I seem to be having a little spate of reading author’s first books (look out for Agatha Christie’s coming up soon!) and I decided a good way to tackle one of the remaining years of A Century of Books would be a re-read of A.A. Milne’s first – Lovers in London (1905). I wrote a little about it back here, in January 2010, but that was mostly about the topic of print-on-demand books. Lovers in London is one of the very few POD books I own, and it isn’t very attractive – but it’s impossible to find a non-POD edition anywhere, mostly because Milne disowned the book and bought back the copyright to prevent anyone reprinting it.
That will probably make you assume that it is appalling, and it isn’t at all. It might only be for Milne completists, but it is nonetheless interesting to see where and how he started. As you might expect, it is about young lovers – only at the beginning they haven’t met. Edward (or Teddy) is the narrator in the mould Milne wrote so well at the beginning of his career – the jovial, cricket-loving, occasionally-writing-for-Punch sort of upper-middle-class man; Amelia is his godfather’s daughter, travelling to England from her native America. We’re early let into the obvious secret – that by chp.24 (and there are only 125 pages; these are not long chapters) Amelia and Edward will be betrothed.
It’s all very cheery and insouciant and very AAM in his sketch-writing days. If you’ve had the pleasure and privilege of reading The Day’s Play, The Sunny Side, The Holiday Round or things like that (and if you haven’t, you should) then you’ll recognise the sort of fun they have:
As we went under the bridge to get to the elephant-house Amelia insisted on buying buns for the rhinoceros.
“But they don’t eat buns,” I objected.
“He will if I offer it to him,” said Amelia confidently.
“My dear Amelia,” I said, “it is a matter of common knowledge that the rhinoceros, belonging as it does to the odd-toed set of ungulates, has a gnarled skin, thickened so as to form massive plates, which are united by thinner portions forming flexible joints. Further, the animal in question, though fierce and savage when roused, is a vegetable feeder. In fact, he may be said to be herbivorous.”
“I don’t care,” said Amelia defiantly; “all animals in the Zoo eat buns.”
“I can tell you three that don’t.”
“I bet a shilling you can’t – not straight off.”
I instanced the electric eel, the ceciopian silk moth, and the coconut crab. So Amelia paid for our teas. But in the elephant-house the rhinoceros took his bun with verve – not to say aplomb.
The most successful sections are such as these – when Amelia and Teddy wander around and indulge in frivolous conversation. It’s witty – not the structured, repeatable sort of wit we meet in Wilde, but the variety that puts a happy smile on one’s face.
Some chapters were less well done, to my mind, and these tended to be where Milne’s imagination got the better of him – particularly one where action wandered (in Teddy’s mind) to a desert island. A little too fanciful, and a little too silly. But for the most part, it is all very entertaining and jolly. What Teddy writes about himself could equally be said of Milne:
I am a harmless, mild-mannered person. There is nothing “strong” about my work; nothing that calls for any violent display of emotion on the part of my puppets. I doubt if there could be an illegitimate canary (even) in my stories…
I can’t see quite why Milne took so against Lovers in London. If it is not up to the standard of his next few books, it isn’t so far behind them as to make it embarrassing. If it were available in bookshops across the land, I wouldn’t hesitate in telling you to get a copy to enjoy on a rainy Sunday afternoon – as it is, in pricey POD editions, you’d be much better off hunting for the much cheaper, much more attractive editions of slightly later books by AAM.