Toad of Toad Hall – A A Milne

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What could be better than a play written by one of the English language’s best known children’s authors based on the book by one of the others. A A Milne whilst famous for his tales of Christopher Robin, Winnie the Pooh and all his friends in The Hundred Acre Wood was also a prolific playwright and in 1929 he adapted Kenneth Grahame’s famous 1908 tale The Wind in the Willows for the stage. This year marks ninety years since the first production and the copy I have is the first American edition also from 1929 printed by Charles Scribner’s Sons of New York. The introduction is particularly interesting as Milne deals with the problems of adapting a book, particularly one as well known as The Wind in the Willows.

There are two well-known ways in which to make a play out of a book. You may insist on being faithful to the author, which means that the scene in the aeroplane on page 673 must be got in somehow, however impossible dramatically, or, with somebody else’s idea in your pocket, you may insist on being faithful to yourself, which means that by the middle of act III everybody will realise how right the original author was to have made a book of it. There may be a third way, in which case I have tried to follow it. If, as is more likely, there isn’t, then I have not made a play of The Wind in the Willows. But I have, I hope, made some sort of entertainment, with enough of Kenneth Grahame in it to appease his many admirers, and enough of me in it to justify my name on the title page.

Milne’s solution to condensing the book is to focus on the parts that feature Mr Toad. this means that a consistent central cast is established although Toad is actually only in roughly half of the original book. He also gets round the problem of just how big is everyone, after all Toad drives cars and owns a horse drawn caravan but is definitely smaller than Badger whom we know lives under a tree in the Wild Wood so must be ‘normal sized’ at least most of the time. by having the start of the first act and also the epilogue make it clear that all the action is actually the dream of a young girl called Marigold sitting with her nursemaid on the banks of the river on a warm spring morning, neither of which are in the original story.

In reading the book, it is necessary to think of Mole, for instance, sometimes as an actual mole, sometimes as such a mole in human clothes, sometimes as a mole grown to human size, sometimes as walking on two legs, sometimes on four. He is a mole, he isn’t a mole. What is he? I don’t know. And, not being a matter of fact person, I don’t mind. At least I do know, and still I don’t mind

This quote, also from the introduction, gets to the heart of the ‘problem’ with The Wind in the Willows. But the reason why I put the word problem in quotes is because it isn’t a problem and never has been to readers of the book who are just swept up in the story. But put it on a stage, with humans playing the characters, and the stage director definitely has a potential problem. This is solved by the dream concept and allows the tale to unfold seamlessly with everyone being human sized yet still being Mole, Ratty, Badger, Toad et al.

For all of Milne’s protestations above the play is actually remarkably faithful to the parts of the book being dramatised and the humour is wonderful. Especially for my mind those lines given to Alfred, the sarcastic, and feeling much put upon, horse pulling Toad’s caravan. Anyone who loves Eeyore in the Winnie the Pooh stories will love Alfred, he was created by Milne as the horse isn’t named and is only a bit and indeed silent player in the book but here he really comes alive…

Enter a horse pulling a gaily painted wooden caravan

ALFRED Oh, there you are. I’ve been looking for you everywhere
TOAD (excitedly) Now isn’t this lucky? Just at the psycho – psycho – what’s the word?
ALFRED (hopefully) Encyclopaedia, That is, if you ask me
TOAD I didn’t ask you. Ratty you know the word–
ALFRED Introduce me to your friends, won’t you? I do get so frightfully left out of it
TOAD My friends Mr. Rat and Mr. Mole this is Alfred
ALFRED Pleased to meet you. If you are coming my way, you must let me take you. Only I do like a little conversation (To Toad) Encyclopaedia, that was the word you wanted
RAT (Sadly) So this is the latest?
TOAD (Eagerly) Absolutely the very latest. There isn’t a more beautiful one, a more compact one, a more – what’s the word?
ALFRED Heavy
TOAD A more up to date one, a more –
RAT So this is the latest craze! I understand. Boating is played out. He’s tired of it, and done with it
ALFRED Don’t blame me. I wasn’t consulted about this at all; but if I had been, I should have said boats. Stick to boats.
TOAD My dear old Ratty, you don’t understand. Boating – well – a pleasant amusement for the young. I say nothing against it. But there’s real life for you (he waves a paw at the van) – in that little cart. The open road, the dusty highway, the heath, the common, the hedgerows, the rolling downs!
ALFRED And the ups. However nobody consults me. Nobody minds what I think.

