A.A. Milne: The Man Behind Winnie-the-Pooh

by Ann Thwaite
Random House, 554 pp., $29.95

A. A. Milne
A. A. Milne; drawing by David Levine

“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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.