He don’t mean any harm

John Bayley

  • A.A. Milne: His Life by Ann Thwaite
    Faber, 554 pp, £17.50, June 1990, ISBN 0 571 13888 8

Emancipation involves escape, but having got out of the Victorian prison, what then? The new world may seem wholly delightful, like Blake’s Beulah or Keats’s Chamber of Maiden Thought, or the land of sexual intercourse we entered in 1963, so why not stay in it for ever? Somewhere at the top of the forest a little boy and his bear will always be playing. But this soft magic may end up seeming as hateful and hypocritical as Victorian repression, a new sort of conformity from which the next generation will emancipate itself in derision and disgust. A.A. Milne’s favourite novel was Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh, which came out in 1903, not much more than a decade before the begetting of Christopher Robin, in fact and in fiction. Milne may well have thought that he was destroying for ever that awful old father and son relationship, blowing away the tyranny and obfuscation, showing that age doesn’t matter, that nanny will give them sixpence each and they will always remain the best of pals. Things don’t work out quite like that. Did Christopher Milne or Ernest Pontifex suffer more at the hands of the elder generation? Hard to say.

‘No one, not even Cambridge, was to blame,’ as Auden wrote about the case of A.E. Housman. But Cambridge, however unexpectedly, was quite a lot to blame for the phenomenon of A.A. Milne and Pooh Bear, when they were very young. The atmosphere of enlightened upper-middle-class fun and games, in a new world where to be young was very heaven, suffuses Rupert Brooke’s life and letters, sometimes rather sickeningly so; and it produces a lot of sticky passages in E.M. Forster’s novels A Room With a View and The Longest Journey. Forster, too, was a great admirer of The Way of All Flesh, about which there was nothing in the least sentimental. So quickly can emancipation become overripe. Yet A.A. Milne was not a bit like either Forster or Brooke. He was playing football at Trinity, attending mathematics supervision, and smoking his pipe with old Westminster school-friends. He was an adroit and lucky young man, with an eye to the main chance and very little nonsense about him. But the atmosphere of Grantchester and the Apostles and good states of mind was a heady and pervasive one, which he must have imbibed almost unconsciously; and it was to reappear in unexpected form in the world of Winnie the Pooh.

In the meantime Milne had been assistant editor of Punch, and written innumerable whimsical weekly pieces, and been a signals officer on the Western Front, where he had the luck to develop trench fever and be invalided home and to be given a base job for the rest of the war which kept him there. He wrote plays in which debutantes were daringly outspoken and butlers crossed the stage to answer the phone. It was as a playwright that he always hoped to be remembered. He was a pacifist and liberal on the left who today would be a Labour voter (SDP a year or two back) and Guardian reader. He married, just before the war, a bright young thing with a rich father. (Milne’s father, who ran a prep school, is described on their marriage certificate as ‘Gentleman’, hers as ‘Merchant’.) They had separate bedrooms, which was very much the thing at the time: Marie Stopes ruled that it kept romance in a marriage and should always be practised ‘where finances permitted’. Dorothy Milne, always known as Daphne or ‘Daff’, probably knew less about sex than her Victorian grandmother, and accepted it in a much less philosophical spirit. One of the paradoxes of emancipation, as D.H. Lawrence perceived, was that the bright new world did not include sex, except in bogus romantic form. But Daff was gay and witty, with the Pekinese flower face for which the cloche hat was designed (see Shepard’s illustration to ‘James James Morrison Morrison’), and they were very much in love.

And so, to outward appearances, they remained. Did Kenneth Grahame, who also supported a fairly enigmatic marriage, write The Wind in the Willows for his little boy as a result? Milne turned it into popular dramatic form as Toad of Toad Hall, but despite superficial resemblance to the Pooh world it remains a fundamentally different achievement. The Wind in the Willows is a masterpiece because it really does create a new world, a serious self-contained place, whereas Pooh and Christopher Robin and Milne’s version of Toad are seen and manipulated by the grown-ups. The real Christopher Robin, known to his father as ‘Billy Moon’, had to take the role of the child obliging his parent by always accepting the game and the story made up for him, a perpetual encouragement and playing along of the old by the young. It is this lack of independence which is ultimately wrong with Pooh land: the animals are doing their thing because father has shown Christopher Robin how to see them, play with them, imagine them. Kanga and Rabbit, Tigger and Owl and Eeyore, are certainly memorable creations, archetypes whom everyone who has read the book in childhood remembers: but they are a different order of creation when compared with Mole and Rat and Toad and Badger. Milne is like an emancipated God, controlling the universe through his son, who remains a part of him. Grahame set in motion an ideal reactionary world, in which everyone knows his place and functions on their own. His world is in a sense that of Hardy, Milne’s like that of C.S. Lewis or Tolkien. Milne’s ideology was not theirs, but all three have the ideologue’s intrusiveness: like Owl and Rabbit they are fundamentally bossy.

