Nearly 90 years after they were written, the beguiling adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh and Christopher Robin remain some of the most iconic tales of childhood in English literature.
But behind the joyful innocence and rural idyll of A.A. Milne’s children’s books lies a shocking story of anger, bitterness and estrangement that left a lasting legacy on the real-life Christopher Robin who could never forgive his father for ‘filching’ his good name and leaving him with ‘nothing but the empty fame of being his son.’
The torrid tale of the human cost of the Winnie-the-Pooh books on Milne’s family is explored in the film, Goodbye Christopher Robin – starring Domhnall Gleeson as Milne and Margot Robbie as his wife Daphne – which is now wowing cinema audiences across the country.
But readers can dig deeper into the story behind the conception of the perennially popular books in this heartwarming and moving account which is drawn from Ann Thwaite’s acclaimed biography of Milne and has a fascinating preface by Frank Cottrell Boyce, a co-writer of the film’s screenplay.
Thwaite offers the reader a glimpse into the relationship between Milne and the real-life Christopher Robin, whose toys inspired the magical world of the Hundred Acre Wood.
Just the name Winnie-the -Pooh has become synonymous with the innocence pleasures of childhood but it was an unlooked-for fame for Pooh’s creator. He was, says Boyce, a writer ‘swallowed up by his own creation’ and the tragedy was that it ‘trapped a real child in time like a fly in amber.’
Milne enjoyed a long and distinguished career as a poet, playwright, polemicist, peace campaigner and novelist but this success was completely eclipsed by his four short children’s books, created as he so eloquently revealed in 1952 four years before his death, ‘little thinking all my years of pen-and-inking would be lost among those four trifles for the young.’
Milne was already a respected writer for Punch magazine when, in 1923 during a wet holiday in Wales, he started to write verse about his three-year-old son Christopher and his Harrods teddy bear.
When We Were Very Young, published the next year, followed by Winnie-The-Pooh in 1926, made Milne a household name for the whimsical portrayal of a little boy and his friends Piglet, Tigger and Eeyore, in Hundred Acre Wood.
These memorable characters were inspired by Christopher’s stuffed animals, including his teddy bear Winnie-the-Pooh named after a Canadian black bear named Winnie which was used as a military mascot in the First World War and left to London Zoo. The ‘pooh’ came from a swan called Pooh.
Soon the real Christopher Robin and his family were swept up in the international success of the books with the enchanting tales bringing hope and comfort to an England that had been so ravaged by the First World War.
But while Milne seethed because he yearned to be taken seriously as a political commentator, his wife Daphne, who had found a lover, was happy to place the care of their only son into the hands of their nanny Olive Rand, played in the film by Kelly Macdonald.
And it was Olive – nicknamed ‘Nou’ by her young charge – who ‘became almost a part of me,’ wrote an embittered Christopher Milne in later years. ‘Other people hovered round the edges, but they meant little. My total loyalty was to her.’
The cost of the book’s success to the family proved to be tragically high but as Boyce points out in his preface, ‘For all its shadow, what really abides about this story is the light, the sense that happiness – no matter how fleeting – is real. The fact that we are all moved and enchanted by the Hundred Acre Wood, that it calls to us, is proof that these passing moments are as real and essential as the more solid and enduring things with which we surround ourselves, that we find in them something true and paradoxically enduring, even eternal.’
The perfect gift for film buffs, Winnie-the- Pooh fans and anyone interested in the story behind the man and his legendary creation…
(Pan, paperback, £8.99)