All About Authors: A.A. Milne

He had written plays, poetry, screenplays, short story collections, a mystery novel, and articles for British magazine Punch. A survivor of the deadly Battle of the Somme and a captain in the Home Guard during World War II, he was a well-known military officer who had written two books on his war experiences and the disillusionment he felt because of it. His educational career had included being taught by H.G. Wells and playing on a cricket team with the likes of J.M. Barrie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Yet it was a collection of children’s tales made up about the toys of his only son to put the child to sleep that turned British author Alan Alexander Milne into a household name.

The stories of Winnie the Pooh not only immortalized the stuffed bear and his toy compatriots but also Christopher Robin Milne, the authors son. The fictional land where Christopher Robin played with his toys was part of the Ashdown Forest near the family home in Sussex. The success of these children stories overwhelmed the wide variety of literary work Milne did for adults in through a variety of mediums. The legacy of his most famous creation endures, despite the fact that Milne never published a Winnie the Pooh book after 1928. Tragically, the stories that initially had brought the father and son together ended up playing a role in what tore the family apart.

Early Life

Alan Sydney Milne was born in the Kilburn neighborhood of London on Jan. 18, 1882 to John Vine Milne and Sarah Marie Heginbotham Milne. His mother’s family was originally from Derbyshire but had been living in the Kilburn area than his father. David Vine Milne was born to Scottish parents in Jamaica before the family returned to England to live in London. Alan was the youngest of the family’s three sons. David Vine Milne started out his career as an engineer but was working as a school teacher by the time Alan came along.

Unfortunately, the Henley House School was later destroyed during the Blitz and the modern apartment complex that now stands on the spot was constructed in the 1950s.

Early on, John Vine Milne decided to change the middle name of his youngest son from Sydney to Alexander in honor of one of Alan’s uncles. Alan and his older brothers David and Kenneth grew up largely at Henley House, the all-boys boarding school where their father served as headmaster and they as pupils. The 13 students who boarded in the house with the Milne family ranged from age six to 16 with between 40 and 50 other pupils coming to attend classes during the day. One of the teachers who briefly worked at the school was an up-and-coming author known as H.G. Wells. George Orwell would also later live in the area as well.

A.A., as he was soon known, was one of the best students at the school and the ease at which he obtained his education worried his mother who felt he might become bored and troublesome. However, the young A.A. still excelled. From 1893 until 1900, Milne attended the Westminster School, which is still run out of Westminster Abbey. He would join the ranks of John Dryden, John Locke, Charles Wesley, and Ben Johnson who had also graduated from the school. After graduating from Westminster, he attended Cambridge University's Trinity College where he earned a bachelor's degree in mathematics in 1903.

It was while at Cambridge that A.A. started to really develop his literary career. Milne worked on the student magazine Granta. He and his older brother Kenneth, who was also at the school, often collaborated on literary articles they produced for the publication and combined their initials to publish these articles under the initials AKM. Despite earning his degree in mathematics, Milne decided to pursue journalism when he graduated from the school and asked his former teacher H.G. Wells for advice about how to get started in the field.

Early Career and World War I

Milne worked for two years supported by his father before finally starting to gain some attention for his own literary work. His work eventually came to the attention of British humor magazine Punch, which had also published works by William Makepeace Thackery, Somerset Maughm, Sylvia Plath, P.G. Wodehouse, Artemus Ward, and where he would meet Winnie-the-Pooh illustrator E.H. Shephard, who also worked for the magazine as well as illustrating children’s books.

By 1906, Milne had become a full-time staffer at Punch and eventually was promoted to assistant editor. Outside of his work at Punch, he also pursued a variety of literary styles and projects. he wrote introductions and articles on various books during his career. In 1905, he published a novella that most critics consider more of a short story collection titled Lovers in London. Milne himself wasn’t very fond of the book and would later cite The Day’s Play published in 1910 as the first book he wrote. That same year, he was introduced to a young woman named Dorothy de Selincourt, who was the goddaughter of Punch’s then-editor-in-chief.

Known to friends as Daphne, she was the daughter of Martin de Selincourt who owned the Swan & Edgar department store in Piccadilly Circus. Her uncle was a writer as was her brother Aubrey, who was known for translating ancient works into English for Penguin Classics as well as serving as editor for numerous publication. Aubrey would marry poet Irene Rutherford McLeod. Dorothy’s other brother, Guy, often illustrated Aubrey’s works. Both brothers were historians and sailors, though Aubrey served in the RAF during World War I. Aubrey’s daughter Lesley would eventually grow up to marry her first cousin, Christopher Robin Milne. The two married in 1913.

Dorothy "Daphne" de Selincourt

It wasn’t long after that world events would change the course of the lives of Milne and everyone he knew. The outbreak of World War I in 1914 led to many young men joining the armed forces to defend their country. Milne was already in his thirties by then, but joined the British Army in 1915 at the age of 33. He served as an officer in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, going to active duty as a second lieutenant with the 4th Battalion. Milne served at the Battle of the Somme and was one of 456,000 British casualties in the battle.

