I have to be honest; reading “Two People” by A. A. Milne made me look sideways at my husband. This lovely Capuchin Classic was first published in 1931 and is one of A. A. Milne’s less famous novels for adults. It is a meditation on marriage and an investigation of where and how the individual fits in. It is a piece of whimsy which considers how two people, who may love one another deeply can maintain their own personalities whilst also maintaining a meaningful marriage. A. A. Milne’s lens focuses on that moment when the first flush of love has died away, when the home is settled and so is the routine, when it is easy to confuse boredom for disillusionment.
The subjects of this excellent book are Reginald and Sylvia Wellard. Theirs is a marriage of a middle-aged man to a much younger woman tucked away in an idyllic corner of the English countryside. They are surrounded by material comfort – and unlike most of their countrymen in 1931, know a total lack of want. The period covered by the story – which we assume to be little more than a moment in the history of their marriage, is one in which Reginald writes and publishes a novel, to unexpected commercial and critical success. In her introduction Ann Thwaite notes that even people who don’t enjoy novels about writers will enjoy this book. I think that I would go further and say that A. A. Milne uses Reginald’s novel as a torch for illuminating the differences between the husband and the wife rather than for its own sake.
And differences between husband and wife there are. Reginald the gentleman novelist is characterised by his age and his self appointed intellect. It is as a result of Reginald’s novel that they find themselves more and more in London – in a world more sophisticated and more full of confusion than their rural home. There Reginald is drawn to more obviously intellectual women – but what is he drawn to them for and how to they really compare to his wife? Sylvia, the wife is by contrast characterised by her youth and beauty. Where her husband is intellectual, she is intuitive. Where he seeks out recognition, she is happy to lead a simple life. Where he is interested in society, but often rubs people up the wrong way, everyone who meets her is drawn to Sylvia – whether she is interested or not. Even the household pets prefer her – or so Reginald imagines. In many respects, Westaways, their beautiful country home represents Sylvia, and she represents it. Reginald and Sylvia are like opposing camps – but this is not a novel about marital discord – it is about relatively subtle marital difference.
This gentle theme is explored through the whimsical mind of Reginald. Although the novel is called “Two People” – Sylvia is a strangely off stage character – and there is little insight into her mind. The joke of Reginald’s musings is that, although it is clear that Sylvia is not his intellectual equal – I did rather wonder if he had overestimated his own talents. By contrast, Sylvia shows a mature and careful understanding of her husband. Possibly Reginald is falling into the trap that many have fallen into before and since – of mistaking beauty and calm for ignorance and disinterest. Although he worships his wife it is hard to avoid the conclusion that he does not look at the whole woman – he looks at a shimmering and rather simple image of her. A striking moment of contemplation on this theme is as follows:
“It ought to be possible to carry a very small Sylvia about with you everywhere; in the waistcoat pocket; so that wherever you were, you could take her out and feel her loving warmth in your hand, and hear her say “Its alright darling...” And then of course, if you liked to put her back in your pocket when you were discussing the Theory of Relativity at the club, or talking rather cleverly and humorously to – well, to Lena, or to – well, Miss Voles, say, then you could – if you wanted to”.
By the time I put the book down (in fact, a good while before) I had come to regard Reginald as a rather ridiculous man – whom it would be satisfying to relegate to somebody else’s pocket. In Reginald we have a strange mix of confusion and certainty – and it is for each reader to interpret how self-knowing he really is.
If the novel sounds as though it may be rather heavy based on what I have written, let me correct this. A. A. Milne’s text is light and extremely funny. In Reginald’s world, his cats talk to him, country folk, who are no less irritating that he, irritate him, and townsfolk, who are no less vacuous than he, depress him. His narrative of these adventures is funny indeed. His intellectual pretensions get knocked down more than once. My favourite such moment is quoted below:
“Trouble is, Wellard, Life’s vulgar. Being born’s vugar, dying’s vulgar, and as for living, well, three quarters of it is stomach, and stomachs are damn vulgar”.
On that note, I am thrilled that this gem has been saved by Capuchin. Both Simon at Stuck in a Book and Elaine at Random Jottings of a Book and Opera Lover have also written splendid reviews of this book.