Today is the birthday (1920) of Christopher Robin Milne, the son of author A. A. Milne. As a child, he was the basis of the character Christopher Robin in his father’s Winnie-the-Pooh stories and in two books of poems. He was born at 11 Mallord St, in Chelsea, London. His parents had expected the baby to be a girl, and had chosen the name Rosemary. When it turned out to be a boy, they initially intended to call him Billy, but decided that would be too informal. They gave him two first names to help distinguish him from other Milnes; each parent chose a name. Although he was officially named Christopher Robin, his parents often referred to him as “Billy”. When he began to talk, he pronounced his surname as Moon instead of Milne. After that, his family would often call him “Billy”, “Moon”, or “Billy Moon”. In later life, he became known as simply “Christopher”.
On his first birthday, he received an Alpha Farnell teddy bear he called Edward. This bear, along with a real Canadian bear named “Winnie” that Milne saw at the London Zoo, eventually became the inspiration for the Winnie-the-Pooh character. The teddy bear was about two feet tall, light in color, frequently lost its eyes, and was a constant companion to Milne.
As was customary for upper-class and upper-middle-class English children at the time, Milne was reared by a nanny – Olive Brockwell. Meetings with his parents were restricted to short periods just after breakfast, at tea time, and in the evening, just before he went to bed. As he grew up, he spent more time with them; however, as his parents spent little time together, Milne divided his own time between his mother and his father.
Time spent with his father led to Milne’s love of mathematics and cricket, as well as to their shared pacifism. Though Milne spoke self-deprecatingly of his intellect, referring to himself many times as being “dim”, he was accomplished for a boy of his age. The reason for his denying his intelligence was his ability to solve complex equations with little or no difficulty but his having to concentrate on much simpler ones. From his mother, Milne acquired a talent for working with his hands. He owned a small tool kit, which he used to disassemble the lock on his nursery door when he was seven years old. By the age of 10, he had modified the works of a grandfather clock and altered a cap gun so that it would shoot real bullets.
In his childhood, Milne was fond of being associated with his father’s books and helped him to write a few of the stories. Once, he went so far as to organize a short play for his parents, re-enacting a story about himself and his friends in the woods. However, after starting school, he was mocked by his peers, who recited passages from the books, particularly from the poem Vespers: “Hush! Hush! Whisper who dares! Christopher Robin is saying his prayers.” Milne, therefore, grew to resent the attention his father’s success had brought him.
Milne first attended the Gibbs School, an independent school in London, in 1929. At age nine, he went on to Boxgrove Preparatory School, a privately owned preparatory school in Guildford, and then at 13 to Stowe School, an independent boys’ school in Buckinghamshire, where he learned to box as a way to defend himself from his classmates’ taunts. In 1939, he won a scholarship to study Mathematics at Trinity College, Cambridge.
When World War II broke out, Milne left his studies and attempted to join the army but failed the medical examination. His father used his influence to get Milne a position with the second training battalion of the Royal Engineers. He received his commission in July 1942 and was posted to the Middle East and Italy.
While serving abroad, he began to resent what he saw as his father’s exploitation of his childhood and came to hate the books that had thrust him into the public eye. After being discharged from the army, he went to Cambridge to complete his studies and graduated with a Third Class Honours degree in English.
On 24 July 1948, Milne married his first cousin, Lesley de Sélincourt. His mother disliked the marriage, partly because she did not get along with her brother, Lesley’s father Aubrey. (She had wanted her son to marry his childhood friend, Anne Darlington.) In 1951, Milne and his wife moved to Dartmouth to found the Harbour Bookshop, which turned out to be a success, though his mother had thought the decision odd, as Milne did not seem to like “business”, and as a bookseller would regularly have to meet Pooh fans. While both of these issues did at times cause them frustration, Milne and his wife ran their bookshop for many years without any help from royalties from sales of the Pooh books. After he retired from the bookshop, his wife and a business partner opened a secondhand bookshop. The Harbour Bookshop reopened in spring 2012 as a community-run bookshop.
Milne occasionally visited his father after the elder Milne became ill, but once his father died, he did not see his mother during the 15 years that passed before her death; even when she was on her deathbed she refused to see her son.
