A.A. Milne: The Man Behind Winnie-the-Pooh
“It is ghastly to think of anyone who wrote such gay stuff ending his life like this,” wrote P. G. Wodehouse in 1954 on hearing that his old acquaintance A. A. Milne had been paralyzed by a stroke. Two years later Milne’s life did indeed end sadly: his only son estranged, his wife aloof, his novels mostly unread, his plays mostly unperformed, himself famous only for his books for children. He had become the man behind Winnie-the-Pooh.
It all began so brightly in 1892. “Everything we are is that way because that was how our parents made us,” he once told his son, and certainly Alan Milne felt he had been lucky in his. His father was headmaster of a small private school for boys in north London, with unusually progressive views for his time. He and his wife aimed to run the school like a happy family: the food was good, the discipline firm but kind, the teaching imaginative. A loutish twelve-year-old who was fascinated by the jelly-graph—a primitive reproducing machine—was set by the headmaster to produce a school magazine, the first step in the the career of Alfred Harmsworth, the future Lord Northcliffe. A young master was encouraged to take his class to examine the strata of Primrose Hill, to botanize on Northwood Common, to rear silkworms. This was H. G. Wells, who taught at Henley House for a few years in his twenties and greatly admired his headmaster: “The boys had confidence in him and in us and I never knew a better-mannered school.”
For Alan and his two older brothers home and school were under the same roof, and they passed easily from one to the other without the trauma felt by Graham Greene in his father’s school. In class, Mr. Wells made mathematics exciting: “We got to fractions, quadratics and problems involving quadratics in a twelve month.” At home there were readings of Alice, Uncle Remus, George Macdonald’s Golden Key, and on Sundays The Pilgrim’s Progress. Alan and Ken, his senior by sixteen months, enjoyed a freedom unimaginable to proper London children today. “We were allowed to go [on] walks by ourselves anywhere, in London or in the country”—and this before they were ten years old! They would get up early and bowl their hoops from Kilburn to the Bayswater Road, a good two miles, and back before breakfast. On holidays in Kent or Surrey they would be off on their bikes, chasing butterflies, exploring mysterious woods and ruined houses, imagining adventures on schooners and desert islands. One long-lasting fantasy was of waking up one morning and finding that everyone else in the world was dead—but there were still animals.
Alan, spotted by Wells as a promising mathematician, was soon outstripping Ken and Barry, who was three years older. Ken won a scholarship to Westminster School when he was twelve; Alan, always compelled “to prove myself the better man of the two,” had the same success next year when he was eleven. This was a pattern that continued: Alan leaping ahead of Ken in lessons and games, and sometimes feeling bad about it; Ken—“kinder, larger-hearted, more lovable, more tolerant, sweeter tempered”—apparently not resentful at being trumped by his younger brother. The two stayed very close: “Throughout his life I never lost Ken, nor he me.”
After the warmth of Henley House, Westminster was a comedown. Breakfasts—Alan’s favorite meal—were awful; washing was done in cold water; junior boys lived in fear of tanning by seniors; there was bad language and smutty talk (which Milne hated all his life). Though he made a brilliant start in mathematics, when an end-of-term report accused him of lacking ambition he stopped working hard and coasted along the rest of his school days. He played for Westminster at cricket and football, he read voraciously, and spent the long hours of weekend leisure—one amenity that Westminster offered—with Ken. They fooled about together, planned their next holiday enterprises, and wrote light verses which they submitted to various papers over the initials A. K. M. Alan’s mathematics remained good enough to win him a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge—and because he had been fascinated by a copy of the magazine Granta, Cambridge was where he wanted to be for other reasons than mathematics.
In the year above him at Trinity were Leonard Woolf, Clive Bell, and Lytton Strachey, all then—according to Woolf—“very serious young men.” In the Granta set, to which Milne quickly gravitated, it was bad form to be serious. The magazine was very different from the periodical that bears its name today. It aimed to be an undergraduate Punch: light verse à la Calverley, amusing prose trifles. Milne shone in both genres and one prose piece, “Jeremy, I and the jelly-fish,” caught the eye of Punch stalwart R. C. Lehmann: “a piece of sparkling and entirely frivolous and irresponsible irrelevance,” he called it, and invited the author to send in something to Punch.
Milne became editor of Granta (securing a contribution for a May Week number from the now famous H. G. Wells), and left Cambridge with a poor degree and an urge to try his hand as a journalist. Back in London he wrote Granta-type sketches and poems and fired them off at newspapers and weeklies. Wells was helpful with suggestions and introductions, Alfred Harmsworth was not. Milne began to appear regularly in Punch and in 1906, when he was twenty-four, he was invited to join the staff as assistant editor: in addition to his salary he would be paid for his contributions at double rates.
