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Monday, March 29, 2010

The Hundred-Acre Wood Way of Matrimony: Two People by A. A. Milne

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.

30 comments:

  1. What a fascinating review of A A Milne's novel, Hannah. I find myself wondering how autobiographical it might have been.

    My skin prickles at the arrogance of Reginald and at his inability to see his wife in anything other than what psychoanalysts might describe as a 'part object' perspective.

    It's rather like the way a baby in the first few months of life experiences his mother as an extension of himself. She comes in the form of her breasts, that which feed him. The idea of putting Sylvia into his pocket, taking her out and replacing her at will, I find slightly abhorrent, though I know well enough about the desire to carry a beloved person around with me in my pocket. Thanks Hannah.

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  2. Hannah, I enjoyed reading your review and think I would enjoy this novel. I like to read something light and whimsical, as a change of pace from heavier reading (which at this point in my life means text books!)

    Thank you for coming by and visiting my Quiet Country House, and for letting me know you had been by. :)

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  3. How interesting Hannah. I'm sorry to admit I didn't even know he wrote books for adults! I shall certainly look it up.

    Thanks for popping by Bookish, by the way.

    www.booksof2010.blogspot.com

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  4. Thank you for your your mention of my review over at Random Jottings. I agree with your review entirely and found this book a fascinating read.

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  5. Somehow I've never wanted to read A. A. Milne's adult books, but your review and the quotation changed my mind. I was never the fan of Winnie-the-Pooh many are (heresy, I know), but this sounds very amusing

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  6. Loved your review, Hannah - and am so glad that Capuchin reprinted this. I read it in 2002 or thereabouts, and wasn't bowled over - but when I reread last year, I realised what a good novel it is. And very autobiographical - I think Milne was trying to understand his own marriage through the novel.

    He is *such* a versatile author - he seems to have done a bit of everything: plays, poetry, novels, sketches, children's books, non-fiction, autobiography. If you can get hold of either his autobiog or Ann Thwaite's biog of him (or, indeed, both!) do try to - they're both brilliant.

    Simon

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  7. Thanks for your comments all -

    Elisabeth - I think from what Simon has said and from the introduction to the novel - this is quite autobiographical. Milne's biographery is Ann Thwaite - who also wrote the introduction to this Capuchin Classic - so i will certainly be putting her biography on my Amazon wish list! In terms of you comments about how Reginald regards Sylvia - yes - it is often extremely galling - it is open to interprettation how self knowing and self critical Reginald really is. Thanks for your visit and thoughtful comments.

    Aisling - you are welcome! Thanks for visiting and commenting - and yes this is a light whimsical read which I recommend. Sorry to hear about the text books.

    Sarah - I think that I prefer A. A. Milne the adult writer to A. A. Milne the children's writer - but it turns out that he wrote plays and poetry and all sorts - so there is plenty more discovery to be done.

    Elaine - thanks for visiting and commenting - I loved reading your review.

    Frisbee - hope that you enjoy it - it is a great read and I also love the illustrations by Angela Landels that adorn the Capuchin Classics - they capture the books just right in my opinion.

    Simon - you are a well of knowledge - thank you - I will sseek out the Ann Thwaite biography....

    thanks for visiting all and have great weeks.

    Hannah

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  8. I hate to admit that this sounds intriguing because I share my idol Dorothy Parker's view of A.A. Milne's other works: "Tonstant Weader fwowed up." Nevertheless, I might have to check this out. Thanks for the review!

    -Connie @ Constance-Reader.com

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  9. This sounds like a very intriguing book-I confess I also did not know Milne wrote books for adults-it does seem like it would make one reflect on the state of their marriage-great post

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  10. I was wondering the same thing - if Reginald was a substitute for Milne and that's why the book did not delve into Sylvia's point of view very much.

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  11. Wanting the wife in his pocket that he could take out and replace at will has a slightly creepy feel.

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  12. Thanks for your comments all

    Connie - I do have a soft spot for Dorothy Parker but also hope that you enjoy this read!