The play starts with Marigold on the phone (actually a daffodil) pretending to call Mr. Rat who she eventually gets through to and sets the basis of the play as her fantasy as regards the main characters. Suddenly we hear elfin music, the stage goes dark, Marigold and her nurse vanish and the magic of the story unfolds with Mole appearing out of his hole and meeting Ratty for the first time. We are soon afterwards introduced to Badger and then Toad and the tale continues with the arrival of Alfred so they can go on a caravanning trip. Sensibly Badger declines to be involved. Caravanning doesn’t last long however, they are forced off the road by a furiously driven car and the only thing Toad can think of after that is having one of those; “Poop Poop” is all they can get out of him for quite a while. And so ends the first act.

Act two is set entirely within the Wild Wood home of the dangerous Stoats and Weasels. Initially with Mole getting lost whilst exploring in the snow and scared of the woods inhabitants before being rescued by Ratty. Then the two of them stumble over Badger’s house and decide to take refuge from the bad weather and the ever present danger from attack when wandering at night in the wood. Inside Badgers home all is comfortable and settled as you would expect from the residence of an older gentleman content in his own company. The three friends start talking about Toad and his motoring exploits, apparently he has already owned (and crashed) seven cars, they are just discussing what they should do to save him from himself when Toad himself arrives. He has crashed car number eight… Badger decides to keep Toad at his house until this current craze has passed but after a few weeks Toad manages to trick Ratty into leaving him alone and the act closes with Toad running off singing about how clever he is.

Act three starts in a courthouse with Toad on trial for stealing a car and then calling a policeman fat-face. Sentenced to twenty years for these heinous crimes, especially the being cheeky to a policeman we then find him in a cell. He makes his escape with the help of the jailers daughter and her washerwoman aunt who they bribe to let him wear her clothes and after a series of adventures, including stealing a bargee’s horse he heads for the river.

The final act starts with Toad at Ratty’s home where he is informed that during the four weeks he was incarcerated the Stoats and Weasels have taken over Toad Hall and a daring plan is formed by Badger to take it back. The final scene of the battle and aftermath is actually the only time Toad Hall appears in the play despite being in the title. Finally the short epilogue as mentioned earlier has Marigold asleep amongst the daffodils as her nurse wakes her to go home.

As can be seen from the above précis the play follows the book pretty well, and it is sometimes difficult to spot which author is responsible for what. Indeed I will leave the last word to the summary on the dust wrapper of the first US edition and a photo of the front of the dust wrapper which is a paler version of the book cover shown at the top of the blog

we in turn, might ask ourselves after reading this play: “Is it Kenneth Grahame? Is it A. A. Milne?” We don’t know, but it doesn’t at all matter, for it is perfect

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First Penguin crime set – part 2

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This continues a marathon reading session of all 10 of these books printed eighty years ago this month. I started late (the evening of the 12th) so I have less than a couple of days to read each book and write a short review. Part 1 covered books 151, 152 and 153 and can be seen here. As I read each book I’ll write a review on this blog and post on Tuesday next week as far as I’ve managed to get.

154 – The House on Tollard Ridge – John Rhode

Before reading this book I knew nothing about John Rhode and apart from a small black and white photograph of a man in late middle age smoking a pipe and a couple of glowing comments regarding his ability from two magazines printed on the dust wrapper there is nothing on the book to give me any idea about him. I decided to finish the book before finding out anything about the author.

The story was quite enjoyable although I was deeply suspicious of the person who turned out to be the murderer very early on in the book and none of the rather obvious red herrings put me off that train of thought as there was really only one person who could have controlled the events as they did. The main oddity of the book was that although it is 248 pages long Rhode’s amateur detective doesn’t appear until page 98 and up until then it reads as though Superintendent King from the local police force is the main character. When Dr Priestley does appear in the book it is only for a short while whilst explaining the case to him gives the author a chance to sum up what he has told us so far and it isn’t until page 172 that Priestley really comes into his own and starts to take apart the case made by Superintendent King. It is also at this point that it becomes clear that this isn’t Rhode’s first book about Priestley as other cases are mentioned, I’m guessing that the only other book by Rhode that was published by Penguin ‘The Murders in Praed Street’ is going to be one of them, I don’t own a copy and won’t be rushing to get it.

