A. A. Milne, women, and moving through modernity

I’m working on a little something on Woolf and taxicabs—an outgrowth of the Woolf and the City conference--and so have been thinking about women moving through the modern city: all the dangers and possibilities of walking, bus-riding, and taxis that the modern city suddenly opened up for women. Think about it: for centuries, moving through the city, for a respectable woman of the working, middle or upper middle class was severely circumscribed: to and from work, to and from the market, chaperoned or subject to being accosted when alone.

This led me, through a circuitous route (with, clearly, a detour to my children) to a favorite poem from my childhood, A. A. Milne’s “Disobedience”:
James James
Morrison Morrison
Weatherby George Dupree
Took great
Care of his Mother,Though he was only three.
I remember finding this poem deeply upsetting and moving as a child. Once you ask yourself what kind of mother would want to leave her child, it’s not a very far leap to imagine the heretofore unthinkable: my mommy might want to leave me for an afternoon. It’s not just that she’s a bad mother, careless about babysitters and urban danger, but that she has desires that are not about caring for her children. The poem seems to lift a veil from adult life.

And then, there is that strange notion that James “Took great | Care of his Mother, | Though he was only three.” I was very aware that I needed caring for as a young child and I see that same awareness in my children now: they remind me (as if I needed reminding) constantly of what they can and cannot do on their own, what they need help with. Assertions of “I do it myself” are followed, in mere seconds by “Can you help me, mommy?” Surely, then, I thought, this poem must be one of my first encounters with literary irony.

So, I thought, how would I explain the puzzle of the poem to my daughters? Defining “irony” is, clearly, the least promising route, so the idea must be approached through questions: can a three-year-old take care of his mother? Isn’t it really the other way around?

Or is it? (I give you my thoughts as they came to me, as Woolf says.) The first stanza continues:
James James
Said to his Mother,
"Mother", he said, said he;
"You must never go down to the end of the town,
if you don't go down with me."
This is a masterfully ironic patriarchal poem: a little ditty about a (bad) woman chafing under the demands of home and childcare and paying the price with her disappearance. I'm not fully sure where Milne's sympathies lie, but he nails the dilemma. Its humor and power and creepiness comes from the way in which Milne captures the tyranny of children and family responsibility. In a way, James does “take care” of his mother, for the demands of motherhood circumscribe a mother’s desires. Suddenly, a once taken-for-granted freedom—like running an errand when one wants—becomes a brazen liberty. When I am home alone with my kids, I cannot just run out and get milk—even if the store is only a block away. So, yes, James maybe does take care of his mother for, in making women into primary caregiver and then in setting up small households consisting in nuclear families only, we make it impossible for women to “go down to the end of the town” if they don’t go down with their children.