Sunday, April 25, 2010
Two people - A A Milne
This is the story of a marriage told almost entirely through the husband’s viewpoint. Reginald Wellard lives in the country, in a lovely house called Westaways with his beautiful, much younger wife, Sylvia. Walking in his garden one day, he has an idea for a novel. He writes the book, gets it published &, after a favourable review in a tabloid paper, it’s a great success. The book isn’t really about that, though. There are some very funny scenes satirizing the publishing & newspaper industries. Wellard finds himself feeling obliged to buy copies of his novel at railway station bookstalls because the vendors praise it to him. Then, he feels embarrassed to be seen carrying his own novel around & leaves it in the train or at his club. The novel, Bindweed, is made into a play & Milne enjoys poking fun at the pretensions of producers & actors alike.
But, as I said, Two people isn’t about the success of a novelist. It’s almost a stream of consciousness novel. The reader is with Reginald & his thoughts almost all the time. I’m afraid this was my main problem with the book because I found Reginald to be pompous, self-centred, condescending & very annoying. The Wellards have nothing in common except their love for each other. There are several breakfast scenes where Reginald hopes for a particular response from Sylvia – over a review in the paper for instance - & Sylvia is just oblivious. She makes some irrelevant comment which secretly infuriates Reginald. Yet he continually reaffirms his love for her.
One of the characters, Lady Edgemoor, describes marriages as being on one of two levels. They begin on a very high level of love being enough, nothing more practical or mundane ever needs to interfere. Most marriages though descend to a lower level of companionship where the emotional & physical aspects of love aren’t all-consuming. The Wellards have never descended to this lower level. But is love without companionship & intellectual compatibility enough? I wanted to know how Sylvia felt. She’s portrayed by Reginald as fluffy, very beautiful but nothing more than that. She does an awful lot of gazing up at him, blushing faintly at every demonstration of affection. Her beauty defines her & limits her in his eyes. Sylvia, however, does many things better than her husband. She runs their home perfectly, the servants respect her; she drives much better than him, reversing perfectly, accelerating smoothly. She has a talent for making friends, putting people at their ease. She moves through life with grace. Reginald does have moments of self-awareness, as when he’s comparing Sylvia unfavourably with one of the more intellectual women he enjoys talking to,
‘Damn,’ said Reginald to himself. ‘Why do I keep thinking these things? And what does Sylvia think about me? What a hell this world would be, if we knew each other’s thoughts?’
Well, I wanted to know what Sylvia thought! Reginald & Sylvia take a house in London so that he can be at the centre of literary life. He meets Lady Edgemoor, who, in her previous life as the actress Coral Bell, Reginald had been infatuated with 25 years before. He runs into her one day & takes her with him to his tailors for a fitting & then out to tea. He immediately feels guilty because he’s enjoyed the afternoon so much & because buying clothes was always a special outing for himself & Sylvia. He agonises about telling Sylvia & later discovers that she knew all about it & didn’t mind at all. This is one of the scenes where we see more of Sylvia & Reginald realises that she has a life of her own apart from him. Something he’s not too happy about,
He wondered suddenly if Sylvia compared him with all the other people, as he compared her. The thought was rather disturbing.
The London scenes are fascinating because we learn more about Sylvia. At Westaways, Reginald goes up to town & the reader goes with him & listens to his thoughts all day. When they’re living in London, there are several scenes of Sylvia without Reginald which is rather a relief. Reginald is disturbed by this & eventually they go back to Westaways & it seems they will carry on living their old life. Reginald is planning another book & it seems life will return to its old rhythms.
A A Milne is best-known, of course, as the author of Winnie the Pooh. He was a prolific writer of adult novels & plays, but nearly everything else he wrote is now out of print. His one detective story, The Red House Mystery, was reprinted a couple of years ago & now Capuchin have reprinted Two People. Although I thought Reginald an unsympathetic & at times infuriatingly childish character & I wished Sylvia had narrated alternate chapters so I could have discovered a bit more about her, I did enjoy this novel. The satirical scenes of literary & theatre life were fascinating & obviously written from Milne’s personal experience. This portrait of the marriage of two people very much in love but with nothing in common was an interesting study.