Hurray for Capuchin Classics, reprinting an AA Milne novel – Two People, which was first published in 1931. A slightly less significant event in the Two People timeline is January 2003, when I first read it. This was back in the days when I could really blitz a single author, and read everything they’d written – by the time I read Two People (doing quick sums) I had read 29 books by AAM in the space of two years. Gosh. I’ve read only nine since, so I was pretty much getting to the end of the available AAMs.
With plays, sketches, essays, short stories, an autobiography, pacifist literature, poetry and, of course, children’s books to his name, his novels have always felt a little like an afterthought. Not quite the same joyously whimsical Milne of the early days, nor yet the serious Milne of the Second World War. And, for the most part, I have forgotten everything that happens in his novels. What really remains is a single image from the book – for Mr. Pim it is a pair of orange curtains; for Four Days’ Wonder it is a haystack; for Chloe Marr it is a woman looking into a mirror. For Two People I mainly remembered those two people standing by a pond… which turned out to be fairly insignificant.
As Ann Thwaite points out in her short introduction, and is evident to any who has read her very excellent biography of AAM (in print, or available from a penny on Amazon), Two People is pretty autobiographical. Not only is the male half of those two people a writer, but the portrayed marriage between Reginald and Sylvia Wellard bears a striking resemblance to that between Alan Alexander and Daphne Milne. There are two novels in Two People – one about a naive rural novelist seeing his first book, ‘Bindweed’, become a success in London literary society; one about a man married to much younger, beautiful woman who is not his intellectual equal.
And that’s the crux. Sylvia is often wise, always kind, ludicrously good – but she doesn’t understand Reginald’s jokes, ignorantly assumes any obstacle will be simple for him, would be content to live a quiet, unassuming life in Westaways – a thinly disguised Cotchford Farm, the Milne’s Sussex residence. At first I though Sylvia’s astounding beauty was showing the prejudiced viewpoint of Reginald, but people all over the place stumble over themselves and exclaim involuntarily at her beauty – which is sweet but a little exaggerated and, it has to be said, no true depiction of Daphne Milne.
Ann Thwaite warns in her introduction that even those who ‘have an aversion to novels about writers’ will enjoy this. I didn’t know people had such aversions – I think novels about novelists are fascinatingly revealing about the author. But there is much more to Two People than that – I’d be astonished if anyone could finish the novel thinking Reginald wholly appealing (his views about laying on water for villagers are rather reprehensible, for example) but, much more importantly, it is an honest and true depiction of a marriage. Says I, who is not married, but certainly it seems to deal with the genuine, everyday issues that a marriage would face – with temperaments as catalysts, rather than adultery and murder and all those extremes.
Being Milne, the novel is also very funny. I recognise that AAM is an acquired taste – some find the whimsy a trifle sickening, whereas I find it delightful and clever. Two People isn’t the most representative of Milne’s work (I’d look towards The Sunny Side for an in-print example, from Snow Books) but I do encourage you to seek it out. Milne’s non-children’s work is seriously underrated, and I loved this novel upon re-reading it. Bright but also with a serious undertone – and possibly the nearest thing Milne wrote to an autobiography of his marriage, since his actual autobiography It’s Too Late Now rather skirted around it.
Here’s a scene which illustrates the perils-facing-a-writer strand, and the humour (they’re at a tennis party):
“Fella in the Sixtieth out in Inida with me wrote a book,” said Colonel Rudge suddenly.
“Oh?” said Reginald
“Fact,” said the Colonel. “Fella in the Sixtieth.”
Reginald waited for the rest of the story, but it seemd that that was all. The Colonel was simply noting the coincidence of somebody over here writing a book and somebody in India also writing a book.
“Tranter, that was the fella,” came from his right. “Expect you know him.”
Reginal awoke and said that he was afraid he didn’t. (Why ‘afraid’, he wondered. Afraid of what?)
“Well, he wrote a book,” said the Colonel stubbornly. “Forget what it was called.”
“What d’you say your book was called?” said the Colonel, evidently hoping that this would give a clue to the title of Tranter’s book.
“Bindweed,” grunted Reginald, feeling suddenly ashamed of it.
“Bindweed!” (What the devil does it matter, he thought angrily.)
“Ah!… No, that wasn’t it. Bindweed,” said Colonel Rudge, pulling at his moustache. “That’s the stuff that climbs up things, what? Gets all over the garden.”
“Thought so. […] Sort of gardening book, what?” said Colonel Rudge.
“What?… Oh… No.”
“It is the stuff I mean, isn’t it?”
“What I said. Climbs up things. Gets all over the garden?”
“Oh yes, yes. Always!”
“What d’you say it was called? This stuff?”
“Yes. And what d’you say your book was called?”
“That’s right,” said the Colonel fretfully. “That’s what I said.”
This, thought Reginald, is one of the interesting people brought down from London who want to talk to me about my book.