A. A. Milne: 90 Years in the Bear's Shadow
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Winnie-the-Pooh was based on a stuffed bear owned by Christopher Robin Milne. The character and stories were written for him by his father, who has gone on to worldwide fame as the author of the acclaimed children’s stories, as well as for their Disney-animated adaptations. Unfortunately, the author himself has all but vanished in the shadow of Pooh Bear. Now, as Winnie-the-Pooh turns 90, it’s about time we looked at the man who wrote the books.
Alan Alexander Milne was born in 1882. He was an author and playwright quite aside from the creation of Pooh Bear, and fought in the battle of the Somme in 1916. He was also a contributor to Punch magazine, of which he was made an assistant editor. Milne made a name for himself as a humor writer, and so it is perhaps unsurprising that so much of his work for adults is as funny as it is. What may catch readers off guard however, is the genres in which Milne chose to write.
Perhaps the shortest jump that Milne’s adult writing takes from the Hundred Acre Wood is in the fantasy story Once on a Time. It is one of those books that could just as easily be a children’s novel as anything else, though there’s plenty in it for adult readers. Like Wilde’s The Happy Prince & Other Stories, Once on a Time's appeal to children is immediately clear, but the writing style and nuance will be largely lost on a younger audience.
The book tells the story of a king who receives a pair of “seven-league boots” as a birthday present. He then goes on great jaunts away from the palace, roving thousands of miles at a time. At one point, a character who has displeased the king wonders if those boots would allow him to deliver a seven-league kick, which gives you an impression of the way Milne approached fantasy.
During the king’s absences, his daughter, Princess Hyacinth, takes the reins and keeps the kingdom running as smoothly as possible. Things proceed with a sense of humour that is at same time very different and vaguely similar to the humour of Pooh at its best, particularly in The House at Pooh Corner.
For what it’s worth, Once on a Time is often cited as Milne’s favorite of his own books. In the preface, Milne wrote that,
When, as sometimes happens, I am introduced to a stranger who starts the conversation on the right lines by praising, however insincerely, my books, I always say, ‘But you have not read the best one.’
Nine times out of ten, he says, he would find they hadn’t read Once on a Time. When they had, he and his wife would add their name to their calendar, a reminder of the people they’ve met who have read Milne at his best. It seems the least we can do to add ourselves to A. A. Milne’s calendar
For those of you looking to get as far away from Winnie-the-Pooh as possible, you might prefer the altogether different atmosphere of The Red House Mystery. Milne later recalled that, during the time he was writing for Punch he had pitched a detective novel to his publisher, only to be told that readers would expect something different from a “Punch humorist.”
In the end, Milne wrote his crime novel anyway, and in the easy, light-hearted style that marks his work. The book is dedicated to Milne’s father, John Vine Milne, with the dedication reading, “Like all really nice people, you have a weakness for detective stories, and feel that there are not enough of them.”
Aside from the usual intricacies and details, Milne has an incredible ear for dialogue that carries conversations with a sense of genuine immediacy reminiscent of nothing so much as Roald Dahl’s short stories for adults (another writer whose adult work is sadly overlooked). In The Red House Mystery, conversations unfold addled with verbal tics and afterthoughts. In a genre where idle chatter often plays second fiddle to exposition-laden conversation, Milne manages to communicate the simple fun of gossip as well as cross examination.
The Red House Mystery boasts many narrative features that will be familiar to fans of Poirot or even Sherlock Holmes. It features an amateur detective with an assistant working alongside the police to solve a murder in a big house in the English countryside. For bonus points, it also includes that staple of the country-manor-murder, a long-lost brother, recently returned from Australia. The familiar trappings of the genre are elevated by the wry humour that suffuses the whole text.
If you, ‘like all really nice people,’ love a good detective story, maybe The Red House Mystery is the A. A. Milne book to read now...
Those of you who don’t have any interest in detective fiction might be better served by some of Milne’s short-form fiction writing in Once a Week, a collection of short stories that originally appeared in Punch during his tenure as a regular contributor. At Punch, the relaxed and easy sense of humour that permeates so much of Milne’s writing for children took centre stage.
The stories of Once a Week have echoes of Milne’s later work for theatre, with a focus on dialogue and some very straightforward direction. This is a lot easier to explain by example than with clumsy description.
The first story in the collection is The Men Who Succeed, and contains exchanges like this:
“... Oh, Dahlia, he's just like Archie when he smiles!"
"Oh, yes, he's the living image of Archie," said Dahlia confidently.
I looked closely at Archie and then at the baby.
"I should always know them apart," I said at last. "That," and I pointed to the one at the tea-table, "is Archie, and this," and I pointed to the one in the cradle, "is the baby. But then I've such a wonderful memory for faces."
The book is endlessly quotable, with snappy exchanges and elegant descriptions throughout. It’s oddly reminiscent of Flann O’Brien’s The Best of Myles in its depiction of a world that is only half-a-step removed from our own and somehow fundamentally ridiculous.
The only down side to Once a Week is that it’s relatively brief. Of all the Milne we’ve recommended here, it’s the book that you’ll want to pick apart a little at a time and savour every short story from.
In some cases, its stories are entirely ridiculous, while others are so touching that they feel as though they can only possibly be real. In Under New Management the narrator relates the story of trying to offload a troublesome dog on another owner, while quietly fighting not to admit that he can’t bear to be without the poor animal. It’s a bittersweet combination of the hilarious and the heartbreaking that’s tricky to maintain.There are echoes of the same feeling as in the last chapter of The House at Pooh Corner (In which Christopher Robin and Pooh come to an enchanted place, and we leave them there), but it feels very sad indeed that the most appropriate comparison is to Pooh Bear.
It's sad to think that the rest of Milne's work has been almost entirely eclipsed by the success of Winnie-the-Pooh. Maybe now, 90 years later, it’s time for those of us who grew up with Pooh Bear to be grown ups with A. A. Milne, and to read the things he wrote for grown ups.