Review by Simon Thomas
You might be familiar with the beautiful little hardbacks from Notting Hill Editions, where they select essays and other writings from across the range of an author’s career, often around a particular theme. I was delighted when I heard that my favourite author, A.A. Milne, was getting this treatment – and intrigued, because he only wrote two volumes of fairly light-hearted essays, and these were very early on in his career.
Looking at the range of titles from which these pieces have been borrowed (listed in the publishing information), I see that those volumes are there – Not That It Matters (1919) and If I May (1920), as well as Those Were The Days, which is an omnibus of four books of humorous sketches and the like, which can certainly fit into this sort of book. Even more intriguing were inclusions of his pacifist call-to-arms (if that metaphor isn’t too contradictory), Peace With Honour, and the subsequent, much shorter book War With Honour, which essentially said that fighting Hitler made the war a whole different prospect. Pieces are also drawn from a collection of introductions Milne wrote for other books, and a very late-career book of musings, Year In, Year Out. The whole breadth of Milne is here. It must have taken a bit more doing to chop things into the correct lengths, but it gives a much better sense of Milne’s writing life than selections of his early essays would have done.
The collection is divided by theme, and we start with his more whimsical style. ‘Whimsy’ was a word Milne grew to despise, but I think it is accurate for the sort of insouciant, inconsequential, entirely delightful prose that Milne delighted readers of Punch with in the early 20th century. Here’s the opening paragraph of the book, from ‘My Library’:
When I moved into a new house a few weeks ago, my books, as was natural, moved with me. Strong, perspiring men shovelled them into packing-cases, and staggered with them to the van, cursing Caxton as they went. On arrival at this end, they staggered with them into the room selected for my library, heaved off the lids of the cases, and awaited orders. The immediate need was for an emptier room. Together we hurried the books into the new white shelves which awaited them, the order in which they stood being of no matter so long as they were off the floor. Armful after armful was hastily stacked, the only pause being when (in the curious way in which these things happen) my own name suddenly caught the eye of the foreman. “Did you write this one, sir?” he asked. I admitted it. “H’m,” he said noncommittally. He glanced along the names of every armful after that, and appeared a little surprised at the number of books which I hadn’t written. An easy-going profession, evidently.
I could read this sort of thing all day, and there is a good selection of his early musings on nothing in particular throughout this book. Because the pieces are arranged thematically, though, in this section we also get his introductions to other books and authors – Lewis Carroll, Oscar Wilde – as well as a rather lovely piece on his long-time illustrator E.H. Shepard.
This is all ‘Literary Life’. The other sections – ‘Married Life’, ‘Home Life’, ‘Public Life’, ‘Meditative Life’, ‘Peaceful Life’ – are pretty good divides, though ‘Meditative Life’ might as well be ‘miscellaneous’. I couldn’t decide if I liked the collision of different stages of Milne’s career or not. In ‘Home Life’, for instance, we shuttle in consecutive pieces from Milne’s bachelor flat in London (‘The Cupboard’) to a house he lived in as an old man with a grown up son (‘The Stream’ – at least I think it refers to Cotchford Farm. ‘Cotchford Farm’ certainly does.) It’s a bit dizzying, though each piece is delightful on its own.
My only qualm with this collection is that no piece is given a date and there is no indication where each came from. Having read more or less all of A.A. Milne’s work, I could identify at least the period of each essay, even if I wasn’t sure exactly which book it came from – but, for the uninitiated, it feels a bit odd to have a whole career jumbled up like this. Not least because Milne’s tone changed throughout. He never lost a distinctive voice, but certainly pieces like ‘Spiritualism and the Value of Evidence’ (from Year In, Year Out? Or maybe Peace With Honour?) shows a much more serious Milne, trying to persuade, than we see in his delightful short essay on wasp guns a handful of pages earlier. Not everything in here is a ‘happy half hour’, though enough of it is that the title is warranted.
If you haven’t read more than Winnie the Pooh before, I think this volume will show you the breadth and depth of Milne’s wonderful and prolific career. I think the selection of pieces (by Roger Lewis) was very good, and the only misfire was including some of Milne’s short fiction, that felt a bit jarring (and I would perhaps have included something from Mline’s wonderful autobiography, It’s Too Late Now. Indeed, I thought some of this was from that, but it’s not in the list of titles, so I assume not). Yes, the selection was good, but I would perhaps query the arrangement – and would certainly have liked a little more detail about the provenance of each.
But this is a minor quibble about a book that should be celebrated. Milne was anxious that he would only be remembered for his children’s books, and despite reprints of various books from various publishing houses over the past decade or so, this is probably true. Many of the pieces in here haven’t been reprinted for approaching a century, and it’s wonderful to have them available again. I hope reading Happy Half-Hours sets people off on the hunt for many more half hours.
Simon is a Shiny editor at large and blogs at Stuck in a Book.
A.A. Milne, Happy Half-Hours (Notting Hill Editions, 2020). 978-1912559053, 163pp. incl Introduction by Frank Cottrell-Boyce, hardback.
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