A staple of Punch humor was the everyday life of the middle classes. R. C. Lehmann’s son John, whose stamp collecting had been the subject of an article, felt that his father “used us all quite shamelessly.” Milne concocted his sketches from things that happened in his digs, on his London outings, on country weekends, or excursions with the now married Ken. Sometimes it was hard going: “I know no work manual or mental to equal the appalling heart-breaking anguish of fetching an idea from nowhere.” J. M. Barrie praised these Punch pieces for their “gaiety and irresponsibility,” and encouraged Milne to try his hand at a play.
By 1913 he was in a position to marry a vivacious young woman whom he proposed to on a ski slope in Switzerland in a snowstorm. She was Dorothy de Sélincourt, niece of the Wordsworth scholar Ernest de Sélincourt, and goddaughter of Punch editor Owen Seaman. Alan and Dorothy—now called Daphne, or Daff—settled in Chelsea, a bright young couple rather like the bright young couples of his Punch sketches. Daphne organized their apartment and made all the practical decisions while he wrote amusing pieces about their domestic doings. One reason for his choice of wife, Milne claimed, was that “she laughed at my jokes.”
Milne had been much impressed by The Great Illusion (1910), Norman Angell’s exposure of the futility of war, but in 1914 he agreed with Wells that Britain was fighting “a war that will end war.” Early in 1915 he was commissioned in the Warwickshire Regiment and in 1916 was in the thick of the battle of the Somme: a truly hideous experience but at least, as a signals officer, he was not required to kill. Invalided home with trench fever, he spent the rest of the war in staff jobs in England. He expect to go back to Punch when demobilized; but to Owen Seaman, who had take a rabidly patriotic line throughout the war, Milne was now “an unpatriotic Radical” whom he wouldn’t have back on the staff.
By this time Milne had an alternative to light verse and whimsical prose. During the war a comedy he had written some years before, Wurzel-Flummery, was produced at the New Theatre between two Barrie one-acters; a second play Belinda—“a purely artificial comedy whose only purpose was to amuse,” he described it—was staged in 1918; and with Mr. Pim Passes By in 1920 (the first play Peggy Ashcroft ever saw in a theater) Milne became famous and his income shot up. In the same year a further fortune came into his life with the birth of his son, registered as Christopher Robin, known to his parents as Billy Moon. (Leonard Moon, a brilliant Westminster cricketer, had been Milne’s schoolboy hero.) The verses the child occasioned—most of them first appearing in Punch with illustrations by Ernest Shepard—were collected in two volumes which had a wild success in Britain and America, the printers hardly able to keep up with the demand. In 1924 the Milnes bought a weekend and holiday house on the edge of Ashdown Forest in Sussex: the forest and his son’s toys came together to produce Winnie-the-Pooh. Again Shepard illustrated, and readers loved the pictures as much as the stories. (Recently three unpublished Pooh drawings were sold at Christies for almost £60,000.) Henceforth it was Pooh, Pooh, all the way: Milne the playwright, Milne the novelist, was eclipsed by Milne the creator of Pooh. No matter that after 1928 he wrote no more children’s books but went on publishing plays, novels, an autobiography: the label would stick for life.
In due course Christopher departed to boarding school and his parents increasingly went their different ways, Daphne enjoying parties and travel much more than Alan. In the 1930s she went every year to America (and made a close friend of Elmer Rice); Alan only came once. In 1933 he published a denunciation of war: the Somme, he felt, had given him the right to speak out. In Peace with Honour he was deadly serious, but he didn’t always sound serious, he could never get quite away from the light, amusing tone of Granta or Punch. And he was politically naive. As Gilbert Murray pointed out, his case against war was perfect if one ignored the actions of lunatics. When in 1939 Milne’s eyes were forcibly opened to Hitler’s lunacy, he became a fervent supporter of the war and wrote pamphlets for the government, one titled War with Honour. Christopher went from Cambridge to the army, enjoyed his basic training when fifty recruits were turned into a unit, and wrote long letters to his parents from North Africa and Italy; but when he came home the three had little to say to one another. He married a cousin with whose family Daphne was not on speaking terms and opened a bookshop at Dartmouth in the West Country. A. A. Milne had a stroke in 1952 and lingered on sadly for four years, a sour, disappointed man, with no more jokes for Daff to laugh at.
