Other People’s Lives by A.A. Milne

…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.

Other-Peoples-Lives

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…)

11 thoughts on “Other People’s Lives by A.A. Milne

  • August 19, 2015 at 8:37 am
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    I have – somewhere, probably in the loft – an unpublished novel by an ex-boyfriend who died. It is a – picaresque would be the word – thriller about dodgy academics, forged medieval manuscripts, blackmail, drugs, rent boy antics and the author outrageously, libellously, getting his own back on everyone he didn’t like. Not so much a roman à clef as one with porte grande ouverte. The book is witty and silly, there is for example a scholarly running gag every time the hero consults his watch (“it was 14:53, the Fall of Constantinople”). It is vibrant and readable. It also turned out to be unpublishable for legal reasons as well as the shocking amorality of the hero and also ( it was his first novel) because he hasn’t quite got the pace and balance of the plot right. But I still wish you could read it and agree that he is a lost talent.

    • August 20, 2015 at 7:33 am
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      What a unique privilege for you! That really is something to treasure, Celia, and sounds great fun.

  • August 19, 2015 at 9:44 am
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    I have (and read) plenty of books that other people don’t – they’re not always that hard to get hold of, just quirky. I often wish other people could and would read them, but I’ve learned that alas, you can’t force a friend to read a book! :)

    • August 20, 2015 at 7:34 am
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      Ha! Yes, we have all learned this… and the people who are most likely to enjoy the books we recommend are those that have the most books they already want to read…

  • August 19, 2015 at 3:02 pm
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    I’ve read a lot of books that few people read, but nothing that approaches that level of obscurity. Oh, I suppose the mediaeval Latin manuscript of some local court proceedings, which I transcribed, translated and wrote about as part of my MA, but even then my supervisor had read them too, so I had someone to discuss them with! It makes me feel quite lonely for you and the book, reading your account!

    • August 20, 2015 at 7:35 am
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      Mediaeval Latin ms definitely count as super obscure, especially since most people wouldn’t be able to read it even if it were in front of them!

      But, you’re right, it can feel a bit lonely…

  • August 19, 2015 at 9:16 pm
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    Desire Caught by the Tail, a play by Picasso. My father had a copy and I read it in the 1970’s and I suspect it was one of the fairly early editions (if indeed there are many of these). I loved it, but that had nothing to do with its scarcity (I have never come across anyone else who read it) and it has had none of the effects on me that your reading of a very scarce MS appears to have had.

    • August 20, 2015 at 7:35 am
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      Picasso wrote a play?! Now, I did not know that.

  • August 20, 2015 at 1:52 am
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    Very important question: Is this the AA Milne play that Dorothy Parker reviewed so incredibly scathingly? I remember reading a Dorothy Parker review of some AA Milne play in which the star-crossed lovers tapped out messages to each other. She did not care for it.

    (Dorothy Parker seems not to have cared for AA Milne altogether.)

    • August 20, 2015 at 7:37 am
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      Hmm, no, I suspect not… and I’m now trying to remember which one that IS. Our Dorothy certainly wasn’t a fan, and AAM wrote some delightfully waspish things about her in return in an autobiography. This leaves me in quite the quandary about whether or not to like Dotty P.

  • August 26, 2015 at 7:47 am
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    Wow, what an experience! I read quite a lot of stuff that no one else I know well seems to read, but like Kaggsy, that’s not stuff that’s impossible to find, just stuff that’s a bit odd, and I find people in odd nooks who do read that stuff, too. Are you going to keep the book or sell it for a fortune?

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