The Winnie the Pooh stories – where the fictional character Christopher Robin plays in the woods with his teddy-bear friends – can perhaps lead us to form the assumption that the real boy’s childhood, too, was both idyllic and magical. Naturally, many of us imagine his experience to be one of innocence, playfulness and adventure.
But this wasn’t quite the case. In fact, the true Christopher Robin actually faced many difficulties in his childhood and also later in adult life. What’s more, he even came to dislike the bear that ended up being such a big part of his life.
Winnie the Pooh, his friends, and the Hundred-Acre Wood were first introduced to us in the collection of poems When We Were Very Young, which was published in 1924. For almost a century now, the stories have been enjoyed by both children and adults alike. And they are still inspiring films today, such as Disney’s Christopher Robin, which was released in 2018.
In these very first tales, Christopher Robin plays in the Hundred-Acre Wood without a care in the world. His main concerns include sourcing his best friend Winnie the Pooh’s next supply of honey, going on an expedition to find the North Pole, and throwing woodland parties for his friends – Piglet, Eeyore, Owl and Rabbit.
Since then, the popular stories have been adapted, franchised and animated into various stories and films. And with the new adaptions – in films such as 2017’s Goodbye Christopher Robin – the idea of where the inspiration for Pooh came about has come under the spotlight again. And there has been a renewed interest in what the tales meant for his fictional companion, but also real child, Christopher Robin.
For now though, let’s take a little look at the life of the author – and person responsible for bringing the stuffed yellow bear to life – Alan Alexander Milne. Before publishing Winnie the Pooh he tried his hand at playwriting and he also managed to publish three novels. However, at this point, little did he know that the children’s book he would come to write would generate such incredible success.
But first, Alan went off to fight in World War I. But sadly, he was wounded at the Battle of the Somme in 1916 – a devastating campaign in which hundreds of thousands of men died. It seems that his time at war stuck with him, and he is thought to have experienced various symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Indeed, author reportedly mistook popping balloons for cannon fire and thought that buzzing bees were bullets.
And a few years after Alan returned, he decided to move his family – his wife Daphne and son Christopher Robin – to the countryside. They ended up in a county home called Cotchford Farm in East Sussex, England. And it is here that the inspiration for Pooh would be fully articulated.
Domhnall Gleeson, the actor who plays Milne in Goodbye Christopher Robin, said how he thought Milne found nature to be a calming retreat. He told The Telegraph in 2017, “Watching his son grow up in a place that was pure, after seeing the absolute worst parts of humanity in vivid action, brought him some hope.”
Daphne Milne, on the other hand, was not all that overjoyed with the move. She apparently longed for the hustle and bustle of her old life in London. But despite some sources suggesting that Daphne was an absent mother to Christopher Robin, the latter has said in the past that if it wasn’t for her, Winnie the Pooh wouldn’t even exist.
“It was my mother who used to come and play in the nursery with me and tell [my dad] about the things I thought and did,” Christopher Robin once said, according to the New York Times. He added, “It was she who provided most of the material for my father’s books.” So, contrary to what we might expect, the inspiration for Winnie the Pooh didn’t from come a close relationship between father and son.
For his part, Alan even remarked that he didn’t actually like children all that much. Indeed, he once told an interviewer that he felt no more feelings towards them than someone has “over a puppy or a kitten.” And in a 1988 interview, Christopher Robin told The Telegraph, “Some people are good with children. Others are not. It is a gift. You either have it or you don’t. My father didn’t.”
Given Christopher Robin’s relationship with his father, and the fact that his mother Daphne was out of the house a lot of the time, it is unsurprising that he grew very fond of his live-in nanny, Olive Rand. Indeed, he told the newspaper, “For over eight years, apart from her fortnight’s holiday every September, we had not been out of each other’s sight for more than a few hours at a time.”
Meanwhile, after Alan published the Winnie the Pooh books, Christopher Robin was immediately shrouded in fame. And when he was just seven years old, he was made to take part in a publicity campaign. And not only was he photographed with Pooh, but he had to sing a song in front of an audience and record an audiobook of the tale.
And all of this fame would, in time, leave Christopher Robin feeling resentful towards his father. He even told The Telegraph that he felt as though his father “had got where he was by climbing on my infant shoulders, that he had filched from me my good name and had left me with nothing but the empty fame of being his son.”
Meanwhile, at the age of nine, Christopher Robin left home to attend boarding school. And, sadly, it became an ordeal for the young boy, as he his fame and public connection to his childhood teddy meant that he was badly bullied. Indeed, had to endure both verbal abuse and physical attacks.
There was one incident where Christopher Robin’s classmates even managed to find the audiobook he’d recorded as part of the campaign, according to the BBC. And whenever the young boy was around, the others would play it on the gramophone and laugh. One day, however, he succeeded in getting the record back and in turn, he destroyed it.
The bullying had meant that Christopher Robin was physically beaten up multiple times. But, by the age of 13, he had decided enough was enough, and he chose to learn boxing as a way of standing up for himself. Many years later, according to The Sun, he remarked that these incidences at school caused him “toe-curling, fist-clenching, [and] lip-biting embarrassment.”
Meanwhile, as Christopher Robin grew older, his detachment from Winnie the Pooh grew stronger. However, in his 1974 memoir – The Enchanted Places: A Childhood Memoir – he admitted that at first he “quite liked being famous.” And when referring to the fictional version of himself, he added, “At home I still liked him, indeed felt at times quite proud that I shared his name and was able to bask in some of his glory. At school, however, I began to dislike him, and I found myself disliking him more and more the older I got.”