Milne was injured on July 7, 1916 during the Battle of Albert, the first two weeks of the Anglo-French Offensive at the Somme. There were approximately 25,000 British casualties taken during this same period. As a result, he was sent back to England to recuperate. Between 1916 and 1917, Milne worked for MI7 writing propaganda articles before finally being honorably discharged in February 1919. His service at an end, Milne and his wife moved into a home on Mallord Street in Chelsea.

Being back in England during the later days of the war, Milne also took back up his writing career outside of government work. In 1917, he published a fairy tale titled Once Upon A Time for his wife. He also wrote a series of plays for both adults and childrens including Wurzel-Flummery in 1917 and Mr. Pim Passes By in 1919. His success as a playwright would lead to him being recruit to write scripts for the nascent British film industry, like many other playwrights at the time.

Christopher Robin and Winnie the Pooh

On Aug. 21, 1920, the Milnes had their only child: Christopher Robin. Born at the home on Mallord Street, Christopher Robin later speculated he was the only child because his parents had difficulty having children. Initially, the Milnes had been expecting a daughter who they planned to name Rosemary, but when they found out their child was a boy A.A. Milne decided the name William and to call the boy Billy. Instead, each of his parents chose a male name creating Christopher Robin as his formal name, but the family often called him Billy Moon because of Christopher Robin’s own mispronunciation of his surname. After 1929, he insisted on going by Christopher.

Milne had not been rehired by Punch after the war and had turned his hand to focusing on writing plays and screenplays, particularly working with screen actor Leslie Howard and Adrian Brunel at their production company Minerva Films. Milne also served on the board of directors of the company and one of the groups main investors was H.G. Wells.

The films did well and most of the screenplays were authored by Milne. When Howard’s career took him to Hollywood in the 1930s, the company dissolved. During the early 1920s, Milne also wrote his only mystery novel The Red House Mystery as well as a novelization of his successful play Mr. Pim Passes By. While he had never set out to be a children’s author, Milne began writing a poetry collection based on his young son. When We Were Very Young was published in 1924 with illustrations from E.H. Shepard. The book was an instant hit, selling 500,000 copies in the first eight weeks.

Some of the poems were about an Edward Bear, the original name of the teddy bear that the four-year-old Christopher Robin owned. Later on, Christopher Robin would rename the toy Winnie the Pooh after a Canadian black bear named Winnie he saw at the London Zoo and Pooh, a swan the family met while on vacation. The Alpha Farnell teddy bear had been given to Christopher Robin for his first birthday.

In 1925, Milne used the proceeds of his writing career to buy an estate in Sussex known as Cotchford Farm. The family would spend weekends, long holidays, and whatever time Milne could coax the family into at the farm, which was located near the vast Ashdown Forest. While the Milne family continued to own their house on Mallord Street into the 1940s, Cotchford Farm seemed to be the focus of much of Milne’s success and his family’s failures. The bedtime stories about his son’s toys including Eeyore, Piglet, Kanga, Tigger, and two invented characters known as Owl and Rabbit came to life in the house and Christopher Robin and his father both enjoyed exploring the woods.

Despite the life his father’s literature would later portray, the Milne’s were not a happy family. Christopher Robin was largely put into the car of his nanny, Oliver Brockwell, for the first eight years of his life until he was sent off to boarding school. Daphne Milne, frustrated at being forced out of the city of London and to her husband’s beloved weekend getaway house, began an affair with American playwright Elmer Rice. She sometimes left her husband and son for weeks at a time to be with her love. Prior to this, Milne had started his own affair with young actress Leonora Corbett who had appeared in some of his plays.

Despite the trouble at home, the Milne’s portrayed a happy family life to bolster the success of the five more children’s books Milne would publish between 1925 and 1928. Now We Are Six, Winnie-the-Pooh, and The House at Pooh Corner were the only volumes that dealt directly with the Winnie-the-Pooh characters, but Milne also published two collections of other stories for children as well during this time. Yet as the stories of Christopher Robin and Winnie the Pooh were delighting audiences around the world, the real Christopher Robin was dealing with a much darker experience.

Once he began school, he was often bullied for being the focus of his father’s stories by classmates. Christopher Robin later recalled that he sometimes felt it hard to separate himself from the caricature of himself his father had created. He also often felt that his parents had exploited his childhood to make a profit, robbing him of typical experiences by putting him on display. Despite the fact that his father’s last Winnie the Pooh story was published when he was eight, Christopher Robin said the tales continued to haunt him long afterwards and put a strain on his relationship with his parents, who he later described as cold and distant. The father and son had a final falling out when Christopher Robin left for college having accused his father of robbing him of his good name.

