A. A. Milne is famous for Winnie-the-Pooh. I am not reviewing the known, but instead a less well-known book called Once On A Time which the author described as ‘a Fairy Story for grown-ups’ and considered to be his best work. I am always interested in reading what authors consider to be their best, for obvious reasons.
I was fortunate to have first read this book in the Puffin edition which had some truly brilliant and wickedly funny illustrations. Years later when I tried to replace my lost copy, I had to make do with an unillustrated Signet with a very mediocre cover, but the pictures of the original are still in my head. I tell you this to warn you that when I think of the villain of the story, it is not Milne’s words alone that supply the image.
The Countess Belvane! What can I say which will bring home to you that wonderful, terrible, fascinating woman?
The illustrator depicted a voluptuous, beautiful, mature woman with a taste for big hats topped by sweeping plumes. Her voluminous silk skirts draped luxuriously over her palfrey as she cantered past, flinging largesse to a member of her adoring populace. Her diary entries say all that needs to be said about her inner nature:
‘Tuesday, June second,’ she read on. ‘Realised in the privacy of my heart that I was destined to rule the country. Wednesday, June third. Decided to oust the Princess. Thursday, June fourth. Began ousting.’
The Princess to be ousted is Hyacinth, the daughter of the King whom Belvane is also scheming to marry. The King has gone to fight a war and left her in charge of the kingdom with Belvane as ‘advisor’. At seventeen (blond corkscrew curls, slightly low self-esteem) she feels unequal to a battle of wits with a woman like Belvane, and so requests a little outside help in the form of Prince Udo from Araby (pencil moustache, and weedy). This prince, unfortunately, rather than being a knight in shining armour, brings problems of his own.
It is a story with whimsical humour. There are foolish kings and wise servants, a pompous prince and a charming duke, a spell to be broken and an enchantment to be started. Revenge is never as satisfying and uncomplicated as you might think, the plotting of the crafty may be overturned by the luck of the simple, and the path to happily ever after can be shockingly straightforward.
Before you scoff at this light-hearted tale and wonder where the ‘grown-up’ aspect of the fairy story might be, bear in mind that it was written by the author during World War One while he was training with his regiment. No wonder that an escape into fantasy was so attractive. The depiction of a bloodless war, a benignly charismatic villain, and a happy ending for everybody perhaps served to soothe the anxieties of the real world.