…or, what it’s like to read a book that almost nobody else will ever read.
You may remember, back in April, I posted about Other People’s Lives (1935) – or, at least, about finding it online and receiving my copy in the post.
It was never published as a book; the only copies that have ever existed were acting editions. By their nature, they’re not intended to be kept for very long, and it is rare to find a copy of this play. I was super lucky to do so – and, a few months later, completed the deal by reading it.
The play is quite a simple idea, but executed very well. Mr and Mrs Tilling, and their daughter Clare, are a very happy little family living in a little flat. Mrs Tilling is disabled, and Clare’s job is no grander than labelling envelopes, but neither thing stops them having a wonderful life – and listening to the novel that Mr Tilling has been writing for a while. If Milne’s portrait of a happy family could be accused of being patronising, then those (hypothetical) critics could also be accused of cynicism. It’s heart-warming and, what is more, believable.
In the flat below them congregate Arnold, Lola, Stephen, and Meg. They are Milne characters through and through in their light-hearted teasing and silliness, but with a darker edge than he usually portrays. They are mostly quite selfish and inconsiderate in their joviality; happy to joke and banter, but fairly uninterested in anything deeper. Lola is an exception, and is the driving force behind trying to help her upstairs neighbours.
The plot is a little more complicated than that, but it’s basically a cautionary tale for what happens when people interfere. It’s perhaps a little too bleak – too conveniently bleak, really, considering the series of events that come towards the end – but it’s still executed very movingly, and even made me cry a little.
But, can I really recommend it? I waited over a decade for an affordable copy to appear online, so I don’t imagine anybody will be running out to purchase a copy (nab one if you ever spot it!). It definitely added something to the experience, channelling my inner-hipster instincts; I knew that only a handful of people alive had ever had the chance to read Other People’s Lives, and somehow that made me feel more connected to the audiences of 1935 who’d have seen this on stage. Reading it was quite a different experience from reading Pride and Prejudice or Fingersmith or One Day or any novel that is likely to be recognised by most book-loving people I mention it to. Curious.
Have you had this experience? How do you feel when reading a novel or play or poetry collection so scarce that you’re almost reading it in a void? Let me know!
(And, on a completely unrelated note, episode 5 of Tea or Books? is going to be even later than it already is, because Rachel doesn’t currently have Internet access…)