A.A. Milne himself seemed disappointed that more fans of the stories wrote to his son than wrote to him. Milne also seemed upset that he was widely regarded as a children's author when he had wanted to focus his career on other types of writing. He sold the literary rights to Winnie the Pooh to American literary agent Stephen Slesinger in 1930, who then began using those rights to develop more stories for television and merchandising. Despite being determined to shift the focus of his career away from his children’s works, he ended up adapting The Wind in the Willow for the stage in 1930 as the Toad of Toad Hall. He also wrote a 1941 fairy tale stage play titled The Ugly Duckling, though it has no connection to the Hans Christian Andersen version.

Later Career and World War II

In 1934, Milne caused some controversy when he wrote Peace with Honour, a non-fiction book recalling his World War I experiences and his advocacy of pacifism. It was followed by an autobiography in 1939. With the rise of Hitler and the atrocities being committed abroad, Milne decided to revise the opinions he had earlier expressed in Peace with Honour in the 1940 book War with Honour. In 1941, he published another book War Aims Unlimited. He also wrote a poetry collection in 1940 titled Behind the Lines.

During World War II, he served as captain of the British Home Guard in Hatfield and Forest Row. The rank came from his previous service in World War I. His son Christopher Robinson had also applied to serve in the war, but failed his medical examination. With his father’s help, Christopher Robin Milne get a position with the Royal Engineers where he served in the Middle East and Italy before returning to his studies at Cambridge. After his graduation, the family began to fall further apart. In 1947, A.A. Milne gave the original Winnie the Pooh toys to an editor who wanted a look at them, and they remained in a box in storage for several years afterwards at the publishing company.

Daphne Milne had been estranged from her brother and his family for some 30 years when Christopher Robin Milne met his first cousin Lesley de Selincourt. The two fell in love and, over the objections of their family, married in 1948. The two opened a bookstore in Dartmouth, but were strained from the elder Milnes. The tensions between father and son over the legacy of the Winnie the Pooh stories as well as Christopher Robin’s feelings that his childhood had been commercialized only exacerbated the schism.

Death and Legacy

Milne's ashes were scattered instead of buried. A memorial to him and "Winnie the Pooh" illustration E.H. Shepard stands in Ashdown Forest.

In 1952, surgery on a brain tumor left Milne an invalid and he permanently retired to Cotchford Farm. Christopher Robin visited his father only a few times before his death in 1958. The funeral was the last time Christopher Robin saw his mother until her own death 15 years later. A month after his father died, Christopher Robin and his wife Lesley had their only child, a daughter named Clare who was born with cerebral palsy. His mother sold Cotchford Farm to an American couple who then sold it to Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones, who famously drowned in the swimming pool the American owners had installed in the house.

Milne left the rights to his works and his Pooh books in Europe to be divided among his son, the Royal Literary Fund, the Westminster School, and the Garrick Club. Not wanting to profit off the stories that he felt had robbed him of his childhood, Christopher Robin eventually sold his rights and used the money to start a trust to care for his daughter after he and his wife died. Christopher Robin, who had been diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, died in 1996 at the age of 76. His daughter Clare, who used her life to advocate for the disabled, died in 2012 at the age of 56 from heart issues. There are no living descendants of A.A. Milne.

The Slessinger designs of Winnie the Pooh and his friends from the 1940s before Disney became involved in the licensing of the characters.

E.P. Dutton, the American publisher who wound up with the original Winnie the Pooh toys, eventually donated them to the New York Public Library and 1987, where they have remained on display ever since in the children’s library of the main branch. there are some who were angered that the Milne family had not kept the toys in Britain for display there. However, this wouldn’t be the last major controversy over Milne’s legacy.

Literary agent Stephen Slesinger had turned Winnie-the-Pooh into a $50-million-a-year business in America and Canada by 1931 as he had the licensing rights in those two countries. He and his wife made the famous addition of Pooh’s red shirt and the first commercially available plush dolls modeled on the originals. When he died in 1953, his wife Shirley Slesinger Lasswell continued developing the characters and licensed two agreements with Walt Disney Studios to make movies based on the Winnie the Pooh stories.

For years afterwards, legal battles would ensue between Lasswell and Disney over who had the real rights to Winnie the Pooh with Lasswell claiming the company owed her millions in unpaid royalties for using the character beyond the initial two agreements. They also accused Disney of underreporting Winnie the Pooh sales to avoid having to share profit. Disney allegedly destroyed 40 boxes of evidence. The case began in 1991 and was ongoing until 2009.

Disney's version of Pooh

While Winnie the Pooh left an uneasy legacy for the Milne family, it became an important symbol and figure for childhoods across the world. The stories have been adapted into plays, audio books, records, CDs, radio shows, films, television programs, and direct-to-video features. Winnie the Pooh has been referenced as a type of philosophy by academics including Benjamin Hoff, Frederick Crews, and John T. Williams. The game of poohsticks is known the world over and streets in cities including Budapest and Warsaw are named after the character. Pooh has his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and is second only to Mickey Mouse in the earning power of a fictional character.

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