ have deliberately died for their country?

Neither in its origins nor in its conduct is war heroic.  Splendidly heroic deeds are done in war, but not by those responsible for its conduct, and not exclusively and inevitably by the dead.  Of the ten million men who were killed in the last war, more than nine million had to fight whether they wanted to or not, and of these nine million some eight million did nothing heroic whatever before they were killed.  They are no more ‘immortal’ than a linen-draper who is run over by a lorry; their deaths were no more ‘pleasant’ and ‘fitting’ than the death of a stockbroker in his bath.

Milne is adamant throughout the book that there is no such thing as a just cause for war.  Ever.   Oh, the irony.  At the end of the book, Milne accuses the world’s leaders and opinion makers of lacking the imagination to envision a world where all the nations of the earth could agree to universal peace.  But Milne also lacked imagination: he could not conceive of circumstances under which he would condone war and yet by the end of the 1930s, his hatred of Hitler was so intense that he was a full supporter of war.

What changed?  When Milne wrote Peace with Honour, he was thinking of and fighting against the idea of war as a way to resolve an argument between two or more nations, usually over territory or resources or – worse – a matter of pride.  These were wars where there was economic value at stake or emotional value but never anything of real worth – nothing that one could objectively judge as right or wrong.  One nation wanted something another had and so they tried to take it.  One nation wanted to appear stronger or become larger so they attacked another.  An oppressed group wanted freedom so they fought their oppressor.  Those were the only kinds of war the world knew and that was what Milne reacted against.  These were not causes worth dying for and, more importantly, they were causes that could easily (if perhaps more slowly) be settled by diplomatic rather than violent means.  If Hitler had just been another Napoleon, intent on creating an empire, I think Milne would have remained a pacifist.  But Hitler wasn’t another Napoleon.  For Milne, it became a battle of Good versus Evil.

Milne actually examines the rise of fascism here but his conclusions are very, very wrong.  He believed that fascism by definition requires a war-like mentality of aggression and absolute obedience – true enough – but he thought that Hitler’s intention was more to unite and control his population than launch attacks on other countries.  Instead, the only thing Milne was correct in thinking was that fascism in either Germany or Italy would not survive another European war:

…however completely Fascist leaders may seem to have forgotten the horrors of the last war, we may be sure that the supreme horror of war is vividly in their minds: the knowledge that those who lead their country to Armageddon have no chance of surviving defeat and but little hope of enjoying victory.  Nothing is more certain in the uncertain future of Europe than that, if Fascist Germany or Fascist Italy is involved in the next war, it will not  a Fascist Germany or a Fascist Italy which will come out of it.  Even if (which is unlikely) civilisation survives that war; even if Germany is still a nation and Italy is still a nation; it is absolutely certain that there will be no Hitler, neither will there be any Mussolini, who will direct their destinies.

Knowing the violence with which Milne opposed Hitler, it was fascinating to read this and attempt to reconcile Milne’s passionate pacifism with his later Churchill-esque zeal for war.  It is surprising how easy that is to do.  He lays out his arguments so clearly, illustrates them with such approachable examples and analogies, that you are never in doubt as to what he believes and what he thinks is right and it is easy then to see how he could have viewed the war against Nazism as just.

There were so many other passages I wish I could have quoted but that is the kind of book this is.  Milne’s arguments are extraordinarily well done, so passionate, so heart-felt and so well-written.  It is an idealistic and overly hopeful book, especially in light of what was going on elsewhere in Europe at the time, but it is persuasive.  If I could only pick one of Milne’s books to share with other readers, this would be it.

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In 1940, Behind the Lines by A.A. Milne was published as a diary of the first nine months of the war, written in light verse.  That makes for about as strange a book as you would expect, war and light verse not always being the most obvious companions.  But like any wartime diary, there is something terribly fascinating about it, particularly since Milne is not afraid to express strong opinions and attaches to each poem explanatory notes that give further insight into his feelings at the time.

Some focus on domestic affairs – the chore of drawing the blackout curtains (and mislaying the pins), the confusion of travelling by rail when conductors no longer call out the name of the next station, or the horrid scarcity of salted butter (a favourite topic for Milne through the years – he loathed unsalted butter, likening it to Vaseline) – while others turn a sharp eye on the government and its foes.  He is particularly good with poems about Hitler’s Germany, his passionate hatred of Hitler serving as his muse.  “Unity”, about a meeting of Hitler and his associates, was my favourite poem in the book and the one that most perfectly matches form with subject as he imagines the inner thoughts of and petty rivalries between Goering, Goebbels, Ribbentrop, et al.  His commentary is particularly pointed in these poems; in “The Supermen”, he ridicules Hitler’s fantasy of Aryan dominance and the superiority of the German mind when the Führer has so restricted their freedoms that these “supermen” have no chance to think for themselves:

A race of supermen indeed!
Who may not talk or think or read,
Or hear what all the world has heard,
Till Teacher kindly gives the world.
Their wonder-brains!  so ill-designed
To use the functions of the mind
That any thought remotely free
Unsettles the machinery.
One doubtful rumour from the Dutch
(It seems) would disengage the clutch;
One broadcast message from the Turks
Would absolutely crash the works;
One leaflet from a British plane
Would pulverise the wonder-brain!

Of the poems focusing on England, the more personal ones are the best, perhaps because they come closest to being a true diary (as opposed those that give more general commentary on society).  Part of what I like about Milne is that in all of his books you get to glimpse him.  And how better to get to know a person than to hear them voice their frustrations, as Milne does in “Weather Report”, lamenting that the local weather is no longer printed in the paper thus stealing the pleasure he used to get from knowing how the temperatures at his home compared to those in nearby villages and towns:

For in the happy days of old
One scanned the news to see
If Littlehampton were as cold,
Or Looe as hot, as we.
But now comparison is gone –
Not least of Hitler’s crimes
Is that he put the kybosh on
The weather in The Times.

