Goodbye Christopher Robin: A.A. Milne and the Making of Winnie-the-Pooh is drawn from Ann Thwaite’s Whitbread Award-winning biography of A. A. Milne, one of England’s most successful writers.
After serving in the First World War, Milne wrote a number of well-received plays, but his greatest triumph came when he created Winnie-the-Pooh, Piglet, Tigger, Eeyore and, of course, Christopher Robin, the adventurous little boy based on his own son. Goodbye Christopher Robin inspired the film directed by Simon Curtis and starring Domhnall Gleeson, Margot Robbie and Kelly Macdonald. It 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.
Goodbye Christopher Robin is a story of celebrity, a story of both the joys and pains of success and, ultimately, the story of how one man created a series of enchanting tales that brought hope and comfort to an England ravaged by the First World War.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.70(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Ann Thwaite is a Whitbread-Prize-winning biographer and children’s writer. She was born in London and was educated at Queen Elizabeth’s, Barnet and St Hilda’s College, Oxford. She has written several major biographies. A. A. Milne: His Life won the Whitbread Biography of the Year in 1990. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and an Honorary Fellowof Roehampton University (National Centre for Research into Children’s Literature). She holds an honorary doctorate from the University of East Anglia and a D.Litt from Oxford. She lives in Norfolk with her husband, the poet Anthony Thwaite.
Frank Cottrell-Boyce is the co-writer of the screenplay for Goodbye Christopher Robin.
Read an Excerpt
In 1922, the year A. A. Milne was forty and two years before the first of the famous children's books was published, a caption to his photograph in a London newspaper carried the words: 'Milne came to Fleet Street years ago in search of a fortune. As a dramatist, his income at times ranges from £200 to £500 a week.' This really was a fortune in 1922; it was more in a week than most people earned in a year. That joking boast, 'England's premier playwright', which Alan Milne had used when signing a letter to his brother Ken in 1917, was never exactly justified. But he was certainly one of England's most successful, prolific and best-known playwrights for a brief period, a fact that now seems almost incredible, when so many people who know his name and love his books have no idea that he ever wrote plays.
It was in 1919 that A. A. Milne had joined the Garrick Club. The club was to give him a great deal of pleasure (a refuge, another home, particularly in the thirties) – pleasure he would reward on his death with a share of the Pooh royalties. The Garrick was the appropriate club for a playwright. The Garrick was full of actors; it was full of writers too.
Milne in 1919 was ambitious, and not just to make a lot of money. Towards the end of his life, he summed up his feelings like this:
Of all the foolish things which Dr Johnson said, the most foolish was: 'No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.' What he should have said was that a writer, having written what pleased him, was a blockhead if he did not sell it in the best market. But a writer wants something more than money for his work: he wants permanence ... He yearns for the immortality, even if only in the British Museum, of stiff covers.
Milne made sure that most of his plays were published in an attractive uniform edition from Chatto and Windus, in a stylish brown cloth with a well-designed label on the spine. 'It is very jolly indeed,' he told his novelist friend and editor Frank Swinnerton, when he saw the proofs of First Plays. Twenty of Milne's plays survive in this form, and not only in the British Museum. But the true immortality was to come, of course, from the children's books, a fact he would live to realise and regret.
The play that was Milne's first real success was Mr Pim Passes By, which opened at the New Theatre in London on 5 January 1920. It was a hard audience to woo. The great successes of the 1920s were Chu Chin Chow and Hassan, glamorous and specifically exotic musical shows, which fulfilled to perfection people's need for a good night out. In the straight theatre, the playwright's best hope was to make people laugh. He also had to remember all sorts of practical things. Theatres were less well-disciplined places than they usually are today. 'If yours is an 8.15 play, you may be sure that the stalls will not fill up till 8.30 and you should therefore let loose the lesser-paid members of the cast in the opening scene.' You should be careful not to waste your jokes 'on the first five pages of dialogue'. There would be a crackle of stiff white shirtfronts, a jingle of beaded evening bags, a shuffle of programmes as the audience settled themselves into their seats. And at the end of the evening the playwright had to remember that many people, living for instance in Chislehurst, would be catching last trains and missing thefinal five minutes of every play they ever saw, together, of course, with countless renderings of the national anthem.
