Book Review: The Extraordinary Life of A A Milne

by Nadia Cohen

“If the person you are talking to doesn’t appear to be listening, be patient. It may simply be that he has a small piece of fluff in his ears.”

After finishing Nadia Cohen’s newly published biography of the writer A.A. Milne, I reached for my well thumbed and somewhat tatty copy of The Illustrated Treasury of Children’s Literature and turned to page 357 to look at the first few lines of In Which Eeyore Loses a Tail and Pooh Finds One.

It’s a very long time since I first read the stories of Winnie-the-Pooh, but like so many people born in the last eighty odd years, the motley animals of Hundred Acre Wood are deeply embedded in my childhood memories – in my case, they are strongly associated with being snuggled up in a cosy bed, book balanced on my knees, fingers curled around a steaming mug of Horlicks.

With this in mind, it makes me sad to think that both Alan Alexander Milne and his son, Christopher Robin Milne, on whom his storylines were based, came to deeply resent these whimsical tales of a boy and his bear. Alan because the fame of Pooh utterly eclipsed all his other written works – although he made a vast fortune from him – and Christopher because he was ridiculed mercilessly in school, eventually coming to believe his childhood had been stolen from him.

In 1939 Milne senior wrote an amusing but restrained autobiography (republished earlier this year by Bello): It’s Too Late Now, and his son later produced several memoirs detailing the relationship he had with his famous father, from adoration to enmity. However, Cohen’s relatively short (216 page), far from scholarly life history is certainly engaging, and what it lacks in meaningful literary analysis, it gains in readability.

She Tiggerishly scampers through Milne’s early life as a British spy, playwright and humorist, up to and including the publication of Winnie-the-Pooh in 1926, then more leisurely traces his post-Pooh career, difficult marriage to Daphne de Sélincourt, latter compositions and disgruntled dotage – until his death in 1956 at the age of 74.

While The Extraordinary Life of A A Milne will undoubtedly delight fans, it will probably appeal to anyone with even a passing interest in the author and his famous teddy bear. One hopes that it also brings fresh interest in his Pooh-free plays, novels and non-fiction.

Many thanks to Pen & Sword for supplying an advance review copy of this title.

Book Review: Aphra Behn: A Secret Life

by Janet Todd

The 17th century dramatist, Aphra Behn, is a notoriously tricky subject for biographers to tackle. For such a gregarious and ostensibly dissolute figure, facts about her are rudimentary and her background is almost impenetrable – but that hasn’t stopped the British scholar Janet Todd from achieving a phenomenal feat with her freshly revised life history of the dynamic playwright.

Behn is celebrated for being one of the first English women to earn a living from her pen. She courageously shattered many cultural conventions of her day, while in some ways remaining in step with her times. She was a major influence on female writers for years to come, but her prosopography is murky, which to some extent was intentional on her part.

“Aphra Behn is not so much a woman to be unmasked as an unending combination of masks and intrigue, and her work delivers different images and sometimes contradictory views.” – Janet Todd

Believed to have been born around 1640, Aphra Behn rose from obscurity to work as a secret agent in Antwerp for the newly returned English King. She lived through a time of immense political upheaval, when the decadent Charles II and his court returned from exile, ushering in a new era both in fashion and the arts.

Todd’s research into the period is breathtaking, and the limited knowledge we possess about Behn is used to create a stout and thoroughly detailed biography, which reveals much about the people with whom she associated and the places she frequented in Restoration London. Inevitably, there is speculation over the man she married, her intimate friendships and bisexuality – though, there is a wealth of information pertaining to her plays and poetry – however, this volume is as close as we are likely to get to the woman behind the mask.

A gripping portrait of an enigmatic character.

Many thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing Plc for the advance review copy of this title.

Book Review: In Search of Mary Shelley: The Girl Who Wrote Frankenstein

by Fiona Sampson

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley is remembered above all for creating a monster – the grotesque but perceptive creature from her 1818 novel, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus – although, at the time, she was renown far more for her scandalous behaviour.

Following her death in 1851 she was immortalized as widow of the doomed Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and as daughter of the founding feminist philosopher, Mary Wollstonecraft and radical theoretician, William Godwin. For some years thereafter the bulk of Mary’s literary output was tied up in a beribboned box marked ‘lady scribbler!’ and neglected by all but her most committed devotees.