Ann Thwaite covers Milne’s life fully—indeed far too fully. She reveals in her introduction that after writing lives of Frances Hodgson Burnett and Edmund Gosse she found that her own life “had become irreversibly that of a biographer,” and that “the varied routines of researching into someone else’s life had become a necessary part of my own.” She has ranged widely and dug thoroughly: but it sometimes feels as if she could hardly bear to discard anything she had unearthed. There is a surfeit of information about Westminster and Cambridge, overlong accounts of long-forgotten plays, quotations that could do with cutting. She has some irritating habits: nudging the reader to notice a fact or remark that will have future significance (“as we shall see”), fruitless speculation (“Did he read The Waste Land?… Probably not”). She discusses the extramarital attachments of the Milnes in the 1930s at some length while admitting that one can’t be sure what the relationships really were. But she has made a thorough job of assembling the pieces of Milne’s life, giving readers the evidence on which they can make their own judgments.
To me, he is a bad case of what E. M. Forster diagnosed in English public schoolboys as the “undeveloped heart.” Only with Ken could he be open in his feelings. With his wife—who seems to have been a shallow sort of person, vain of her looks—there was little common ground and not much warmth. He shied away from pain (when Ken died in 1929 he couldn’t bear to go to the funeral service and skulked in the churchyard outside) and preferred to ignore horrors. He was a nice, decent man of limited experience who hoped that everyone else would be nice and decent, then there would be no wars; a man of quick mind but intellectually lazy, and touchy when criticized. He had a talent to entertain and amuse, but it was too shallowly based to last: his plays reflect the manners of one slice of society at one period, but they lack the firmer grip on character, the surer sense of the farcical and absurd, the touch of astringency, that make Barrie and Pinero still live on the stage—let alone Wilde. In his tastes, Milne seemed stuck in his adolescence. He became rich and successful, and shared his wealth generously; he had friends to play golf with and lunch with at the Garrick; but nothing in his life was as good as his boyhood with Ken and those years of shared jokes and country rambles and easy companionship went to make the one work of his that does last, the Pooh stories. They are drawn from a deeper level than Wurzel-Flummery or Mr. Pim Passes By.
Far the most interesting aspect of the book for me is the light it throws on the relationship of father and son. Though Christopher Milne would have no part in it and sensibly told Ann Thwaite that she must write the biography as if he weren’t going to read it, she has been able to draw on the book he wrote after his parents’ death as a therapy to help him come to terms with his father—and his doppelgänger. It is well worth reading The Enchanted Places along with this biography.
Christopher—Moon—was born seven years after Alan and Daphne married: a difficult birth, and she would not risk another child. He was welcomed, cherished, prized, and there were high hopes for his future: “I wanted him to play cricket for England, like W. G. Grace and C. B. Fry,” said his father, carefully choosing the initials of his son’s name. C. R. Milne would have just the sound of a gifted amateur in the Test team side. But he really belonged to Nanny, his closest companion until he went to boarding school at the age of nine—when she retired to a cottage she named Vespers. Daphne played with him and his toys; Alan taught him to catch and throw balls, but these were brief interludes in his nursery life. To his parents, he remembered, “If I wasn’t a full-time job I was at least a part-time hobby.” When, with the publication of Milne’s verses in When We Were Very Young, Christopher Robin went public, the parents basked in his fame. Nursery and toys were photographed by the press; there were interviews with his mother (who once tumbled a teddy bear onto a journalist’s head and spoke in a gruff Pooh voice); the boy in his quaint little smock was brought in to shake hands and chat. There was a special eight-page supplement in The Bookman of 1925 about the Milne family, with a photograph of Dad “offering a toy penguin to a dubious three-year-old.” Daphne reveled in all the fuss; Alan was a bit chary, but didn’t stop her vigorous promotion of the product. When the boy was seven, she organized a record of him singing his father’s verses set to music by Fraser-Simson, including the so-often parodied “Vespers” in which “Christopher Robin is saying his prayers.” When he was eight, there was a Pooh party at Cotchford for 350 guests, Christopher playing host and singing “The Friend,” with Pooh by his side. All this, said one of his cousins, “was the unacceptable face of Poohdom.” Daphne continued to push Pooh long after her husband had begun to wish that he’d never written the books.
How could supposedly loving parents so exploit a little boy? Milne could have pleaded that in publishing his first book of verses and his first Pooh stories he could have had no idea of their wild success and the ensuing publicity. But surely by the time success was plain and the circus in full swing, he could have put his foot down. What he did say was that “Christopher Robin doesn’t exist. He is a pigment-figment of the imagination”; and “All I have got from Christopher Robin is a name which he never uses, an introduction to his friends,…and a gleam which I have tried to follow.” The real boy was Moon: with whom Milne, after Nanny’s departure to Vespers, would putt on the lawn, throw cricket balls, or sit on a sofa happily solving simultaneous equations or the Times crossword. Christopher clung to his father as he had clung to Nanny—the father who drove him back to school after the holidays, who came to prize-givings (his mother never did), who took him to special cricket coaching in the holidays, who hovered benevolently over his schooldays. He “saw me as a sort of twin brother, perhaps a sort of reincarnation of Ken,” was his later assessment. Yet for all the companionship there were long silences and awkwardness and gaps in communication: “My father’s heart remained buttoned-up all through his life.” Christopher often felt inadequate: though he could sing like a lark until his voice broke, he stammered when he spoke, and for all the special coaching he never made it further than the third school cricket team.