There was a more personal problem. The Milnes were becoming worried at Daphne's failure to conceive. They both wanted children. They had now been married for nearly six years; the war had not kept them apart for any great periods of time. There were consultations with a gynaecologist. In May 1919, Daphne went into a nursing home. 'I fly there in all my spare minutes,' Milne wrote to Swinnerton, adding that he was trying to write a novel called Nocturne, but kept putting it aside. The operation Daphne underwent was 'officially' for the removal of her appendix, but it seems likely that something else was done at the same time; perhaps the fallopian tubes were insufflated. Whatever happened, in April 1920 J. M. Barrie would be able to congratulate Milne: 'By far the choicest lines (the best you have ever written) are about your wife and I rejoice with exceeding joy over that news.' Daphne was expecting a child in August.
The nursery was ready. They had moved into 'the prettiest little house in London', Milne wrote to Frank Swinnerton in August 1919, describing 11 Mallord Street, Chelsea, SW3. It is a short, quiet street just a few minutes' walk from the King's Road.
The house is narrow, in a terrace, and had been built not long before the war. It has three storeys and a basement and is much bigger than it looks from outside, having been designed rather cleverly round a well for light. The house was much described in the late 1920s, when hordes of journalists traipsed through it on their way to Christopher Robin's nursery. 'Originally Mallord Street had been done in colours influenced by the Russian Ballet, black carpets, bright cushions, very impractical as the carpets showed every bit of cigarette ash,' a friend of Daphne's remembered her saying. 'She told me that the thing to be at that time was – different.' The house had to be 'an artistic whole, a showplace'.
Some of Milne's own exuberant pleasure in his new house comes across in a piece he published in the Sphere on 9 August 1919, soon after they moved in. It was the first time, he said, that he had had the chance to go upstairs to bed and come downstairs to breakfast for nineteen years – in other words since he had left home for Cambridge.
Of course I have done these things in other people's houses from time to time, but what we do in other people's houses does not count ... Now, however, for the first time in nineteen years, I am actually living in a house. I have (imagine my excitement) a staircase of my own.
Flats may be convenient (I thought so myself when I lived in one some days ago), but they have their disadvantages. One of the disadvantages is that you are never in complete possession of the flat. You may think that the drawing-room floor (to take a case) is your very own, but it isn't; you share it with a man below who uses it as a ceiling. If you want to dance a step-dance, you have to consider his plaster. I was always ready enough to accommodate myself in this matter to his prejudices, but I could not put up with his old-fashioned ideas about bathroom ceilings. It is very cramping to one's style in the bath to reflect that the slightest splash may call attention to itself on the ceiling of the gentleman below. This is to share a bathroom with a stranger – an intolerable position for a proud man. Today I have a bathroom of my own for the first time in my life.
I can see already that living in a house is going to be extraordinarily healthy both for mind and body. At present I go upstairs to my bedroom (and downstairs again) about once in every half-hour. No such exercise as this was possible in a flat, and even after two or three days I feel the better for it.
But the best of a house is that it has an outside personality as well as an inside one. Any of you may find himself some day in our quiet street, and stop a moment to look at our house; at the blue door with its jolly knocker, at the little trees in their blue tubs standing within a ring of blue posts linked by chains, at the bright-coloured curtains. We have the pleasure of feeling that we are contributing something to London. We are part of a street now, and can take pride in that street.
That being 'part of a street' was not quite as community-minded a remark as it suggests, although Milne would become friends with some people who lived nearby. Harold Fraser-Simson, the composer, had a house across the street and belonged to the Garrick Club. W. A. Darlington and his family lived only a few minutes' walk away. They would all see each other from time to time. Darlington described his first visit:
As I rang the bell of his house in Mallord Street I was attacked by a fit of shyness. I had admired his work so deeply and for so long that I had a sudden absurd feeling that I was a fag in the lower fourth who had been sent for by a member of the upper sixth. This vanished the moment I met him. Milne in the flesh was all I had hoped to find him, warm, friendly and amusing.