Modern readers of the Classics are generally familiar with the basics of her biography, quite simply because there has been so much written about the influential literary and philosophical movement of which she was a part. It is likely, therefore, you will be aware her mother died shortly after giving birth to Mary in 1797; that she outraged Regency England by ‘eloping’ with her married lover; and she lived an unconventional existence surrounded by some of the foremost writers and radical thinkers of the day. In addition, you are almost bound to have some knowledge of her being widowed in 1822 when Percy drowned in a boating accident off the Kingdom of Sardinia (now Italy).

For quite some time, however, next to nothing was known of her inner life, intellectual influences or sizeable body of literary works. Muriel Spark did much to redress this bewildering neglect in her excellent 1988 life history, Child of Light: Mary Shelley, but there is now an accessible, insightful biography coming out in 2018 to coincide with Frankenstein’s 200th anniversary celebrations.

British poet and writer, Fiona Sampson MBE, attempts to understand the intensely private young women behind a novel of obsession, pride and hunger for love. She endeavours to “bring Mary closer to us”, ask what we know about “who and how and why she is” and “about how it is for her.” For instance, she examines how being pregnant and grieving over lost infants for a significant part of her married life reflected in Mary Shelley’s writing; and wonders from where an eighteen year old girl living in such a misogynistic era developed the strength of character and prowess to compose a unique Gothic masterpiece. Sadly, a trunk of her juvenilia was lost in Paris when she eloped in 1814, and many of her letters were subsequently destroyed, but Sampson’s detailed analysis raises a number of interesting questions and she works hard to restore Mary’s often maligned reputation.

While Percy was without doubt a talented, enlightened, beautiful wild child, he could also be self-serving, fickle, sexually incontinent and in many ways typical of his day in the treatment of women. Mary was his intellectual equal, but was seldom treated as such. You can at times detect something of Sampson’s exasperation at the selfish behaviour of the men and various female dependants in Mary’s life. In modern parlance, we might well describe her a ‘doormat’.

Mary survived her husband by almost thirty years, supporting herself and their only remaining son, Percy Florence, with her pen. She received little sympathy from those around her following the former’s death (with the possible exception of Lord Byron), and for the most part was left to cope alone. Nevertheless, her groundbreaking horror novel is now recognised as a landmark work of science fiction, and scholars regard her as being a major luminary of the Romantic movement.

In Search of Mary Shelley is an engaging and powerful portrait of a complex and often misrepresented figure. Indeed, it offers an ideal introduction to the life, work and times of an extraordinary woman.

Many thanks to Serpent’s Tail for supplying an advance review copy of this title.

Book Review: A Chill in the Air: An Italian War Diary 1939–1940

by Iris Origo

When a complimentary copy of this book arrived in the mail from Pushkin Press, I immediately noticed that the introduction had been written by Lucy Hughes-Hallett, author of The Pike: Gabriele D’Annunzio, Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War – a brilliant, multi award winning biography of the notorious Italian poet and playwright. This certainly boded well in my mind for Iris Origo’s diary, which covers the months leading up to Italy’s entry into the Second World War.

English born Iris came from a privileged background and lived in Italy for most of her life, marrying the illegitimate son of Marchese Clemente Origo in 1924. Together they purchased a 7,000 acre estate in Tuscany and brought prosperity to a poverty stricken region. During the war she sheltered innumerable refugees and helped Allied prisoners escape from the fascist regime. She was appointed DBE in 1976.

Origo was already known to me as being one of the finest diarists of the twentieth century for her moving and compassionate journal detailing Italy’s disastrous involvement in the same conflict, War in Val d’Orcia: An Italian War Diary 1943-1944, first published in 1947. Aware that her book had been a critical success, I had coincidentally just been reading extracts from it in Irene and Alan Taylor’s The Assassin’s Cloak: An Anthology of the World’s Greatest Diarists.

Published this month for the first time ever, A Chill in the Air details the extraordinary events to which she was witness during a most peculiar period in Italy’s history. She writes next to nothing about herself or her personal life but records the discussions she had with, among others, peasants, farm workers, friends, members of the aristocracy and her godfather, William Philips, the US Ambassador in Rome – and it is plain to see the incredulity of the ordinary people as Mussolini dragged them to war.

Unable to leave Italy for the duration of the war, Origo was a resident alien, but she was also an astute observer with an excellent understanding of Italian politics, and put her time to good use. However, while her more famous diary vividly records a rural farming community surviving the horrors of conflict, this is a very different document, which is likely to appeal to historians and those with an academic interest in the period rather than the general reader. It does, nevertheless, add to her fascinating oeuvre and is worth perusing in tandem with War in Val d’Orcia.

