Review by Simon Thomas
What do you know about A. A. Milne? Your answer might be a little different if you’ve read our Five Fascinating Facts – or, indeed, if you’ve followed my blog over the years – but chances are you’ve only heard of Winnie-the-Pooh et al, and a handful of children’s poems about the king’s breakfast, James James Morrison Morrison, and so forth. Towards the end of his life Milne wrote this poem:
If a writer, why not write
On whatever comes in sight?
So — the Children’s Books; a short
Intermezzo of a sort;
When I wrote them, little thinking
All my years of pen-and-inking
Would be almost lost among
Those four trifles for the young.
Although there has been a mini revival in recent years (with reprints of his novels The Red House Mystery and Two People), in 1990 people were already discovering more about Alan Alexander. Now reprinted by Bello, which is also republishing memoirs by A.A. Milne’s son Christopher (Robin) Milne, Ann Thwaite’s celebrated biography A.A. Milne: His Life deservedly won the Whitbread Biography of the Year in 1990. It’s a thorough, entertaining, and sympathetic portrait of a complex man who didn’t end up with the reputation he wanted.
On the face of it, Milne doesn’t actually seem all that complex. He grew up the youngest son of a schoolteacher, born in 1882 and dressed in Little Lord Fauntleroy guise by an adoring mother (for whom he seems to have had limited affection; he was devoted to his father). The family were comfortable and supportive, an intellectual enclave which – although without the connections or lineage which are the stuff of opening chapters to biographies – was happy and contented. Thwaite borrows heavily (as well she might) from A.A. Milne’s own, brilliant autobiography, It’s Too Late Now, sometimes quoting directly and sometimes, as with this paragraph about Alan’s closeness to brother Ken, paraphrasing:
They did everything together, enjoying their extraordinary freedom. They had a habit of getting up extremely early, grabbing a handful of oatmeal from the bin in the kitchen (it was practically all that remained of their Scottish inheritance) and going out into the world while everyone else was still asleep. If they couldn’t be dead, that was next best thing. It was understood, at least by Alan and Ken, that they could do what they liked as long as they did not wake their parents.
Since I am running the risk of paraphrasing the whole book, anecdote by anecdote, I shall speed up. Milne appears to have had a lot of luck – besides the idyllic upbringing and natural intelligence. At Cambridge, he was asked to edit Granta; when setting out as a young writer in London (promising his father he would try it for a year and, if unsuccessful, would become a civil servant) he managed to join the staff of Punch, where he would become Assistant Editor but never Editor. His humorous sketches and essays – which are still wonderful today and have only dated in the best possible way – were extremely popular, and he Became A Name. Thwaite details this period with impeccable research, and a tone which she maintains almost throughout – that is, one which manages to be an enthusiastic without being an appreciation. Unlike some biographers, she does not seem to dislike her subject and her subject’s work. She passes some judgement on individual works, often favourable, but does not linger. The only time when it seems inappropriate to me is when she lambasts Milne’s play The Dover Road, and – quite incongruously – quotes Michael Frayn’s opinion that it is ‘terrible’. (I would argue it is one of his best.)
In the middle of his Punch success came… war. Although a pacifist (a stance he would take up more publicly as WW2 approached) he went to war as a signal officer. It is a period he was reluctant to discuss in his autobiography, and (perhaps for lack of material) Thwaite does not dwell at length on Milne’s experiences – which, after all, were rather less newsworthy than many people who fought in WW1; despite one or two fraught moments, Milne emerged pretty unscathed.
And the next stage of his career began: as a playwright. Again, he met with quite a bit of success, and his plays ran in the UK and US, often simultaneously. The best of this early batch – Mr Pim Passes By, later novelised – was also the most successful. Perhaps my favourite thing about Thwaite’s biography, which is not available from Milne’s autobiography or Christopher Milne’s memoirs, is the amount of research which has been done into critical response to Milne’s work during his lifetime. Without feeling like a checklist, each play is set in the context of its reception – showing not only how long each play ran, but how people responded to it, and how Milne responded to that response. The same is true for his books, as well as his plays, but (and this may be personal bias) the behind-the-scenes of a theatrical production seem far more involving and wide-reaching than those of a novel or volume of poetry.
After the plays came the children’s books. These only get four pages in Milne’s autobiography, but understandably Thwaite is more interested in them. The balance between the attention paid to Pooh and friends and that paid to all the rest of Milne’s life and work must have been difficult. As an AAM enthusiast, I was grateful for the depth given to every aspect of his oeuvre – while I’m sure many would pick this up out of interest developed in the Hundred Acre Wood. I think Thwaite finds this balance perfectly. The genesis and effect of the first children’s book, When We Were Very Young, are documented in a manner akin to the plays and sketches. Thwaite, rightly, sees this as a stage in his writing life – albeit one with a longer-lasting legacy than the others. I’m sure it was both a biographer’s joy and a burden that Milne was so prolific in so many spheres.
His luck began to run out, though. Thwaite’s tone turns more sombre as she writes about the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s (Milne died in 1956). Just as everything he had touched had turned to gold in the first half of his career, so the opposite happened. There were still some notable achievements – Peace With Honour was an important pacifist work in the 1930s, although followed up with War With Honour when more was known about Hitler – but Milne could no longer be guaranteed that the public would want to read what he wanted to write. Nor was his personal life as perfect as it had once had been; both Milne and his wife (Thwaite subtly suggests, with a reticence that I actually think admirable in a biographer) may have had affairs; Christopher felt growing resentment about his involuntary role in the Pooh success story; Ken had died and Barry, Milne’s other brother, swindled Ken’s family out of their grandfather’s inheritance. Things were difficult, and Thwaite does not glory in these difficulties, as some biographers might. Instead, she is solemn and sympathetic, and resists any attempts to hypothesise beyond the evidence she can present.
(This paragraph is strictly for bibliographic geeks. I think this book takes my favourite approach to footnotes, but it may not be one which appeals to all. That is, they aren’t used in the text – but if you flick to the notes at the back, it lists where each quotation or reference comes from. I say that, but here’s my quibble – at least half the time, when I turned to the back, facts and quotations weren’t actually included. Tsk tsk.) In concluding, I can do no better than what the Times Educational Supplement said of Milne in a review of the first edition of this book: ‘Milne frequently described himself as having been lucky… and has luck has continued in having as a biographer Ann Thwaite.’
Simon is one of the Shiny Editors
Ann Thwaite, A.A. Milne: His Life (Bello, 2014), 628pp.
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