Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Real Christopher Robin and His Father

by Stephanie Cowell

“If you live to be a hundred, I want to live to be a hundred minus one day so I never have to live without you.” – Winnie-the-Pooh


I discovered England through books as a child as most of us do, and of course the very earliest I recall were the enchanting poems and stories of a little boy called Christopher Robin and his small animal friends who lived forever in an enchanted forest. Somehow I came to memorize many of the poems. I can’t remember most telephone numbers, passwords, etc., but tucked in my head are these verses.

It was only a few years ago I discovered that the real little boy spent many of his adult years wishing that his father had never written them.

How did the books and poems come to be?

A.A. Milne, his son and the bear
A.A. Milne was an editor at Punch, and the successful author of many plays and novels when his son Christopher was born in August 1920.  The first of the poems, Vespers, about a little boy saying his prayers, was written by the happily married Milne for his wife. In the subsequent year he watched his tiny son with tender adoration and created more poems, persuading Punch artist E.H. Shepard to illustrate them. Their publisher hadn’t much faith in the project, called When We Were Very Young, but printed a small edition. Six weeks following, the poems of a little boy and his stuffed animals were famous. The first book was followed by the stories Winnie-the-Pooh, then another book of poems Now We Are Six and finally the last stories, The House at Pooh Corner. By this time the little boy’s world of mangy stuffed animals who had strong personalities, the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, sitting half way on the stair, Bad King John and so many other poems were known all over the English-speaking world. His fame at six was as great as the young Queen Elizabeth.

(The fictional Hundred Acre Wood of the Pooh stories derives from the Five Hundred Acre Wood in Ashdown Forest in East Sussex. Milne and his son who lived on its edge often went walking there.)

The original stuffed animals in the NY Public Library
Christopher was a happy little boy; he rather liked all the attention, the awed tourists who visited his home in East Sussex, stared at the wood and the bridge from which the child in the poems throws sticks. And then he went to school. There his true nature as a shy, stammering, quiet boy emerged, and of course the others immediately taunted him with, “Hello, Christopher Robin! Still saying yours prayers?”

The boy was comfortable only with his father and unable to break away; boy and man found themselves increasingly isolated and trapped by the fame of the world A.A. Milne had created. The audience for A.A. Milne’s adult books and witty plays died away; his beloved wife abandoned him. Father and son drew closer. During World II, the sales of the books rose so steeply that the publisher found it difficult to obtain enough paper to print them.

Years later I too discovered the books and truly believed in my heart that there was even in that moment a little boy playing all day in the forest, being cared for by his nanny, living in this enchanted place in England. I knew that Christopher Robin lived in a far more enchanted place than me and was more loved. I wanted to knock on the door of a tree and be invited in for honey by Pooh. I wanted as loyal a friend as Piglet. (In fact when I began my second very happy marriage, my husband and I collected Pooh and Piglet Christmas ornaments; as my husband was then heavy and towered over me he was Pooh and I, very small and then rather slender, was Piglet.)

But like Lewis Carroll’s Alice and J.M. Barrie’s Lost Boys, the real Christopher Robin could not easily shake off the identity created around him by his adoring father. By the time he was twenty-five, he was searching for himself; he tried unsuccessfully to write and failed at several other jobs until he married and opened a bookshop. He became bitter and communications between father and son almost ceased.

The books continued to draw countless readers while A.A. Milne no longer had a career or a wife, and his son foundered. Later Christopher wrote, “It seemed to me, almost, that my father had got to where he was by climbing upon my infant shoulders… he has left me with nothing but empty fame by being his son.” Not true at all: the poems were written out of great love. Some people can walk away from the world-wide fame which fell upon them as a five-year-old; others cannot.

In his last years, A.A. Milne had mercifully reconciled with his wife but during his final crippling three-year-illness, Christopher visited him only twice.  
The little boy grows older

When I look at Amazon ranking right now for the combined four Pooh books, it was about 5000. That is a very good rate for a new book; for one which first saw light a hundred years ago, it is miraculous. And heaven knows how many more are sold in bookshops and toy stores.  Forbes magazine ranks Winnie-the-Pooh the most valuable fictional character; in 2002 Winnie the Pooh merchandising products alone had annual sales of more than $5.9 billion.

Four books, a lonely aging father, a little boy grown up who could not quite find his way.