Many thanks to Pushkin Press for  gifting a copy of this title.

Book Review: The Outrun

by Amy Liptrot

“I’m gradually learning to say things sober that other people wait to say drunk.”

Without a doubt, this book has been my favourite read of 2017. It was a Christmas gift from my Mother in 2016, and I am ashamed to say that it remained on the shelf for several months before I settled down to read it over a long weekend break in Barmouth Bay. I mention my whereabouts because The Outrun has at its heart the wild seas of the Orkney Islands, so the plaintive call of oystercatchers passing overhead merely added to my overall enjoyment of this remarkable book.

Amy Liptrot’s candid memoir is an exhilarating journey from the wild Scottish north of her upbringing to her sleazy, drunken, carousing years in London, by way of mental illness, romantic love and gradual addiction. However, Liptrot is no cry baby. She returns to her rugged homeland at her lowest ebb, and learns that it is possible to survive without alcohol as she listens for the mysterious nocturnal ‘boom’ of the corncrake and each morning plunges into the icy sea.

The Outrun will, I am sure, be recognised as a classic of the genre for generations to come.

Book Review: Tove Jansson Life, Art, Words: The Authorised Biography

by Boel Westin, Silvester Mazzarella (Translator)

Tove Jansson, author of the Moomins and one of the great idiosyncratic talents of the 20th century, must surely have found her ideal biographer in Boel Westin. With previously published works on Lewis Carroll and August Strindberg, this Professor of Literature at the University of Stockholm knew Jansson personally and wrote a PhD dissertation on her ideologies and philosophies.

A Swedish-speaking Finn, Jansson was both novelist and artist, but became so well known for creating her bevy of eccentric “beings” (most closely resembling terrestrial manatees or curvaceous hippos) that people tend to be unaware she was a respected painter, cartoonist and illustrator in her homeland long before becoming a world-famous children’s author. Westin does much to rectify this oversight, with some of her most captivating chapters devoted to Tove’s time as a humble student, her early exhibitions, travels in Europe and her struggle to cope during the dark and depressing war years. Of this period Jansson wrote:

“One day people will say that we lived in interesting times, in a great period. But I think the great events around us have only diminished us. People cannot manage to be magnificent in a long-lasting war.”

Westin was given complete access to Jansson’s vast personal archive of notes, letters, diaries, illustrations and sketches in order to research this fascinating 500-page book: an affectionate, honest but never salacious life history. She treats with respect Tove’s deep and joyous relationships with women, most notably her soul-mate, Tuulikki Pietilä (known as Tooti), describing their extraordinary, symbiotic existence with immense understanding and warmth. She also explores in considerable detail her artistic background (her father was a sculptor, her mother a graphic designer), close friendships, passion for isolated islands and the years following the final Moomin story when she focussed on writing for adults.

The Moomin books, published between 1945 and 1970, became big business from the 1950s onwards and their popularity merely increased with longevity. These days, when you visit Finland, you can stay in Moomin-themed hotel rooms; go to Moominworld, a theme park on the island of Kailo; and enjoy savoury pancakes at the Moomin cafe in Kuopio. Indeed, so much are these small philosophical trolls now an integral part of Finnish culture, they even adorn the wings of Finnair – fondly known as ‘The Official Airline of the Moomins’.

It is no longer necessary for fans to travel to the Nordics in order to seek out Moomin merchandise, for they can now drop into The Moomin Shop in London’s Covent Garden Market and acquire anything from Moomin-themed make-up bags and bath towels to Snufkin candles and Little My cushion covers. There are even Moomin cafes and shops to be found as far afield as Japan, Hong Kong, China and Thailand.

One wonders what the famously high-principled Jansson would have made of this extreme commercialisation of her creations. She was exceedingly protective of her work throughout her life and seldom permitted companies to use her inventions for profit – refusing Walt Disney’s request for the exclusive rights to the word Moomin. Nevertheless, I feel sure she would be quietly pleased that the Moomins continue to resonate with 21st century children and adults in countries across the globe.

In this intelligent and meticulously researched biography (adeptly translated by Silvester Mazzarella), Westin has succeeded in capturing the spirit of Tove Jansson (who passed away in 2001 at the age of 86) – a singular woman with a strong work ethic and rich imagination – in short, a genius of Moominmental proportions.