Milne had invited Darlington to call. Darlington's review of Mr Pim Passes By was written on the night of the confirmation of his appointment as drama critic of the Daily Telegraph, a job he was to hold for the rest of his career. The Milnes were not callers. 'We don't call very well,' Milne said. 'My fault, I suppose. I hate knowing people for geographical reasons.' Their neighbours felt the same. When the Milnes were burgled, the people next door sent a note of sympathy. Even then they did not speak to each other. 'Suburban chumminess' never appealed to Milne. Already he felt it necessary to protect his privacy. But he was not always consistent. Milne once said to Swinnerton: 'Does any person think so consecutively and business-likely as novelists make them think?' Real people are never as consistent as the characters in fiction. Milne could be said, at some points, to have been someone who kept himself to himself. On other days, in other moods, he would welcome the warm curiosity, the genuine interest of a fellow human being.
The one generalisation which always does seem to be true of Milne – unfashionable and indeed repugnant as some people find it – can best be left in Frank Swinnerton's own words, the words of someone who knew him really well. 'He loves goodness ... He stands for virtue.' He had been brought up to believe that, without virtue, nothing is worth anything. This does not mean, of course, that he always himself did the right thing but rather that he had a strong moral sense. Swinnerton saw this as a problem for Milne professionally. 'He combined with a gift for persiflage the sternness of a Covenanter, which I think restricted the range of his dramatic performance. Any writer of imaginative work who cannot give the Devil his due ... becomes moral-bound. He dare not let sinners have a flutter.' 'Rectitude is fatal to humour,' Graham Greene would say, hitting Milne when he was already down, in the 1930s. The redeeming fact was that Milne's admiration was for real goodness, not for those Victorian virtues, or indeed 'the prevailing social codes' which so often pass as such. But it would, as we shall see, earn him some dislike. Those who stand for goodness risk being called prudish, priggish and proud. 'I felt uncomfortable in his company,' one of his publishers told me. 'Those who disagree with him complain of his rigidity in argument and severity in outlook,' Swinnerton said, adding, 'That is not my experience. I have always found him overflowing with good spirits.'
Alan Milne's parents, who had now sold their school and retired, were living in the war years and just after in a house called St Andrews at Burgess Hill in Sussex. One of Alan's nieces, Angela, remembered: 'To a child from suburbia, St Andrews was heaven.' It was 'a compact Victorian country house, brick, gabled, with a squat tower', standing in its own grounds. There was Pears' soap in the bathroom, a grandfather clock in the hall, stone lions and passion-flowers at the front door. Maria by now was ailing, moving only slowly round the house, with a stick, a shawl and a lace cap. She taught her grandchildren a moral verse, as she must have taught her own children, thirty years before.
For every evil under the sun There is a remedy or there is none.
'J. V. Milne was more sprightly, a small man (he got smaller with age) with a neat white beard and a panama hat. He wore pince-nez and showed his Scottishness by pronouncing "grass" with a short "a" ... He would stroll round the garden (hands behind back) with us, telling us useful and funny things.' The garden was full of frogs and apples. The house often resounded to 'Trumpeter, what are you trumpeting now?' on the gramophone and to Harry Lauder singing 'I Love a Lassie'.
The elderly Milnes' great source of pride and pleasure was, of course, A. A. Milne's rise to fame and fortune. Alan had given his father a subscription to the General Press Cutting Association Ltd, as early as 1910, and J. V. stuck the cuttings neatly into a stout black notebook. Before long there would be productions of Milne plays all over the place in little theatres and community playhouses. In the west of England, two boys who would grow up to be Charles Causley, the poet, and J. C. Trewin, the drama critic, would both remember Mr Pim Passes By as their first happy experience of the theatre.