And all of us who love the stories and poems? What have they meant to us? Books go on to a life beyond life, as the poet Milton said.
In the final Chapter of The House at Pooh Corner, the whole little world of woods and toys and the little boy are about to change for the boy is going off to school. “But wherever they go,” says the book,” and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on top of the Forest a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.”

“I think we dream so we don’t have to be apart for so long. If we’re in each others' dreams, we can be together all the time,” writes A.A. Milne. He had no greater love than that for his little son. That love has not ceased to shine for nearly a century.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

About the author: Historical novelist Stephanie Cowell is the author of Nicholas Cooke, The Physician of London, The Players: a novel of the young Shakespeare, Marrying Mozart and Claude & Camille: a novel of Monet.  She is the recipient of the American Book Award. Her work has been translated into nine languages. Stephanie is currently finishing two novels, one on the love story of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, and the second about the year Shakespeare wrote Hamlet and all the troubles he had! Her website is http://www.stephaniecowell.com 

17 comments:

  1. Lovely post, Stephanie. One of my favourite biographies is that of Ernest Shepherd who did the illustrations. For me there will only be the Pooh of Milne and Shepherd. I loathe the Disney version.
    On a personal note... my father was of an age with CR and his family lived downstairs for the Milne's in London. He used to play with CR.

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    1. Oh how cool! Yes, I feel the same about Shepherd's drawings. I did not like the Disney version; I thought it destroyed the delicacy.

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  2. I loved these stories as a child. Thanks for sharing about the real people...sad.

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  3. A gorgeous post! I have always loved the stories and poems, myself. I don't have a story quite as interesting as Alison's to tell, but I did a short course with a journalist specialising in the environment who had known CR when he was fighting to save the Five Hundred Acre Wood.

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  4. I love the books and the sad story behind these beloved writings is very poignant. It is a pity that something that has brought so much joy to millions of children, and their children subsequently, came at the expense of the original father/son happiness.

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    1. It is sad...I think that someone who was treated by the world as such an extraordinary golden boy might have a hard time becoming a more ordinary man. Maybe he felt he had failed his father and himself. I have been thinking of the psychology since I finished the piece. Or maybe he could not bear to see his idealized father grow old.

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  5. What a sad and very touching story about the real life CR. I never read the stories as a child unfortunately and only came to them as an adult. Was surprised to learn that our library did not have copies. Have since rectified this by buying and donating them. Thank you for the post, I enjoyed it so much.

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  6. What a wonderful post. I think it's so sad that a gift of love from the father turned so sour for the son. What would have happened, I wonder, if the Milne had given the boy in the books a different name? Still, it seems like the grown up Christopher Robin should have been able to "get over it." There are so many worse things that can happen in life than being the inspiration for much loved books!

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    1. I agree absolutely Elizabeth. Christopher Robin would have enjoyed a very privileged lifestyle as a result of the wonderful stories his father created for him out of love. He sounds way too precious about the fame.

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  7. I grew up with all the AA Milne stories and poems (still have the much-loved and read books) and agree totally Alison, there is NO version other than AA Milne's words and Ernest Shepherd's illustrations!

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  8. Thanks, Stephanie. I love your insights. I read the stories to my daughter when she was young without knowing about poor Christopher's personal suffering. I think it's usually a mistake for writers to incorporate their children in their work. My daughter is very private and would resent me heartily if I wrote about her background, hopes, or dreams.

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    1. I agree. Just giving the fictional child a different name would have been perfect. Then the real CR could have shielded himself somewhat from the story's fame.

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    2. I suppose it was too late by the time the father realized what a success the books would become.

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  9. Stephanie, so glad you wrote this piece. I met the real CR some years ago at his bookshop in Dartmouth, Devon, (I was informed that he was the proprietor before we went inside) and he assisted me at the till. I love the Pooh books, read through them each and every year. I know that Christopher Milne was burdened by his public identity as CR, but that doesn't diminish my enjoyment of his father's works.

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    1. Margaret, what an experience! I envy you. It is so difficult for any prodigy to go on to a normal adult life if he is no longer a prodigy. Think of poor Mozart who said people would never forgive him for growing up! But oh how beautiful the books and poems are! And how spiritual and tender and deep!

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  10. Fantastic post, Stephanie. What a life for both father and son… so sad and tragic. The rift must have been unbearable for the father. Thank you for sharing this.

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