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Archive for the ‘The 1920 Club’ Category

For me, the 1920 Club this week has been a chance to discover some of the few works of A.A. Milne that I hadn’t already read.  I started the week with The Stepmother, a slight one-act play, flipped through the articles featured in If I May, and have now finished the week with the best of the bunch: The Romantic Age, a three-act comedy.

In her late teens, Melisande Knowle longs for the romance of knights and ballads, for a world of courtly love and grand gestures.  Instead, she is plagued by all the trappings of middle-class comfort and a family – two parents and her visiting cousin Jane – who can’t see why tennis games, dance parties, and perfectly nice young men from the stock exchange to partner with at both are to be sneered at rather than enjoyed.  This is made particularly clear to Bobby, a young man lamentably employed on the stock exchange, who is visiting for the weekend and deeply infatuated with Melisande, when he attempts to propose:

MELISANDE: Oh, Bobby, everything’s wrong.  The man to whom I give myself must be not only my lover, but my true knight, my hero, my prince.  He must perform deeds of derring-do to win my love.  Oh, how can you perform deeds of derring-do in a stupid little suit like that!

Poor Bobby.

The Knowles casually lament their daughter’s romantic flights without taking them too seriously.  For Mrs Knowles, an invalid not overburdened with brains, part of the problem comes back to her daughter’s name.  She thought her husband had suggested Millicent, a perfectly nice sort of name, the kind that belongs to a nice, helpful sort of daughter.  To discover her baby was saddled with the outlandish Melisande was quite a shock – one which, years later, Mrs Knowle still hasn’t entirely recovered from.  To protect her daughter from the absurdity of her name, the family calls her Sandy.  As you’d expect, the young lady herself finds this disgusting but her mother has very strong reasons for doing so:

MRS KNOWLE: Well, it never seems to be quite respectable, not for a nicely-brought-up young girl in a Christian house.  It makes me think of the sort of person who meets a strange young man to whom she has never been introduced, and talks to him in a forest with her hair coming down.  They find her afterwards floating in a pool.  Not at all the thing one wants for ones daughter.

JANE: Oh, but how thrilling it sounds!

MRS KNOWLE: Well, I think you are safer with “Jane,” dear.  Your mother knew what she was about.  And if I can save my only child from floating in a pool by calling her Sandy, I certainly think it is my duty to do so.

Contemptuous of the romances she’s heard tell of in real life, Melisande dreams of something more dramatic for herself.

And she gets it.  Into her life comes Gervase Mallory.  Romantically named, romantically handsome, and, at the time, romantically dressed in blue and gold on his way to a costume ball.  It is a shock of attraction for them both and when they meet again they find they both can weave a beautiful fantasy of their love.

But in the third act – the best of all – it all unravels.  Melisande, confronted with the idea of Gervase the man rather than the fantasy, of a man who when not dressed in blue and gold instead wears a loud golfing suit, who when not frolicking in glades with her is so unromantic as to work on the stock exchange, promptly convinces herself that he is not worth loving.

Gervase, however, while happy to spin a romantic tale, is rather more practical than the object of his affections.  After his first glimpse of Melisande he’d encountered a peddler in the woods, Master Susan, and had a conveniently timed conversation about the benefits of a friendly marriage:

SUSAN: When you are married, every adventure becomes two adventures.  You have your adventure, and then you go back to your wife and have your adventure again.  Perhaps it is a better adventure the second time.  You can say the things which you didn’t quite say the first time, and do the things which you didn’t quite do.

Susan is also helpful in reminding Gervase that looks are not the only thing that matter in the long term:

GERVASE: Do you believe in love at first sight, Master Susan?

SUSAN: Why not?  If it’s the woman you love at first sight, not only her face.

Thanks to this encounter (and just being altogether more sensible than his beloved), Gervase arrives for the reunion with his feet on the ground and his heart already given away.  Melisande, not even remotely prepared to believe the real world could have any acceptable romance to offer her, is horrified and the entire scene is delightful.  There are so many Milne plays I wish I could see performed and this has moved high up on that list.

Lighthearted and fun throughout, the play also doesn’t neglect its minor characters.  Bobby, realising he’s had a lucky escape from Melisande, quickly transfers his attentions to her pretty cousin Jane, which is all very satisfying.  Mrs Knowle flutters about – a kind but featherbrained sort-of-person – while Mr Knowle shows up every so often to be surprisingly funny.  They are a kinder, fonder version of the Bennets:

MR KNOWLE: […] We have a visitor coming, a nice young fellow who takes an interest in prints.

MRS KNOWLE: I’ve heard nothing of this, Henry.

