A.A. Milne (1882-1956) worked as an essayist, a playwright, a poet, and an adult novelist, in addition to his important contribution as an author of juvenile books. Although he attempted to excel in all literary genres, he was master of Christopher Robin and Winnie-the-Pooh. His nature defied labels, such as "writer of children's literature," even though that was where he excelled.
Modern-day readers might be surprised to learn that A.A. Milne did more than just write children's books, specifically the four books which remain popular today: When We Were Very Young, Winnie-the-Pooh, Now We Are Six, and The House at Pooh Corner. Milne jumped from one creative venture to another, reluctant to concentrate his attention in one field for any extended period of time.
Educated in Style
Born Alan Alexander Milne on January 18, 1882, in London, England, he was the youngest child of Sarah Maria Heginbotham and John Vine Milne. His father was the headmaster at Henley House, a private school, where Milne received his early education. He shared a special kinship with his brother, Kenneth, and they remained close throughout their lives. At the age of nine, Milne and Kenneth, along with a childhood friend, dramatized a novel they had read. This exercise awakened his love of theater.
In 1893, Milne began his studies at Westminster School as a Queen's Scholar. Next he attended Cambridge University, following in his brother's footsteps. He was elected the editor of the literary magazine, Granta. Milne also wrote light verse for this publication. In 1903, he graduated with third honors in mathematics from Trinity College at Cambridge.
After completing his college education, Milne began a career as a freelance writer. Within a short time, he was hired as an assistant editor for Punch magazine. His weekly essays were consistently light in tone, but tended to ramble. Milne had two goals: to please himself and then to entertain others. During this period he also published his first novel, Lovers in London, a collection of sketches. It was considered a critical failure and has since gone out of print.
Milne became active in London society. Although he was not born into the aristocracy, it fascinated him. At times he was known to have satirized the social elite, but he was also drawn to it. Considered to be an eligible bachelor, mothers of marriageable daughters sought him out. He was a frequent guest at weekend country estates.
Loved to Make Them Laugh
On June 4, 1913, Milne married Dorothy de Selincourt. Later their son, Christopher, would write in The Enchanted Places that the couple had very few interests in common, but she laughed at his jokes. He seemed to have a need for her reassurance. The year following their wedding, Milne joined the army to offer his services at the beginning of the First World War.
Milne began as a signaling officer for the Fourth Royal Warwickshire Regiment and later served as an instructor on the Isle of Wight. Two years later he was stationed in France, where he wrote comical plays to lift the morale of the soldiers. His military service was interrupted when Milne contracted a serious fever and was sent home to recover.
In 1917, Wurzel-Flummery, Milne's first play was produced in London. He also published Once on a Time, which was originally written as an adult fairy tale for himself and his wife. Later, it was reclassified as a juvenile fairy tale. When Milne retired from the army in 1918, he decided to continue writing plays for a living and settled in London with his family. The following year, Milne achieved his greatest success as a playwright with Mr. Pim Passes By. It was produced in Manchester, London, and New York City. Both audiences and critics loved it.
Milne's only child, Christopher Robin, was born on August 21, 1920. He drew from his young son's life, in order to create the fictional character, Christopher Robin. It was meant as a tribute, but his son grew resentful of his fame-by-association later in life. The first book of the famous four, When We Were Young, was dedicated to his son. Shortly after the birth of Christopher, Milne purchased Cotchford Farm, which became the setting for subsequent Pooh stories. Most of the animals in the series were inspired by his son's stuffed animal collection. The teddy bear was originally named after their pet swan, Pooh. Only the characters of Rabbit and Owl sprang from Milne's imagination.
Stale Drawing Rooms
Milne wanted to continue writing plays. However, after the success of the Pooh books, interest in his drawing room satires had waned. He sometimes ventured beyond the drawing room genre, but for the most part Milne seemed to fall back on what had worked for him in the past. Unfortunately, times were changing, and his lucky star was fading. No one was interested in the old-hat comedy of manners when fresh dramas from playwrights like Eugene O'Neill were being staged. Audiences turned their backs on his plays, which became increasingly mediocre. Publishers wanted more children's stories from Milne. The one exception was The Red House Mystery, which was well-received and remained a classic among mysteries.
By the 1940s, Milne shifted his energies toward writing novels, short stories, and war pamphlets. His financial situation was secure enough to permit the hiring of a cook and gardener. Milne spent his days writing from mid-morning until dinner, aside from breaks for lunch and tea. After dinner he enjoyed playing golf and completing crossword puzzles. Milne's life was pleasant, if not exciting or adventurous. Some critics have suggested that if he had not lived such a conventional life, his writing might have contained more passion.
Milne's Private World
Milne was a very reserved person. His privacy affected not only his writing but also the relationship he had with his son. Since he was not an emotionally expressive man, it was difficult for Milne to reach out to his son. He may have made an attempt through the Pooh series, by basing the Christopher Robin character on traits that he observed in his son. While they did not interact a great deal, they did enjoy occasional activities together.
Throughout his life, Milne maintained a strong sense of loyalty to friends and family. As Charlotte F. Otten writes in Dictionary of Literary Biography, "Milne valued loyalty to one's friends and relations, displaying his own loyalty to, and love for, his brother Ken, by supporting him financially during his debilitating illness. Milne continued to support Ken's family after Ken's death." His high regard for friendship carried over as a strong theme in the Pooh books. One could not overlook the strong bond between Piglet and Pooh.
In 1952, Milne suffered a stroke, which rendered him partially paralyzed. He wrote little, if anything, after that. He died in the English town of Hartfield, Sussex on January 31, 1956.
Although Milne's first priority was to write for his own pleasure, he did enjoy the praise of an audience. He was determined to escape the limits of a label and did so by becoming prolific in many different genres. However, despite other moderate successes, Milne achieved greatness in one area alone. His Winnie-the-Pooh character has delighted children throughout the world. Even college students, considerably older than the target audience, responded with Pooh Societies. His legacy lived on in the form of animated movies, songs, and merchandise for infants and adults alike. Translations of his famous four books were produced almost immediately after Winnie-the-Pooh was first published. The little honey bear had firmly established itself as an enduring classic.
Further Reading on Alan Alexander Milne
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 160, Gale, 1996.
Milne, Christopher, The Enchanted Places, E.P. Dutton & Co., 1975.
Something about the Author, Volume 100, Gale, 1999.
Swann, Thomas Burnett, A. A. Milne, Twayne Publishers, 1971.