If the father could separate Christopher Robin from Moon, it was not so easy for the son. As a child (abetted by Nanny) he was able to identify with C. R. and rather enjoy the réclame of being “one of the most famous children in the world,” according to the American Parents’ Magazine, along with Yehudi Menuhin, Jackie Coogan, and the future Queen Elizabeth. As a boy he came to detest this doppelgänger who made him an easy target for teasing at school—“Hello Christopher Robin! Still singing your prayers?”; boys in the next study to his at Stowe would play the “Vespers” record relentlessly until it mercifully cracked. Yet he did not turn on Christopher Robin’s creator until years later, when he came home from the war and was trying to get a job. Then he was filled with resentment:
In pessimistic moments, when I was trudging London in search of an employer wanting to make use of such talents as I could offer, it seemed to me, almost, that my father had got to where he was by climbing upon my infant shoulders, that he had filched from me my good name and had left me with nothing but the empty fame of being his son.
Christopher only saw his father twice after his own marriage and move to the West Country. He came to Milne’s memorial service in an old overcoat, which annoyed Daphne; she had arranged for Pooh’s “How sweet to be a Cloud” to be sung and “Vespers” recited to an organ accompaniment. But not by Christopher Milne, who never saw his mother again, though she lived for another fifteen years. On her death he didn’t want to accept his share of his father’s royalties until he realized that it would secure the future care of his disabled daughter. At the time of her birth, and his father’s death, his stammer had been cured.
Revisiting the children’s books after reading the biography is an odd experience, very different from reading them aloud to a child. I can still enjoy the funny rhymes like “The King’s Breakfast” and “The Dormouse and the Doctor,” but those about Christopher Robin sound as soppy and embarrassing as ever, particularly the awful “Vespers.” Ann Thwaite puts the case for its being ironic rather than sentimental, mocking the child who’s thinking only of himself as he gabbles the words Nanny taught him. But if Milne meant to be ironic, his medium betrayed him. The effect—reinforced by the Shepard drawing—is to present a dear little innocent whose straying thoughts only make him the more quaint and lovable. One reaches for Belloc’s Bad Children as an antidote.
Pooh is a different matter. Once one has gone beyond the dreadful dedication to Her (“Hand in hand we come / Christopher Robin and I / To lay this book in your lap”) and the irritation of the occasional “Cos,” and other baby talk, there are pleasures even for a granny. There is the fun of language—Eeyore “attached to his tail,” threats from a gorse bush and an ambush, Owl’s ponderous utterances, Eeyore’s complaining tones. There is the reasonableness—it’s important to know what you’re looking for before you start looking for it; the possibility that Piglet’s front door may have got thinner so though Pooh never gets fatter he may yet be stuck in it. There is the mad logic:
“We mustn’t stop now, or we shall be late.”
“Late for what?”
“For whatever we want to be in time for.”
As Humphrey Carpenter has pointed out, “Milne’s humour is that of a mathematician. Each humorous situation…is reached by the logical pursuit of an idea to the point of absurdity.”
In the books of verses, Milne is the outside observer, inventing what he thinks a child might think or feel. In the Pooh stories, as Ann Thwaite notes, he is remembering his own boyhood. Cotchford Farm, Ashdown Forest, Moon’s toys, days with Ken—and his devotion to Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows—all went to the making of the great good place. Behind the verses is a cozy ordered world of nannies and nurseries and walks in the park (maybe for children who know neither, nurseries and nannies are as romantic as castles and damsels in distress, their discipline as intriguing as the Code of Chivalry). But the world of the Pooh stories is wild and anarchic—though never violent and never really dangerous. There are no fixed routines, no nursery rules. Pooh gets up when he feels like it, eats whenever he fancies a little something, and enjoys Doing Nothing and also—when he feels like it—adventuring in search of the North Pole, without any grownup to say Don’t, or Take Care, or Be Back by Teatime. And it all has to come to an end when Christopher Robin disappears into the disciplined, time-tabled world of school.
With the spin-offs from T-shirts, mugs, boxed sets, songbooks of “The Hums of Pooh” and the rest of the merchandise, Pooh made Milne a fortune. After his widow’s death a quarter of the royalties came to the Royal Literary Fund, whose purpose is to relieve authors in distress—their plight so often due to dwindling sales and royalties. These were not Alan Milne’s afflictions; but after reading this biography I feel that in a deeper sense he too had qualifications to be an Author in Distress.