It ran in London for 246 performances and opened in New York for another successful run on 28 February 1921. For the rest of Milne's life it would continue to make him money. Milne had had a sort of fame for years as a Punch humorist. Now the morning post increased dramatically. He was much in demand. Photographers wrote wanting to photograph him. 'Very handsome, long-headed, keen-faced', as Swinnerton described him, he looks out from dozens of photographs taken in the 1920s.
Milne himself was writing his novel based on the play. 'I know very little about the writing of novels – or the writing of plays for that matter – but I hope I am learning. And, anyway, it is much more fun trying to do things which you can't quite do than doing them when you can.' The novel, Mr Pim, included most of the dialogue from the play, but it was 'a real book', Milne said, 'and not just the dialogue with "he said" or "she said" tacked on.' The idea had not been Milne's own, but it worked extremely well.
Milne had already finished another novel, a detective story, The Red House Mystery, though it would not be published until 1922, after Mr Pim. He said, modestly, much later: 'The result would have passed unnoticed in these days when so many good writers are writing so many good detective stories, but in those days there was not so much competition.' It was actually written just before the publication of Agatha Christie's first book The Mysterious Affair at Styles (a book which, thirty years later, he would call 'the model detective story') and published a year before Dorothy Sayers's first novel. In an introduction to a later edition of The Red House Mystery Milne comments on his agents' lack of enthusiasm for the new project. He was, after all, typecast as a humorist. But it was in Milne's nature, and demonstrated throughout his career, to refuse to be typecast. It was always more interesting to try something new. 'It has been my good fortune as a writer that what I have wanted to write has for the most part proved to be saleable. It has been my misfortune as a businessman that, when it has proved to be extremely saleable, then I have not wanted to write it any more.' This would be true in turn of humorous essays, detective stories and children's books.
A. A. Milne had an enviable confidence in his own activities. His niece, Angela, remembered Milne telling her 'that he had a superiority complex; not boasting, or confessing, simply stating a fact. I am sure it was true,' she said. 'All Milnes have been brought up to believe that never mind about money ... it's BRAINS THAT COUNT.' It would be poor Pooh's lack of brain that would cause most of his problems and give Christopher Robin (and the listening child) that delightful feeling of superiority that Milne enjoyed so much of the time, even if, occasionally, it was accompanied by intolerance and impatience. Friends and acquaintances could find this very difficult, though he often managed to cloak it with a becoming, self-mocking modesty. With his strong conviction of his own worth, there went a sad inability to accept criticism. W. A. Darlington put it like this:
Alan and I spent most of our time together on various golf courses, where we had, or soon acquired, a number of mutual friends. It was from these that I learned the disconcerting fact that, devoted to Alan as they were, they all found him on occasion very difficult to deal with. The trouble was, I was told, that he simply could not take any form of adverse criticism. 'Say the wrong thing to him,' I was warned, 'and he freezes stone cold and won't speak to you for the rest of the day.'
It is not an uncommon trait in the creative artist to desire praise and shrink from censure, but Alan evidently had it to an abnormal degree. The violence of his reaction against even a hint of blame had in it something pathological, as if he were short of a skin.
Was it perhaps that he had never needed in his glowing cherished childhood to grow any form of protective coating? Long ago there was the blow of a first bad Westminster report for the boy who had spent his early years as the headmaster's beloved youngest son, the child so lapped in love and admiration that he thought he could do anything. Milne had, indeed, as many writers have, an intense need for praise. He once wrote about 'that sense of inspiration and power that only comes upon me after violent praise'. And, on another occasion, when asked by an interviewer whether Daphne, so often at this period still involved in taking his dictation, ever criticised what he had written at the end of the day, he said, 'No, she just praises ... Praise is what an author really wants when he is actually writing.' It was, in fact, what he always wanted.
Excerpted from "Goodbye Christopher Robin"
Copyright © 2017 Ann Thwaite.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Preface by Frank Cottrell-Boyce,
Before You Begin,
2. THE ARRIVAL OF CHRISTOPHER ROBIN,
3. WHEN WE WERE VERY YOUNG,
4. THE BEGINNINGS OF POOH,
6. THE END OF A CHAPTER,
Also by Ann Thwaite,
About the Author,