Finally looking up John Rhode, he turns out to be the pseudonym of Cecil John Charles Street MC OBE and from his Wikipedia entry he wrote a huge number of detective stories under several pseudonyms so he obviously had a readership in his day but he’s not for me.

155 – Murder at Crome House – G.D.H. and Margaret Cole

Now this should be interesting, I do have other books by G.D.H. Cole but they aren’t fiction, on my shelves are ‘Practical Economics’, ‘Socialism in Evolution’ and a couple of copies of ‘Persons and Periods’. Working with his wife however they jointly wrote crime novels and although I only have this one example and they were nowhere near as prolific as Cecil Street I was already aware of the existence of several other titles before I start reading this one.

Having now finished the book I can say that it is much better written than the previous example and considerably better at hiding the murderer until near the end, The tale is quite complex with more information about each of the possible suspects being revealed piecemeal as you follow the various parallel investigations with up to five people all going down different paths in trying to solve the crime and comparing notes regularly. At one point I had even half thought one of the people apparently investigating the murder was actually involved in the crime himself as each time he reported back his tales as to what had been done became more fantastic. Now that would have been an interesting twist, I wonder if there is a detective novel where the investigator turns out to be the murderer and is covering their tracks by apparently looking into the case?

I don’t have any other crime novels by the Cole’s but they don’t appear to have been ‘series writers’ with each book having different detectives however this is difficult to check as I cannot find any of their 29 joint works still in print. This is also the only one of their works to have been printed by Penguin so I’m not going to come across another as my collection of those increases. It is a pity that they have disappeared, maybe one of their books needs to be included in the excellent British Library series of crime stories that have been largely forgotten nowadays.

156 – The Red House Mystery – A.A. Milne

Yes that A.A. Milne, famous for Winnie the Pooh and the other characters from the Hundred Acre Wood, this is his only crime story and the only book in this block of ten that I have read before this exercise.

The story is well written and the denouement is properly hidden with enough clues to give it away when you re-read the book but not on first reading. Once you know what is happening then you get a different perspective and appreciate how well Milne was trying to help the reader in solving the murder but first time round you can guess but are unlikely to work it out. I loved the book as written by an author who knew how to write and could string his readers along as you slowly but surely reach the solution and the final twist is so good. If any of my readers are looking for a sadly now largely unknown detective novel in the true English country house murder style and have not read The Red House then I urge you to do so.

As a good counterpoint to this reading marathon Milne wrote a really good introduction to the 1926 edition, he wrote the book back in 1922 before he wrote any children’s books and was at the time best known as a playwright (and frankly he would have rather been known that way all his life).

I prefer that a detective story should be written in English. I remember reading one in which a peculiarly fascinating murder had been committed, and there was much speculation as to how the criminal had broken into the murdered man’s library. The detective however (said the author) “…was more concerned how the murderer had effected an egress.” It is, to me, a distressing thought that in nine-tenths of the detective stories of the world murderers are continually effecting egresses when they might just as well go out. The sleuth, the hero, the many suspected all use this strange tongue, and we may be forgiven for feeling that neither the natural excitement of killing the right man, nor the strain of suspecting the wrong one, is sufficient excuse for so steady a flow of bad language.

Of the great Love question opinions may be divided, but for myself I will have none of it. A reader, all agog to know whether the white substance on the muffins was arsenic or face powder, cannot be held up while Roland clasps Angela’s hand “a moment longer than the customary usages of society dictate.” Much might have happened in that moment, properly spent; footprints made or discovered; cigarette ends picked up and put in envelopes. By all means have Roland have a book to himself in which to clasp anything he likes, but in a detective story he must attend strictly to business.

For the detective himself I demand first that he be an amateur. In real life, no doubt, the best detectives are the professional police, but then in real life the best criminals are professional criminals.

He continues in much this vein for a while complaining that a man with a microscope is no detective at least not in fiction because he can see things his readers cannot and also explaining that ‘a Watson’ is invaluable. As perforce a literary detective has to run though the facts as they stand at various points and a conversation is much better than a  speech and far better than everything being sorted out in the last few pages. I have to agree with all of his points and he also manages to ensure that in his only detective story he holds to his principles, it’s definitely the best book so far.

Part 3 of this review is here