Half-fiction, half-real, Christopher Robin, the kid that everyone knew suffered a rather unhappy childhood because of his fame. Happy birthday Winnie the Pooh, you beast.
Peter Pan, Oliver Twist, Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer, Tiny Tim, Harry Potter, Mowgli. Who is the most famous boy in literature?
Could it be Christopher Robin? For one thing, all those others are fictional, but Christopher Robin was a real boy, the son of AA Milne of Winnie-the-Pooh fame. This November, Winnie-the-Pooh celebrated his 90th birthday, so we’re having a look at the famous boy who owned him.
AA Milne (1882-1956) was a playwright, essayist, novelist and regular contributor to Punch magazine, but all that’s pretty much forgotten; he’s remembered today for his Winnie-the-Pooh books – two volumes of poetry, When We Were Very Young (1924) and Now We are Six (1927) and two volumes of stories, Winnie-the-Pooh (1926) and The House at Pooh Corner (1928). Destined to be classic works of children’s literature, it’s telling to learn that Milne was deeply unhappy that the adventures of Christopher Robin and his toys eclipsed anything else he’d ever written.
It’s all very well for him to be peeved as he raked in his substantial royalties, but how did it all affect his son?
Think about being Christopher Robin your entire life. The constant questions, the oohing and aahing, the onslaught of Pooh lovers wanting to meet you, asking for your autograph (thankfully he was around before selfies became a thing), the state of being a little boy for eternity. He once said he was a household name but had no idea what he was supposed to do with his life; he referred to the “empty fame of being son”.
Christopher Robin Milne (1920-1996) had quite a time of it. For one thing, his parents had apparently hoped for a girl and his mother insisted on dressing him in rather old-fashioned clothes. She kept his hair long too, so the charming illustrations by Ernest Shepard are actually true representations of what the little boy looked like. To add to the mix, his father never really felt at ease around children. Christopher once remarked that his father preferred his “dream son” to his actual son.
He did for a time have a good relationship with his father, but as he grew older they saw less of each other as Christopher got on with his life. More about that later.
Even his toys were given with an ulterior motive. He received the teddy bear that became Winnie-the-Pooh on his first birthday; the other toys followed – Piglet, Kanga, Roo, Tigger, Eeyore. I wonder if the poor kid ever got a trainset?
In the beginning Christopher didn’t mind the celebrity, but boarding school put an end to that. Mercilessly mocked and bullied because of the stories, he soon came to loathe the literary creation that bore his name. Imagine being 15 years old and being taunted with:
“Christopher Robin goes
Hoppity, hoppity, hop.
Whenever I tell him
Politely to stop it, he
Says he can’t possibly stop.
If he stopped hopping, he couldn’t go anywhere,
Poor little Christopher couldn’t go anywhere …
That’s why he always goes
Or worse. What about Vespers: “Hush, hush, whisper who dares, Christopher Robin is saying his prayers”?
Really, you’d be spitting chips. And then for it to go on for the rest of your life, people asking you if you preferred Piglet over Eeyore or whatever when you’re 20, 30 or 60.
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It took him a while, but Christopher eventually came to terms with his eminent name. He had studied at Cambridge and served in the armed forces during World War II. Then, against his parents’ wishes he married his cousin Lesley de Sélincourt and they opened a bookshop.
A hard choice as it turned out, what with all the celeb-watchers coming in to meet the real Christopher Robin, but Christopher had an emotional generosity that put him in good stead. He wrote three volumes of an autobiography, a cathartic exercise to exorcise his literary persona. The Enchanted Places (1974) is the mature man’s account of his childhood in a beautiful setting, and how his life differed from the beloved boy in the books. He wrote that he accepted, albeit reluctantly, people’s desire to meet him and ask questions about Pooh, the Hundred Acre Wood and so on, but he also wanted to provide a picture of his father, noting that AA Milne tended to keep his feelings to himself.
Christopher became a father himself in 1956. His daughter Clare was born with severe cerebral palsy and Christopher, a devoted dad, designed bespoke furniture and eating utensils to make her life easier. More significantly, he sold his share of the Pooh royalties and established a trust fund for Clare. That trust fund continued after his death and in its current form now helps a number of disability charities in England. Clare herself died at the age of 56 in 2012.
I can’t imagine the burden of living with foisted fame. Christopher Robin Milne never sought it, never wanted it and had to deal with it for all of his 75 years. His real-life state reminded me of the character of Amy in Gillian Flynn’s 2012 novel Gone Girl. In that book, Amy’s parents are the authors of a popular series of books based on their daughter “Amazing Amy”. If you’ve read that book, you’ll know that the unwelcome recognition Amy received may have contributed to her warped and decidedly calculating personality.
Christopher Milne thankfully escaped all that. He turned out to be an unassuming, rather accommodating man who lived and loved to the best of his capabilities. He was a gifted writer too and once wrote, “a boy learns better what he teaches himself”. He was very self-aware and gracious in his dealings with fans of AA Milne’s books and it’s the image of the boy that has endured. Here’s the last sentence from The House at Pooh Corner:
“Wherever they go, 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.”