As 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.