    Mel U - Milne seems to have written for almost everyone - and written in almost every form, so i am looking forward to reading more.

    StephanieD - Yes - I think that this is likely to be right. Sylvia is one of the "two people" of the title and she largely preoccupies Reginald in the narrative - yet she is so distant as to be an almost "off stage" character.

    Bybee - it certainly is!

    Thank you all for visiting and commenting

    Hannah

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  13. That was absolutely excellent! I won't be reading the book because I can't stand the fellow! What a sensitive, intelligent review. Thanks!

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  14. You've opened up a new world for me...I too had no idea that he wrote adult novels. I love these examination of marriage stories, I find them so fascinating. I've put this on hold at my library!

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  15. great review! I think marriages in the 1930s are very much different than the ones now...this book sounds like an interesting revelation of the marital challenges in that era...

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  16. Hi all -

    Nan - I don't blame you for being turned off by the character! thanks for your kind comment.

    Laura - Hope that there isn't a queue at your library and that you enjoy the book. thanks very much for visiting and commenting.

    China - thanks for visiting and commenting - yes I agree about the fact that marriage has shifted since this period (thank goodness!) - I think that characters like Reginald and Sylvia got married far more quickly than people do today - and thus faced far more major "revelation of character" issues (!) -

    Thanks indeed for your visits and comments

    Enjoy the rest of the week

    Hannah

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  17. Hannah-thank you for your kind comments! Having read your review and Simon's, I think I will have to check this book out (if it's available in the U.S., that is...). Happy blogging!--Jo

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  18. Hi Jo - thanks so much for visiting and commenting. i think that Capuchin operate mail order - although I am not sure where they send books to. The web address is www.capuchin-classics.co.uk.

    Happy reading!
    Hannah

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  19. I'm in the camp with the other commentators who had no idea Milne wrote adult novels. Live and learn.

    But I am a big fan of Between-the-Wars Brit Lit of all stripes, so I will keep an eye out for this one or his other adult novels.

    Great review!

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  20. I actually read this review ages back but somehow couldn't open the comments page. This was a lovely review and I am definitely going to search for this on my next trip to the book store. Do post some more lovely reviews like this one :)

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  21. Rose City Reader - it is certainly good "between the wars brit lit" (which is a phrase I love!) - speaking of which my long awaited copy of "Enemies of promise" by Cyril Connolly has just arrived from amazon - I've been looking forward to that for ages.

    Vaisnavi - I am so touched by your comment - thank you! i will do my best!

    thanks for your visits and comments all

    Hannah

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  22. sounds really great. I've just learned about Capuchin classics and hope to check out some of their offerings soon!

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  23. I had no idea that A.A. Milne wrote anything other than the Pooh books and poetry for children. I wonder if this is autobiographical at all.

    This was an interesting, insightful review that I enjoyed very much.

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  24. What a great review. I'll definitely be seeking out a copy of this book Like JaneGS, Rose City Reader and others I wasn't aware that Milne wrote adult novels - this makes me want to read it even more. I've just discovered Nina Bawden's novels for adults (having read Carrie's War, etc. when growing up) as a result of the Lost Booker so perhaps I'll progress on to Milne.

    Just discovered your blog & I'll definitely be back!

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  25. This looks lovely. Thank you for mentioning it as I was not aware of its existence.

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  26. Thank you for this review. I had no idea he wrote for adults, and this looks fascinating. I just put a copy on hold and look forward to reading it. And now I'm going to subscribe to your blog. :-)

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  27. Thanks for visiting my blog. I hadn't the slightest idea Milne wrote novels for adults- how interesting! I doubt my library has any, though.

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  28. Very late reply to Connie's comment! I love that Milne quoted Dorothy Parker's criticism in his autobiog like this: 'Tonstant Weader fwowed up [sic, if I may]'

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  30. Having just re-read Christopher Milne's two volumes of autobiography, I am on the point of reading his father's Two People in the 1932 Albatross edition. Will I be able to enjoy the book without remembering the strong dislike I have taken to the author? I hope to be able to separate the two.

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