MR KNOWLE: No, my dear, that’s why I’m telling you now.

MRS KNOWLE: A young man?

MR KNOWLE: Yes.

MRS KNOWLE: Nice-looking?

MR KNOWLE: Yes.

MRS KNOWLE: Rich?

MR KNOWLE: I forgot to ask him, Mary.  However, we can remedy that omission as soon as he arrives.

MRS KNOWLE: It’s a very unfortunate day for him to have chosen.  Here’s Sandy lost, and I’m not fit to be seen, and – Jane, your hair wants tidying –

MR KNOWLE: He is not coming to see your or Sandy or Jane, my dear; he is coming to see me.  Fortunately, I am looking very beautiful this afternoon.

All ends well, of course, proving that romance can survive in the modern age – just not quite as Melisande had envisioned it. (Thank goodness.)

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Not to content to simply debut multiple new plays in 1920 (not to mention welcome a son who would eventually gain immortally as Christopher Robin), A.A. Milne also put forth If I May, a collection of typically light pieces he’d written for various publications.  Milne published multiple volumes like this over his career and while, for my part, I think the collections of his writing for Punch (The Day’s Play, The Holiday Round, Once a Week, and The Sunny Side) are the best, this book still holds some charm.

Milne bounces from subject to subject with whimsy that was typical of both his style and the era.  He contemplates the glory of his grand garden (several small beds and containers), the romances that can be divined from the game of chess with its courtly players and countless intrigues, and struggles with awkward social engagements.  For the most part, they are light pieces and some of them go so far as to be charming – not enough of them, though, to make this a really good book.  It’s still an entertaining one to pass time with but, with one exception, I don’t think any of the pieces are memorable.

As with anything by Milne, there were eminently quotable passages.  Here are a few of my favourites:

Given our current housebound state and the consciousness of the household projects needing attention, who cannot relate to this:

In the castle of which I am honorary baron we are in the middle of an orgy of “getting things done.”[…]

I have a method in these matters.  When I observe that something wants doing, I say casually to the baroness, “We ought to do something about that fireplace,” or whatever it is.  I say it with the air of a man who knows exactly what to do, and would do it himself if he were not so infernally busy.  The correct answer to this is, “Yes, I’ll go and see about it today.”  Sometimes the baroness tries to put it on to me by saying, “We ought to do something about the cistern,” but she has not quite got the casual tone necessary, and I have no difficulty in replying (with the air of a man who, etc.), “Yes, we ought.”

Right now we are luckily spared the need to go to awkward dinner parties but I certainly haven’t forgotten this feeling:

I am as fond of going out to dinner as anyone else is, but there is a moment, just before I begin to array myself for it, when I wish that it were on some other evening.  If the telephone bell rings, I say, “Thank Heavens, Mrs Parkinson-Jones has died suddenly.  I mean, how sad,” and, looking as solemn as I can, I pick up the receiver.

And if I hadn’t already loved Milne, I would have become a convert at this clear-sighted description (even a hundred years latter) of a certain – and very common – type of interaction between the sexes:

…it is only the very young girl at her first dinner-party whom it is difficult to entertain.  At her second dinner-party, and thereafter, she knows the whole art of being amusing.  All she has to do is to listen; all we men have to do is to tell her about ourselves.  Indeed, sometimes I think that it is just as well to begin at once.  Let us be quite frank about it, and get to work as soon as we are introduced.

“How do you do.  Lovely day it has been, hasn’t it?  It was on just such a day as this, thirty-five years ago, that I was born in the secluded village of Puddlecome of humble but honest parents.  Nestling among the western hills…”

And so on.  Ending, at the dessert, with the thousand we earned that morning.

It is light, frothy entertainment and all very well-suited to our current situation – it gives you a smile and demands absolutely nothing of your brain in the process.  Turns out that the post-war need for levity is exactly right for 2020.

But there was one piece that I think I will remember, amidst the froth.  It is the final essay, in which Milne, now in his late-thirties, is examining a desk he’d purchased when he first moved to London as an aspiring young writer.  Unlocking it, he finds in the cubby holes old notes and letters in response to his early submissions for publication and reflects on how far he has come since then:

There were letters from editors; editors whom I know well now, but who in those distant days addressed me as “Sir,” and were mine faithfully.  They regretted that they could not use the present contribution, but hoped that I would continue to write.  I continued to write.  Trusting that I would persevere, they were mine very truly.   I persevered.  Now they are mine ever.  From what a long way off those letters have come.  “Dear Sir,” the Great Man wrote to me, and overawed I locked the precious letter up.  Yesterday I smacked him on the back.

