A. A. Milne and Christopher Robin

A. A. Milne’s stories and poems about Christopher Robin and his animal friends have given great pleasure to millions of people. It is unfortunate that the writings caused difficulties for those most connected with the tales.

Alan Alexander Milne was born in London in 1882. After graduating from Trinity College, Cambridge, he began contributing pieces to the British humor magazine, Punch, where he became an assistant editor when he was 24 years old. He married in 1913.

Though he considered himself to be a pacifist he joined the British Army in 1915 during World War I, and suffered from trench fever, caused by infected body lice. After the war Milne began writing plays and novels, and became a screenwriter for the early British film industry. His only child, a son named Christopher Robin, was born in 1920, when Milne was 38 years old.

As was the norm with well-to-do families a nanny was hired to care for the boy, and his parents spent limited time with him. Christopher claimed his father wasn’t good with young children, but if he had wanted to become closer to his son “Nanny was always in the way …. Where did he fit in? Nowhere special.” After Christopher began attending boarding school, and the nanny left the household, father and son spent much more time together during holidays.

In 1925 Milne bought Cotchford Farm, near Ashdown Forest, and the family spent weekends and holidays there. The rural area was the setting for Milne’s children’s stories.

In 1924 A. A. Milne published a book of poetry about his son, entitled When We Were Very Young. Two years later stories about Christopher Robin and his stuffed animal friends became a book called Winnie the Pooh. (The boy had a stuffed bear named Edward. The fictional bear was named after a Canadian black bear, Winnipeg, donated to the London Zoo. Pooh was what the toddler called a swan.) A second poetry collection, Now We Are Six, was published in 1927, and The House at Pooh Corners came out in 1928.

The children’s books became best sellers, and Milne’s publishers wanted more of them, but the author only wanted to write for adults. He was also concerned that additional books about Christopher Robin might cause problems for his son.

For years he had specialized in writing drawing-room comedy plays, but over time tastes changed and his theater work was no longer popular. He continued to write both fiction and nonfiction for the rest of his life. Sales of his later books were modest, but the Winnie the Pooh stories continued to earn him royalties. Milne was disappointed that the writings he considered more important was over-shadowed by stories about stuffed animals.

Christopher Robin Milne grew up having more affection for his nanny then for his parents. Except for when she went away for her annual two-week holiday he rarely spent more than a few hours away from Nanny. He was shy, thought himself to be a slow-learner, and stammered when nervous.

At first he was pleased about being a character in his father’s books, but when he was nine, and sent away to boarding school, some of his schoolmates bullied and mocked him over the published stories he’d inspired. He spent most of his life trying to distance himself from the boy in the stories, and did not use his middle name. He was Christopher, not Christopher Robin.

He began attending his father’s alma mater, Trinity College. When the second World War began he left school and tried to enlist in the military, but failed the medical exam. His father used his influence to get him a second military medical exam, which he passed. Christopher became a sapper (engineer) and he was posted to the Middle East and Italy. He built bridges and roads, defused German land mines, and received a head wound. During Christopher’s military service few knew he was part of a famous family, and he was judged on his own merits. After the war he returned to school, and received a degree in English literature.

After graduation Christopher had trouble finding employment. He reflected on how apparently easy it had been for his father to achieve financial success, and thought that being turned into a children’s book character had placed major obstacles in his own life. He wrote “It seemed to me almost that my father had got to where he was by climbing upon my infant shoulders…”

One of his aunts introduced Christopher to Leslie, a cousin on his mother’s side. His mother had been estranged from Leslie’s father for 30 years, and Christopher had never before met any of his uncle’s family.

Christopher and Leslie were wed in 1948 (despite his parents’ disapproval of cousins marrying), and in 1951 they opened a bookshop in the small town of Dartmouth. The shop carried all of the Winnie the Pooh books, and Christopher felt it was a good average that he only disliked four of the books he sold.

A. A. Milne died in 1956 and just a few months later Christopher’s only child was born – Clare, a daughter who had cerebral palsy. Clare was wheelchair-bound, and always needed someone to wash and dress her.

After the elder Milne’s death royalties from the Winnie the Pooh books were divided between the family, the Royal Literary Fund, Westminster School, and the Garrick Club – a gentleman’s club A. A. Milne frequented. For fifteen years Christopher refused any money from the books. He was determined to prove that he and his wife could earn all of the money they needed, and he would not accept financial assistance from his fictional namesake.

When his mother died in 1971 he inherited her share of the book royalties. He knew his disabled daughter would need care all of her life, so he used the royalty money to set up a trust fund for Clare.

Many people were writing about the Milne family, and Christopher wanted his version of his own life told, so he decided to write his memoirs. Sorting out his memories proved to be to be a form of psychoanalysis. In 1974 The Enchanted Places, the story of his childhood, was published. He stated that writing the book “combined to lift me from under the shadows of my father and of Christopher Robin, and to my surprise and pleasure I found myself standing beside them in the sunshine able to look them both in the eye.”

Christopher knew that most of the places mentioned in the Pooh books were based on actual locations at Cotchford Farm or Ashdown Forest, but there had been no spot similar to Eeyore’s Gloomy Place. And why was that donkey always expecting the worst to happen? Christopher wondered if Eeyore had been modeled after his father, for though the elder Milne had earned a great deal of money there was much unhappiness in his life. (And though Christopher never mentioned it, I’ve heard enough about PTSD to realize that a veteran will never forget time spent in trenches, covered in lice.)

Christopher became more at peace with memories of his father and the Pooh books, though he was still uncomfortable when customers came into the bookshop and asked to meet the real Christopher Robin. He gave away his old stuffed animals, and they ended up in the New York City Public Library. Many thought he should have held onto them, but his opinion was that while most men had had beloved toys, few kept them into adulthood.

Christopher died in 1996, and after his death his wife and daughter set up the Clare Milne Trust. Clare died in 2012, but the Trust continues, helping those with disabilities in the Devon and Cornwall areas of England. According to the Clare Milne Trust website it “focuses its grants on small effective charities with good volunteer support.”

So the legacy of Winnie the Pooh continues, not just in the stories themselves, but in the charity founded with a portion of the book royalties. I hope that both A. A. Milne and Christopher Robin would approve.