Today, January 18th, marks the 133rd anniversary of the birth of Alan Alexander Milne. Fans around the world celebrate it as “Winnie-the-Pooh” Day, in honor of Milne’s most famous creation. Although most readers know Milne through his works for children, he also wrote a number of novels and highly successful plays. In fact, he began his writing career as a journalist, writing for both Granta, then a Cambridge University student magazine (which he also edited), and the humor magazine Punch.
While Milne was editor of the Granta, he wrote a letter to a former teacher asking if he would contribute a piece to the magazine’s special May Week issue. In addition to articles from the magazine’s regular staff, this issue traditionally included pieces whose authors had, in Milne’s words, “something rather more than a local reputation” (letter dated May 4th 1902). Requesting help from a former teacher might seem rather unremarkable—except that in this case the teacher was none other than H.G. Wells. Milne’s father, John Vine Milne, ran a private school, known as Henley House School, which Milne had attended and at which Wells had taught science from sometime in early 1889 to sometime in early 1891.
We think Milne and Wells may be somewhere in this photo, a group shot of the students and teachers at Henley House School. Can you help us identify them? Milne would have been about eight years old and Wells about twenty-four. Photograph is glued to the front flyleaf of our copy of The Henley House School Magazine (London: Ford & Son, 1881-1893). WELLS 828 H389
Milne begins his letter by referencing this earlier connection, writing: “Do you remember a small sized boy with long hair to whom you taught, at the time, all the geology he [ever] knew?” (letter dated May 4th 1902). He then explains about the May Week issue, and makes his request for Wells’ contribution. However, even as he writes it, Milne seems to doubt whether the request is appropriate—he writes “I know how busy you must be, and really I wonder at my [temerity] in approaching you. In fact, on thinking it over, it will almost be sufficient if you forgive me for writing this. With many apologies” (letter dated May 4th 1902). It’s hard to blame him for being so nervous–at the time he wrote the letter Milne was just twenty, while Wells was thirty-five and had already published a number of his most famous works, including The Invisible Man (1897) and The War of the Worlds (1898).
Nevertheless, from this first, cautious letter a more frequent and familiar correspondence seems to have evolved, in which Milne keeps Wells up-to-date on progress towards his goal of making a career as a journalist. In turn, it seems that Wells may have acted as a kind of mentor to Milne. In a letter dated 4 September 1903, Milne thanks Wells “for your kind encouragement last Xmas.” Then, in another letter a few weeks later, Milne recalls Wells’ advice to “send things as much as possible to one paper with a view to getting regular work from it” (letter dated 27 September 1903). The nervousness and formality of Milne’s first few letters soon disappears; by 1905 Milne is addressing his letters “My dear H.G.” rather than “My dear Mr. Wells.” By 1939, Milne even felt confident enough to send Wells a copy of one of his own books. He writes: “Now that I know that you are in London, I send you this. It isn’t as good as yours, but the early chapters may interest you” (letter dated 27 October 1939). Although Milne does not give the name of the work, it was likely The Ascent of Man, as Wells’ copy of the book bears the inscription “For H.G. from A.A.M.” Seeing the inscription, one gets a sense almost of a cycle completing. Thirty-seven years prior, Milne had requested that Wells send him a piece of writing. Now Milne, an established writer himself, was sending some of his own work to Wells. While his fame may have come from writing stories for the young (and young at heart), the nervous young man of twenty was finally all grown up. -BS
Brackets denote words whose transcription is uncertain.
All letters are from the H.G. Wells Papers, MSS00071, Folder M-359.
Thwaite, Ann. “Milne, Alan Alexander (1882–1956).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 2012. Web.
Parrinder, Patrick. “Wells, Herbert George (1866–1946).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 2011. Web.