Part of Milne’s cleverness, of course, is to make himself, and ourselves, and Christopher Robin and Pooh and Piglet, the sort of OK people who are not going to be bossed around. Unbossiness is the superior thing, which ministers to our complacency and makes us all Pooh-like, bears with very little brain who can nonetheless write verse (like Milne) and know all the unpretending common-sense answers. The enlightened upper-middle class, in fact. Ann Thwaite points out that the tyrannically aristocratic Sir Brian Botany, in Now we are six, is humiliated by his social inferiors, and comforted after his discomfiture by finding his right level as ‘plain Mr Botany, B’. The strange thing about the popularity of Milne’s children’s books is the obviously reassuring effect they had on grown-ups, who felt that the type of home life and culture they represented was the true wholesome thing, protecting them from the alarming glitter of social pretension, and, still more, from the ‘fearful embarrassment’ which Hilaire Belloc detected as characteristic of the ‘people in between’. Astonishingly enough, Christopher Robin, who seems so fearfully embarrassing now, was then a great solvent of social unease, a kind of talisman against it, comparable to the contemporary charm of coming from ‘sound working-class stock’. The middle class required authors to be nice while we now expect them to be nasty, and Milne, whose heart, according to his son, ‘remained buttoned up all his life’, was brilliant at exploiting the taste of the time for sentimental irony and moralising whimsy.

Even ‘Vespers’ (‘Little boy kneels’ etc) is an ‘ironic’ poem, as Ann Thwaite points out. ‘Whimsical’ had no doubtful overtones then but suggested the most delightful spontaneity: suddenly rushing off to play Poohsticks, or finding one had eaten the whole pot of honey. Although I found myself taking part, as it were, in the Pooh books when young, and no doubt delighting in them, I remember that they seemed to belong more to one’s parents than oneself, offering the model for a somewhat speciously hearty family atmosphere. For deep solitary enjoyment The Wind in the Willows was the thing, and other books which offered a private domain, well away from family entertainment. But even in 1930 there were those who were having a go at Milne, like P.G. Wodehouse with the children’s poet Rodney Spelvin – a good-natured dig but spot-on – and Richmal Crompton, whose William has very little time for ‘Anthony Martin’, whom he once encounters in the flesh. Yet William is an equally reassuring figure, whom we know will grow up sound, just as Milne himself did, according to the not unmalicious eulogy propounded by Frank Swinnerton.

Milne is so far out of the literary fashion that he failed to detest his parents. His parents had previously failed to ill-treat and misunderstand him.

He failed to detest his school and his schoolfellows. He married early, and his marriage failed to be a failure. He had one son, who failed to disappoint or to hate him. And his life has failed to be disagreeable in every particular.

Swinnerton then dips his pen a little deeper. ‘Milne dresses with marked taste and care (I mean no more than that) and he walks at considerable speed without looking very much at those who pass him.’ All this is a preliminary to the real point: that J.M. Barrie had the genius and fecundity that goes with neurosis, whereas Milne, however non-disagreeable all his gifts, was ‘deficient in vulgarity and energy’.