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If you’re still looking for something to read this week as part of the 1920 Club, here are a few titles from my archives that might appeal:

In the Mountains by Elizabeth von Arnim – Unless you are an extraordinarily lucky Swiss person, you won’t in the current circumstances be able to read this book in the place it is set, as I did.  But you can dream that you’re in the alps while reading it, which may have to be what we all settle for this year.  (And if you’d rather just look at alps than read a book, I can help – check out my many photos from a past trip to Wengen.  As I am doing.  Constantly).

Penny Plain by O. Douglas – If you are looking for a gentle book that reeks of tea and warm blankets and evenings by the fire, this is it.  O. Douglas weaves a characteristically cosy tale around the virtuous Jean Jardine.  This is as good a time as any for a nice sentimental fairy tale.

The Truth About Blayds by A.A. Milne – This was one of Milne’s favourites among his many plays and it’s not hard to see why.  Snappy dialogue and a suitably complex moral quandary elevate it above the commonplace and make for a highly entertaining read.  If you’re looking for something fast (I know lots of people are struggling to concentrate on their reading right now) then a play is just the thing for you.

And, of course, there’s The Stepmother also by A.A. Milne which I just wrote about yesterday.

Happy reading everyone!

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Is The Stepmother by A.A. Milne the shortest possible thing I could have chosen to start The 1920 Club off with?  Very possibly and I love it for that; it means I was able to sneak something in on Sunday afternoon to start the week with.  And it’s a suitable way to start: for me, this week is going to be devoted not just to 1920 but even more specifically to the works of A.A. Milne.  1920 fell during his most prolific period and, remarkably, I still have a few things left by him I haven’t read or reviewed yet, like this short one-act play.

The Stepmother premiered in November 1920, just a few days after the second anniversary of the armistice.  The war’s legacy is felt in the story, which is brief and rather sentimental – far from the more substantial and far more polished works Milne premiered both the year before (Mr Pim Passes By) and the year after (The Dover Road).  It’s a slight work and, yes, an inferior one but still enjoyable.

We open at the London home of Sir John Pembury, MP where a young man – the Stranger – has arrived and demanded to speak with Sir John.  He will not give his name and refuses to say what his business is, insisting the butler tell Sir John only that “someone from Lambeth” is here to speak with him, confident Sir John will know what that means.  The Stranger warrants one of Milne’s typically detailed introductory notes:

[The butler] has already placed him as “one of the lower classes,” but the intelligent person in the pit perceives that he is something better than that, though whether he is in the process of falling from a higher estate, or of rising to it, is not so clear. He is thirty odd, shabbily dressed (but then, so are most of us nowadays), and ill at ease; not because he is shabby, but because he is ashamed of himself. To make up for this, he adopts a blustering manner, as if to persuade himself that he is a fine fellow after all. There is a touch of commonness about his voice, but he is not uneducated.

With the butler gone to fetch Sir John, the Stranger is not left alone long before Lady Pembury comes in.  She is, as Milne makes clear in another introductory note, just the right person for a disgruntled young man to meet:

In twenty-eight years of happy married life, she has mothered one husband and five daughters, but she has never had a son–her only sorrow. Her motto might be, “It is just as easy to be kind”; and whether you go to her for comfort or congratulation, you will come away feeling that she is the only person who really understands.

The Stranger quickly (it is a one-act play after all with an obvious title) quickly reveals his reason for coming.  Lady Pembury, faced with the knowledge that not only does her husband have an illegitimate son whom he knew about but that this son, having lost his job, has now come to demand money, steels herself magnificently and in a few short moments mothers the boy in a way he has been missing since the death of his own mother two years before.  Alone in the world and down on his luck, he has become something he is embarrassed by, pride destroyed to the point where he is preparing to blackmail his own father for money.  Lady Pembury, she who has always wanted a son to mother, teases out the best parts of him, finding the man who wants to stand on his own, to take responsibility for himself and to one day present himself to his father not as a beggar but as a son to be accepted.

The Stranger’s meeting with Sir John is not at all the one he’d planned, in the end, and he goes off with a much-needed sense of optimism about the future.  Lady Pembury, on the other hand, goes on with her life quietly and calmly but with its foundations shaken.

For a writer who was excelling at artful waffling – pages of his plays from this era consistent of charmingly light dialogue that bubbles along like champagne – this is a melancholy piece.  It is sentimental and gives you hope that the young man will piece his life together, as so many young men were trying to do.  He will do it alone and be honorable and keep his pride.  But he will struggle, as he has been struggling for years, and the tiredness and loneliness will not leave him any time soon.  In comparison, Lady Pembury’s disillusionment with her husband is mild but something, some innocence, has been taken from her as well.

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