A few months after his father’s death in 1956, Christopher’s daughter Clare was born and diagnosed with severe cerebral palsy. She would later run a charity for the disabled called the Clare Milne Trust.
In 1974, Milne published the first of three autobiographical books. The Enchanted Places gave an account of his childhood and of the problems he had encountered because of the Pooh books.
Milne gave the original stuffed animals that inspired the Pooh characters to the books’ editor, who in turn donated them to the New York Public Library; Marjorie Taylor (in her book Imaginary Companions and the Children Who Create Them) recounts how many were disappointed at this, and Milne had to explain that he preferred to concentrate on the things that currently interested him. Milne had also disliked the idea of Winnie-the-Pooh being commercialized.
The Shepard drawings in the Winnie-the-Pooh books are very sensitive and seem to me to capture the spirit of the young Christopher Robin (as seen in the images above). But when Disney took over the enterprise, disaster struck. The Disney factory has a way of taking stories that have profound depth and complexity, and turning them into shallow trivia for the purposes of making money and not much else. I have every sympathy with Milne on this point.
Milne lived for some years with myasthenia gravis and died in his sleep on 20 April 1996. He was seventy-five years old.
I picked a nursery recipe from Mrs Beeton in recognition of Milne’s childhood. When you read her descriptions of the duties of the nursery staff you have to cringe. Here’s a sample:
2399. Most children have some bad habit, of which they must be broken; but this is never accomplished by harshness without developing worse evils: kindness, perseverance, and patience in the nurse, are here of the utmost importance. When finger-sucking is one of these habits, the fingers are sometimes rubbed with bitter aloes, or some equally disagreeable substance. Others have dirty habits, which are only to be changed by patience, perseverance, and, above all, by regularity in the nurse. She should never be permitted to inflict punishment on these occasions, or, indeed, on any occasion. But, if punishment is to be avoided, it is still more necessary that all kinds of indulgences and flattery be equally forbidden. Yielding to all the whims of a child,—picking up its toys when thrown away in mere wantonness, would be intolerable. A child should never be led to think others inferior to it, to beat a dog, or even the stone against which it falls, as some children are taught to do by silly nurses. Neither should the nurse affect or show alarm at any of the little accidents which must inevitably happen: if it falls, treat it as a trifle; otherwise she encourages a spirit of cowardice and timidity. But she will take care that such accidents are not of frequent occurrence, or the result of neglect.
You can just see the colonial cavalry officer in training.
Rice pudding is a perennial favorite in the nursery. It was a childhood delight for me which I have since grown out of. Make sure you use starchy, short-grained rice. I’d also be inclined to cook it somewhat less and put some sugar in the water.
VARIETIES OF RICE.—Of the varieties of rice brought to our market, that from Bengal is chiefly of the species denominated cargo rice, and is of a coarse reddish-brown cast, but peculiarly sweet and large-grained; it does not readily separate from the husk, but it is preferred by the natives to all the others. Patua rice is more esteemed in Europe, and is of very superior qualify; it is small-grained, rather long and wiry, and is remarkably white. The Carolina rice is considered as the best, and is likewise the dearest in London.
(With Dried or Fresh fruit; a nice dish for the Nursery.)
1346. INGREDIENTS.—1/2 lb. of rice, 1 pint of any kind of fresh fruit that may be preferred, or 1/2 lb. of raisins or currants.
Mode.—Wash the rice, tie it in a cloth, allowing room for it to swell, and put it into a saucepan of cold water; let it boil for an hour, then take it up, untie the cloth, stir in the fruit, and tie it up again tolerably tight, and put it into the water for the remainder of the time. Boil for another hour, or rather longer, and serve with sweet sauce, if made with dried fruit, and with plain sifted sugar and a little cream or milk, if made with fresh fruit.
Time.—1 hour to boil the rice without the fruit; 1 hour, or longer, afterwards.
Average cost, 6d.
Sufficient for 6 or 7 children. Seasonable at any time.
Note.—This pudding is very good made with apples: they should be pared cored, and cut into thin slices.