Peter Hunt on revisiting the Pooh books.
Having four daughters means we get through a fair amount of bedtime reading, and I would guess that like most people we have evolved a list of readable books and unreadable books. I know, for example, that Judith Kerr’s The Tiger Who Came To Tea, and Rosemary Wells’s Stanley and Rhoda should get awards for their beautiful readability for the younger ones: and that Laura Ingalls Wilder’s `Little House’ series, and Hodgson Burnett ‘s A Little Princess should get prizes for stuff that flows off the tongue and keeps the older ones agog. On the down side, I can’t get my tongue around Alison Uttley’s prose at all, while Nesbitt’s The Wouldbegoods is hard going, despite Oswald, and it needs more explanations than I can muster for inquisitive 9-year-olds.
But even with the unreadables, I’m inclined to persevere; there’s good stuff in there, and I don’t often feel like crawling under the sofa in embarrassment. But when it comes to the Pooh books, it’s confession time. Because of an organisational quirk in the Hunt household, I had, until last week, never sat down to read them to the girls; now Abigail (5) and Chloe (3) have their stories together, and last week out came the A A Milne. It was a bit of a shock.
Now, I don’t have the excuse of any normal person who might say that the last time they read Winnie-the-Pooh was thirty years ago, and so they remember it through a haze. I’ve written (allegedly) learned articles on Milne and his books, and quoted my favourite bits in lectures over the years – Piglet and the heffalump `Help, help, a Herrible Hoffalump!’), Owl trying to spell (‘Pooh looked on admiringly’), Eeyore and Pooh (‘Lost your way?’). And, of course, I’ve read Ann Thwaite’s biography of Milne, and her wonderful The Brilliant Career of Winnie-the-Pooh, and so I know that Milne himself was ambivalent about the books.
Well, sitting there with Abby and Chloe and Winnie-the-Pooh, I can now appreciate his point. To begin with, all the `adult’ male toys in the books are either unpleasant, like Rabbit, or incomprehensible (to children), like Eeyore. There’s a good deal of comedy with Owl trying to fool Rabbit (‘Owl looked at him and wondered whether to push him off the tree’) – but who is it for? Now I think Eeyore is (up to a point) very funny, but then I’m … over forty. I’m inclined to think that he only puzzles Abby and Chloe, as he does Pooh and Piglet.
The `child’ characters – Pooh, Piglet, Tigger and Roo – come off a lot better: but then we too often fall over Milne being either twee or smarty-pants. The fact that the ‘oogie-woogie-boo’ stuff (as Beachcomber called it) is nowhere near as bad as some of Milne’s contemporaries could serve up may be academically interesting, but was not a lot of consolation last Tuesday. And from the joke about Pooh living `under the name of Sanders’ onwards, it’s very uncomfortable to be reading sly wisecracks to myself. Some adults might find that sort of thing a relief from having to lower themselves to the level of children, but I don’t think that says a great deal for their respect for children. All of this is quite apart from the fact that both the beginning of Winnie-the-Pooh and the end of The House at Pooh Corner are impossible to read aloud: there’s not only my voice reading and the girls listening, there’s Christopher Robin and Milne cluttering up the place – which is, anyway, awash with sentiment. (“‘Could you very sweetly?”‘ No.)
Now the theory is that the books work because children can identify with both the powerful Christopher Robin, while admiring or laughing at Pooh and Tigger, empathising with Piglet, and sympathising with Roo. Well, maybe. There’s no doubt that when Milne can get himself off the page, there’s stuff that suits everyone. Tigger, for instance, trying to find his breakfast, or Roo asking Kanga if he can go out to play:
“‘We’ll see,” said Kanga, and Roo, who knew what that meant, went into a corner and practised jumping out at himself, partly because he wanted to practise this, and partly because he didn’t want Christopher Robin and Tigger to think he minded when they went off without him.‘
But getting to those bits requires a rather sticky wade through the unreadable and the unswallowable.
The same goes for the books of verses. Again, I know Milne admitted that `They are a curious collection; some for children, some about children, some by, with or from children’, but I do wish he’d stuck with the for children. `Rice Pudding’ and `The King’s Breakfast’ are family bywords, and Chloe is very fond (oh, well), of ‘Hoppity’: but I’m extremely suspicious of the sentimental, not to say patronising, eye of `Buttercup Days’ (Where is Ann / Walking with her man’), and I defy even the staunchest fans to bring themselves to read `Corner of the Street’ (where Percy’s slippers go `Tweet, tweet, tweet’) without a sedative.
It’s not so much that a lot of it is rather feeble: it’s more that Milne’s heart wasn’t in it; he may have been a good craftsman – better than most – but he didn’t have the real enthusiasm and love for children that makes me want to go on reading books which are otherwise unreadable.
What we really need, of course, is a slim volume of the best bits – the best bits for children, that is – stuffed with Shepard drawings. Not much chance of that: there’s money in that there bear, and so Pooh’s Brilliant Career will just have to go on without me. I’m sure he’ll manage, but before my next session with Abby and Chloe, perhaps a little judicious scissor work is in order – or else it’s back to The Little Grey Rabbit.
Peter Hunt is presently editing the Oxford Illustrated History of Children’s Literature. His article on A A Milne appears in Dennis Butts’ Stories and Society: Children’s Literature in its Social Context (Macmillan, 0 333 52247 8, £13.99).
Ann Thwaite’s books mentioned in this piece are A A Milne: His Life (Faber, 0 571 13888 8, £17.50) and The Brilliant Career of Winnie-the-Pooh (Methuen, 0 413 66710 3, £14.99).
Methuen publish the complete opus of A A Milne books about Winnie-the-Pooh, Christopher Robin, Kanga, Tigger, Roo, Piglet and Eeyore – all with the splendid E H Shepard illustrations.