It’s been about a decade since I blitzed most of A.A. Milne’s very many books, and now I’m enjoying revisiting them. I thought a trip down Milne Memory Lane would be a handy way to cross off 1919 on A Century of Books, so I picked up his collection of humorous essays from that year, Not That It Matters.
The first piece (although they are not in chronological order) starts ‘Sometimes when the printer is waiting for an article which really should have been sent to him the day before, I sit at my desk and wonder if there is any possible subject in the whole world upon which I can possibly find anything to say.’ (The final line in the book, incidentally, is ‘And Isaiah, we may be sure, did not carry a notebook.’ Which gives you some sense of the wide variety Milne covers in this collection.)
Some of the essays are very indicative of their time – from 1910 to 1919, as the essays appeared during that period in The Sphere, The Outlook, and The Star. I’m not sure ‘Smoking as a Fine Art’ would appear anywhere today, except as a consciously controversial piece, nor could any 21st century essayist take for granted that his reader went for frequent country houseparties, attended Lords, and had strong memories of the First World War. On the other hand, many of the topics Milne covers would be equally fit for a columnist today, if we still had the type who were allowed to meander through arbitrary topics, without the need to make a rapier political point or a satirical topical comment. Milne writes on goldfish, daffodils, writing personal diaries, the charm of lunch, intellectual snobbery, and even what property programme presenters would now call ‘kerb appeal’ – but which was simply ‘looking at the outside of a house’ in Milne’s day.
I love Milne’s early work, because it is so joyful and youthful. In the sketches and short pieces published in The Day’s Play, The Holiday Round and others, ‘The Rabbits’ often re-appear – these are happy, silly 20-somethings called things like Dahlia and (if me) addressed by their surnames. They play cricket (badly), golf (badly), and indoor party games (badly) on endless and sunny country holidays. It’s all deliciously insouciant and, if not quite like A.A. Milne (or anybody) really was, great fun to read. When Milne turns to essays, he can’t include this cast, of course. And he was in his late thirties when Not That It Matters was published – still young, perhaps, but hardly youthful. He was a married man, though not a father quite yet, and his tone had changed slightly – from the exuberance which characterised his earliest books, to the calmly witty and jovial tone which was to see out the rest of his career. Here’s an example, more or less at random, of the style which makes me always so happy to return to Milne:
“Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,” said Keats, not actually picking out celery in so many words, but plainly including it in the general blessings of the autumn.
My main qualm with these essays is that they do often end in rather a forced manner. He’ll put in a reference that drags everything back to the opening line, or finishes off pat in a slightly different direction. It doesn’t feel especially natural, and is perhaps indicative of the looming deadlines Milne mentions in the first essay…
As the title suggests, nothing of life-changing importance is addressed in Not That It Matters. He does not adopt a serious voice at any point – indeed, I cannot think of a time in any of his books where he becomes entirely serious, not even in Peace With Honour, a non-fiction (and excellent) book wherein he put forth his pacifist views. Even at these moments his weightiest points are served with a waggle of the eyebrows and an amusing image. That’s how he made his impact.
I do prefer the whimsy of his fictional sketches to the panache of his essays, but it is still a delight and a joy to have Not That It Matters and its ilk waiting on my shelf. It definitely bears re-reading, and I’ll be going on a cycle through Milne’s many and various books for the rest of life, I imagine.
Tomorrow I’ll type out a whole of one of his essays, ‘A Household Book’, because I think it’ll surprise quite a few people. And will show to my brother that I was RIGHT about something I’ve been saying to him for a decade. Ahem. The essay is in praise of a then-underappreciated book by a famous author… and ends with this paragraph (come back tomorrow to see what it was!):
Well, of course, you will order the book at once. But I must give you one word of warning. When you sit down to it, don’t be so ridiculous as to suppose that you are sitting in judgment on my taste, still less on the genius of ******* *******. You are merely sitting in judgment on yourself… You may be worthy; I do not know. But it is you who are on trial.