Swinnerton was writing in the Thirties, in a book called The Georgian Literary Scene, and he implies that the New Niceness was emasculating the theatre, and that the ghost of Pooh and his owner stalked the boards whenever Milne produced a new play. There was something in that. The theatre remained Milne’s enduring love, in the service of which he found the children’s books an embarrassment, and his greatest disappointment was when taste and fashion began to leave him behind, in the late Twenties and when Other People’s Lives, which he thought of as one of his sharpest pieces, flopped in New York. Its title there was They don’t mean any harm, and it was about two bright young couples who decide out of sheer wantonness to befriend the dreary people in the flat below, with predictably gruesome results. It is not at all a bad play, which could even be revived if the later scenes were judiciously rewritten: but where Milne is concerned, its main interest is to show what a potent influence Cambridge and its Apostolic ideals still were. Himself virtually a teetotaller, Milne detested the fast-living habits of the hard and brittle post-war generation, and his prudishness in speech and deportment was often remarked on. Just as the animals and Christopher Robin do in one sense bear a resemblance to the enlightened groups of 1909 (when, as Virginia Woolf sardonically put it, human nature changed), so Milne’s theatre world made strenuous efforts in the direction of uplift, sexual equality and the pacifist community, under cover of soft wit and a softer frivolity. Shaw’s St Joan and Dunois, with their fondness for watching kingfishers and being in the open air, were ideal Milnian protagonists; and the theatre world of the Forest is directed by the promising young Christopher Robin under the experienced guidance of Milne himself. Frederick Crews in The Pooh Perplex had himself a time with Pooh and the New Criticism, but the joke has no real substance, for Milne’s world is imposed from outside rather than rising out of the sub-text. All the same, deconstructionists must be cross with Crews for pre-empting their thing.

He was as fluent a novelist as playwright, redoubling his efforts in both directions to escape the mushrooming fame of the Pooh books. Michael and Mary, a thoughtful drawing-room comedy of 1929 about a young couple who are not really married and hence can show us what true marriage really means (Milne loved to look non-stuffy about such things), was followed the same year by the novel Two People, which comes as close as Milne ever came to his own private life. Daphne detested the heroine Sylvia as much as Mrs Hardy hated Sue Bridehead: ‘that woman in Two People gave me a sort of pain,’ an American interviewer reported her as saying. The pain came from the fact that Milne is studying a happy marriage in which both partners have acquiesced in the loss of romance and have become good pals who never quarrel or give each other pain, from jealousy or misunderstanding. There are two planes in marriage, and the thing is to know how to fall out of love on to the safer, more friendly and more comfortable one. ‘Just think of the average marriage – it makes one shudder,’ a character comments in an early Milne play, and it seems likely that both Milne and his wife agreed not to look too closely at what was happening to them, except that Milne as writer, with the splinter of ice in the heart, could make covert copy of it. Both seem to have had discreet affairs, he with an actress, she with the American playwright Elmer Rice, and to have come affectionately together again without fuss or damage.

Ann Thwaite has already written a quite exceptionally discerning and scholarly biography of that cunning old Edwardian, Edmund Gosse, and this study of Milne has as much or even more distinction and depth. She has a Coleridgean gift for getting into the feel of her subject – the man, the age, the style – and giving the bulk and perspective of her work the atmosphere appropriate to them. The reader feels he has been included in an E.H. Shepard drawing of the period. Her sense of families and servants and how they lived is impeccable too. Milne’s father sounds one of the best, a shrewd and successful schoolmaster devoted to his family and pupils. Alan Milne was youngest of three, never got on with his eldest brother Barry, who became a solicitor and caused trouble about wills when his sibling grew rich, but adored the middle brother Ken, who died of TB at the age of 48 and collaborated a good deal with Alan in their early days. He sounds the nicest of the three. Alan himself is suitably a slight enigma in Ann Thwaite’s presentation, the nice man whom not everybody liked, and who must have buried his sense of this in that loving reciprocal relation with the little boy, and afterwards the big boy too, for when Christopher Robin was 18 he and his father used to sit on the sofa together doing crossword puzzles, for which both had a passion. Milne used to go and see him at weekends at school, unaccompanied by Daphne, who was often on some clothes-hunting expedition. Of course there were problems: Pooh was an incubus round the boy’s neck, but it was not until his four-year war service in the Engineers, an affair with a girl in Trieste, and his engagement to a cousin from the side of the family that his father disliked, that the relationship was definitively broken off.

And that was normal enough. Milne’s declining years were not happy – normal too – for after a stroke his spruce personality became coarsened, and unlike Eeyore he had no gift for settled gloom. His son’s devoted nurse Olive had married, though she had no children of her own, and lived in a cottage called ‘Vespers’, with a stone Pooh family in the garden. In an early sketch a girl says to her friend that she’s heard a queen wasp bites her lover’s head off when she’s finished with him, ‘but why couldn’t she keep him to talk to in the evenings?’ This is somehow the quintessential Milne world. You may lose your head or other parts of you in it, and in the end probably will, but at least there’s a nice chat with Piglet on the way, and a laugh at Rabbit or Owl.