I crack the still unrationed egg,
I carve the rationed ham,
I know it’s cold in Winnipeg
And cold in Amsterdam;
I munch the sparsely-buttered toast,
I stir the tasteless tea,
But know not (what intrigues me most)
The min. at Brightlingsea.

What is most interesting, to me at least, is Milne’s commentary on the moral implications of the war.  A lifelong pacifist, he had written Peace with Honour in 1934 detailing his beliefs and explaining why he was averse to war, or at least war as the world had known it up to that point.  But war with Hitler was another thing entirely, as he makes clear in “To America”:

Well, are you coming in?
It’s a fight between Good and Evil,
It’s a fight between God and the Devil.
Where do you stand today?
Which are you for?  You have chosen, yes,
But is it enough for men to bless
The men who fight, and to turn away?
Is it enough for women to cry,
And to say “Poor things” when the innocent die?
Is it enough to give your prayers,
And then – go back to your own affairs?
It’s a fight for all that you counted dear,
It’s a fight for all that you fought to win:
The fight is on, and the issue clear:
Good or Evil,
God or the Devil…
Well, are you coming in?

This idea of Good versus Evil comes up repeatedly and, knowing that other pacifists or conscientious objectors would have something to say about his apparent change of heart, he addresses them directly in one of his notes:

…I think that there is a difference between refusing to “use the sword” to defend oneself, and refusing to use it to defend the innocent and helpless.  I cannot believe that, if Christ in His journeys had come across a sadist torturing a child, He would have been content to preach a parable.  The Conscientious Objector does believe this.

Frankly, the majority of the poems are forgettable and a number feel laboured and are quite awkward to read.  Yet, every so often, there is one that pops out at you and it is those ones that make this book special, along with Milne’s reflections about the circumstances under which they were written.

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I finally managed to get my hands on an A.A. Milne play Simon hadn’t read but, instead of being able to taunt him with how wonderful it was (which was obviously what I’d been hoping to do), Sarah Simple proved a bit disappointing.  Of all the Milne plays I’ve read so far this year, it is easily my least favourite, perhaps because it goes back to one of his favourite themes – the misplaced spouse.  After a certain point, there are only so many careless couples you can stomach.

William, now in his mid-thirties, was married years ago to Sarah.  They were both young and foolish and it wasn’t long before Sarah ran off with another man, leaving an illegible note that confused William as to the identity of his wife’s lover.  Not knowing where she was or with whom, he gave up looking.  Now, with the widow Marianne Bell-Mason wanting to marry him, William is quite happy to have an absent wife.  But suddenly, after years with no contact, Sarah returns and is only too willing to give William a divorce.  She will need to be discovered at a hotel with another man in order to give him grounds and it is decided, for simplicity’s sake, that that man should be William in disguise.  It all ends much as you would expect it to, and certainly as Sarah had planned it to.

There are some good exchanges between the characters, particularly between Sarah and Marianne when they first meet, but entertaining as that rivalry is, it highlights a very major issue: Sarah simply isn’t likeable.  She abandoned her husband and now she wants him back and, as far as she’s concerned, that is that.  I didn’t like William either – he’s a waffling nincompoop – but at least he appears mainly lazy and incompetent whereas Sarah seems heartless.  She is marvellously, subtly catty in her remarks about Marianne though, so she has some entertainment value:

WILLIAM. As it happens, she is just my own age.  Thirty-six.

SARAH. What a very odd coincidence.  Which of you said it first?

In addition to the three lovers, William’s twin niece and nephew also appear for, as far as I can tell, no earthly reason.  They are deeply comic characters without being particularly amusing – a waste of good material.  Still, they provide a welcome distraction from the ridiculous adults.  They receive one of Milne’s typically wonderful introductions (for all the flaws this play has, the introductions are still superb):

AMYAS and ALFTRUDA…are twins, seventeen years old.  Both of them take AMYAS with a seriousness which is comic, pathetic or merely irritating according to your mood.  When he grows up, he will probably be one of those critics who are always uneasy if anybody else shares their enthusiasms.  His present enthusiasm is for films; which means the particular films of a particular German producer.  ALFTRUDA mothers him with one hand, and acts as his impresario with the other.

Marianne (Mrs Bell-Mason) also gets a perfect introduction that can’t help but make you feel sympathetic towards her:

MRS BELL-MASON feels extremely motherly, though she is under the impression that she is merely in love with [William], for she is at an age when being a mother would be common form, and winning a lover something of an achievement.  She, too, is attractive, and, as WILLIAM is finding out, soft and kissable; a little on the large side, but pleasantly so.  She is by no means without humour, though relationship to an Earl and marriage to a Canon have brought it certain limitations.  It is just possible that Nature meant her for the most charming sort of courtesan, but the Canon saved her – or spoilt her, according to the point of view.

Though Sarah isn’t likeable – or, perhaps worse, memorable – I don’t think that is the real problem with the play.  Milne wrote Sarah-like characters elsewhere, fast-talking, determined women without much sentiment to them, and they came off well in other circumstances.  No, Sarah wasn’t the main problem, nor was the return to the exhausted topic of errant spouses (which Milne addresses in any number of variations – see Belinda, To Have the Honour, The Dover Road, and Mr Pim Passes By, among others).  Milne was good at writing about relationships that involved affection but this play revolves around attraction and sex heedless of real emotion.  And that he could not write about – not well at least.

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