I have come back from a really wonderfully enjoyable Possibly Persephone? event, which I will write more about soon – hopefully tomorrow. But tonight I shall leave you in no further doubt as to the choice I took along with me – it’s Mr. Pim Passes By by A.A. Milne, and I left my copy with lovely Nicola Beauman, so I will wait and see what she thinks. Onto my review…
Every now and then I write about A.A. Milne’s works, and mention that he was my first great grown-up-books love – ironically, given that he is best known as a children’s writer. Two People and The Red House Mystery have both recently come back into print, and yet there is a huge amount of AAM’s work which is mostly overlooked. Some of his whimsical sketches are currently appearing on Radio 4 – thanks for the heads-up, Barbara! – and you can listen to previous episodes and read more info here.
But today I’m going to write about the most amusing of A.A. Milne’s novels, and the first that he wrote – Mr. Pim (1921). It has a slightly confusing publication history. It is an adaptation of his (once) very popular play Mr. Pim Passes By – and in later editions of the novel it reverts to this title. Confusing, no? Incidentally, it is dedicated to Irene Vanbrugh and Dion Boucicault (the picture is them in the play version, nabbed from Wikipedia) – the former’s autobiography is one of the more interesting and unusual books I’ve read this year. I read it in 2002, and recently re-read it – finding it just as much a joy this time around.
Mr. Pim concerns the family living at Marden House. George Marden is a very proper gentleman, with very proper views. His niece and ward Dinah is rather flighty; her very-nearly-fiance Brian is modern and sweet; George’s wife Olivia is… well, here description rather falters. Milne’s strongest suit is his female characters, and Olivia is perhaps the best role he ever wrote for the stage – and then novel. Olivia, like many of Milne’s heroines, though doubtless infuriating should one encounter her in real life, is an absolute delight on the page. She is strong-willed without ever being remotely antagonistic; she is sweet without being saccharine; she can be flippant or passionate with equal conviction, and yet never quite lets her guard down. Being married to George must be rather difficult, yet one feels that Olivia is the only person who could possibly ameliorate him in any way – and it’s rather lucky that she happens to love him.
Here’s a conversation between Dinah and Brian which rather sets the tone of the family:
Brian, lying back on the sofa, looked at her lazily with half-closed eyes.
“Yes, I know what you want, Dinah.”
“What do I want?” said Dinah, coming to him eagerly.
“You want a secret engagement –“
She gave an ecstatic little shudder.
“– and notes left under doormats –“
“Oh!” she breathed happily.
“– and meetings by the withered thorn when all the household is asleep. I know you.”
“Oh, but it is such fun! I love meeting people by withered thorns.”
Her mind hurried on to the first meeting. There was a withered thorn by the pond. Well, it wasn’t a thorn exactly, it was an oak, but it certainly had a withered look because the caterpillars had got at it, as at all the other oaks this year, much to George’s annoyance, who felt that this was probably the beginning of Socialism.
As the novel opens, Olivia wishes to hang some orange curtains which George considers far too modern for his house. Of such things are narratives spawned – Milne wrote in his autobiography that this idea was the catalyst for the whole story. Elsewhere, Dinah and Brian are almost engaged, and Dinah is trying to find a way to tell her uncle. George himself is busy pontificating: “Tell me what a man has for breakfast, and I will tell you what he is like.” George, I’m sure you will.
Milne was keen to point out that Mr. Pim isn’t simply the play with ‘he said’ and ‘she said’ thrown in, and indeed it is not. The plot is the same, and the characters are the same, but the authorial comment and wry narrative (at which Milne was such an expert) come fully into play. At this juncture, Milne himself breaks off into an amusing account of various breakfasts at Marden House. It’s too long to type out, but he does this sort of thing so well.
And we haven’t even got to Mr. Pim yet. His passing-by is the spark which sends the whole household into frenzy – and quite inadvertently. Mr. Pim is delightfully absent-minded – he takes absent-mindedness into a whole new category. And, lucky Mardens, Mr. Pim has a note of introduction to George. Here he is on his way, being sent off by mutual friend Brymer:
“You’ve got the letter for George?” [said Brymer]
Mr. Pim looked vague.
“George Marden. I gave it to you.”
“Yes, yes, to be sure. You gave it to me. I remember your giving it to me.”
“What’s that in your hand?”
Mr Pim looked reproachfully at the letter which he held in his hand, as if it had been trying to escape him. Then he put it close to his eyes.
“George Marden, Esq., Marden House,” he read, and looked up at Brymer. “This is the letter,” he explained courteously. “I have it in my hand.”
“That’s right. It’s the first gate on the right, about a couple of hundred yards up the hill. He’ll put you on to this man, Fanshawe, that you want. His brother Roger used to know him well – the one that died.”
“Dear, dear,” said Mr. Pim gently, emerging from his own thoughts to the distressing fact that somebody had died.
Mr. Pim ends up coming to Marden House several times that day, for various reasons – George being busy, or realising that he has said the wrong thing. But mostly he doesn’t know quite what a stir he creates – for, on one of his little visits, he happens to mention having seen an ex-convict from Australia, named Telworthy. What Mr. Pim doesn’t know is that Olivia’s first husband, missing presumed dead, was a convict from Australia named Telworthy…
Cue all manner of confusion and upset, panic and madness. Bigamy appears to have arisen at the most proper, law-abiding house in all the county. More importantly, this crisis in George and Olivia’s ‘marriage’ allows Olivia to see exactly how much George esteems reputation, and how much he loves her…
Milne inherits just enough of the wit of the 1890s to let his characters chop endless logic, and has enough of the 1920s to let them do it for a reason. Although all the insouciant characters give off the impression of taking nothing even remotely seriously, in fact there is an overtone where decisions do matter, and changes can happen. It is all incredibly funny, and fairly fanciful – one can only imagine what would have resulted had George Bernard Shaw turned his hand to it – but it is not flimsy.
I’m so pleased that I loved Mr. Pim as much the second time around as the first. I worried that I’d outgrown whimsy, which is a dirty word for some, but I think it would be impossible to outgrow the joy of reading Milne. I encourage you to hunt this one down – it’s quite different from Two People, and very different from The Red House Mystery, and different again from Winnie the Pooh – and it is an absolute delight. Go on – let Mr. Pim pop in for a bit. You never know what might happen.