And despite his bad experience at school, Christopher Robin earned himself a scholarship to study mathematics at Trinity College, Cambridge. He started there in 1939, but little did he know that there was soon to be a massive interruption to his studies: World War II.
Subsequently, Christopher Robin left Cambridge to sign up to the army. After failing to pass the medical examination, his father had to step in and use his connections so that his son would be able to do his bit for his country. And it is because of this that he soon became a sapper with the second training battalion of the Royal Engineers.
However, in July 1942 he received his commission and traveled to Italy and the Middle East – a world away from fighting the fictional heffalumps and woozles. Then, a year later as a platoon commander he was wounded and had to make the journey home to England. He then returned to university, but rather surprisingly, he didn’t continue with maths.
Instead, Christopher Robin switched his major to English Literature, but he then struggled after graduating. Indeed, he had trouble finding his vocation and at one point even worked selling lampshades at a department store.
But Christopher Robin was resentful and struggling. And it was because of his father, he told The Telegraph, that he had “a household name but no role in life.” And what happened next caused a more definite separation between him and his parents.
Much to his parents’ dismay, Christopher Robin then fell in love with and subsequently married his first cousin, Lesley de Sélincourt. The pair met in 1947 and were hitched a short time later, in July 1948. So, just what was it that made him fall for Lesley so quickly?
Rather unsurprisingly, Christopher Robin and Lesley bonded over the fact that they both disliked Winnie the Pooh. The latter was underwhelmed by her beau’s connection to the fictional Christopher Robin and instead, saw him for who he was. Not only this, but she didn’t view his father Alan’s work in high regard either.
And, as mentioned earlier, Christopher Robin’s parents didn’t approve of the match. While his father couldn’t hack the thought of his son marrying a blood relative, his mother Daphne had been estranged from her brother – Lesley’s father – for three decades. Indeed, she was from a side of the family that she hated.
Then in 1951 Christopher Robin and Lesley – decided to move to Dartmouth in the south of England. And later that year, they opened a bookshop on the harbor, which turned out to be a successful venture. Christopher Robin’s mother, Daphne, apparently thought this career move strange, given that in this industry, he would have to encounter many Winnie the Pooh aficionados.
Meanwhile, the nature of Christopher Robin and Lesley’s marriage worried the former’s father Alan, especially with regard to their children. Indeed, the couple had their one and only child in 1956, a girl called Clare, who was born with a number of conditions including cerebral palsy. Furthermore, she couldn’t walk without help and needed 24-hour care.
Up until this point, Christopher Robin had been adamant that he didn’t want to reap any benefits from the money-making machine that was Winnie the Pooh. After all, he told The Telegraph, he didn’t want to be seen to be getting a “lift from [his] fictional namesake of all people.” But, it seems that the birth of his daughter rather put things into perspective. “I had to accept it, for Clare’s sake,” he explained.
The care that Clare needed would, of course, amount to a large sum of money. Arguably, Christopher Robin didn’t have much choice but to start accepting the royalty checks, which would allow him to take care of his daughter.
Meanwhile, Christopher Robin attacked his parents in a newspaper article not long after his daughter Clare was born. Indeed, he publicly shamed their parenting, telling the interviewer that he resented them for leaving him in the care of others and saying they were detached and cold.
Understandably, Christopher Robin’s mother Daphne was heartbroken, and the statue of him which stood in the garden was soon buried – she wanted him out of sight. Clearly, all ties and hopes at working on their familial bonds appeared to have diminished. This wouldn’t be the last time they saw each other, though.
Sadly, the family would continue to suffer heartbreak, as Christopher Robin’s dad and Winnie the Pooh author Alan’s health deteriorated. A stroke and brain surgery in 1952 had left him invalid, and by the following year his friend John Middleton Murry wrote that “he seemed very old and disenchanted.” Then, in January 1956 he died, aged 74.
Apparently, Daphne wanted to use her husband’s funeral as a way of approaching her son Christopher Robin with the intention of making peace with him. However, according to the Daily Mail, he latter arrived without his wife and wasn’t dressed very smartly. This, it seems, put an end to her plans.
For her part, Daphne went on to live for another 15 years and only agreed to see Christopher Robin once in that time. Then in his mother’s final days, he desperately tried to reached out to try and see her. However, heartbreakingly, she apparently refused – not allowing her son to say goodbye.
Now, you’re probably wondering what happened to the real Winnie the Pooh. Well, Christopher Robin left the teddy with his father when he went off to boarding school. In the end, it ended up with his father’s publisher and was subsequently donated by Christopher Robin to the New York Public Library where it went on display.
Despite Christopher Robin’s previous resentment towards the bear, it seems that the reason he sent the toy to America was actually quite rational. Interestingly, he wrote the bear off with the words, “I like to have around me the things I like today, not the things I once liked many years ago.”
What’s more, it seems that age brought with it a certain appreciation for the toys and stories that made Christopher Robin so well-known. In an interview with The Telegraph in 1988, he said, “It’s been something of a love-hate relationship down the years, but it’s all right now.” He added, “Yes, believe it or not, I can look at those four books without flinching. I’m quite fond of them really.”
So, for a child who is known to many for his adventures in the woods, life for the real Christopher Robin was a series of hurdles and difficulties. Thankfully though, despite the strained relationship with his parents, being bullied at school and his time in WWII, it seems that by the time of his death in 1996, he had at last come to regard his connection to Winnie the Pooh as something of a positive one.