The Real Christopher Robin: A.A. Milne’s Son Suffered from Bullying, Hated his Father’s Fame, and Shamed his Family With an Incestuous Marriage

This photo shows A.A. Milne with his son, Christopher Robin, at their home in England.
This photo shows A.A. Milne with his son, Christopher Robin, at their home in England.

The adorable Winnie-the-Pooh stories and poems by A A Milne have been loved by generations of children since they were first published in 1926, when the author found inspiration watching his own son Christopher Robin play with his nursery toys. Those well-known and whimsical tales of honey pots and heffalumps in the Hundred Acre Wood seemed to portray an idyllic and innocent world that revolved around a particularly cheerful little boy, stomping through the forest in his wellington boots.

But the instantly recognisable images of Christopher Robin, forever immortalised in Ernest Shepard’s iconic pencil drawings, could not have been more different from the real Christopher Robin, who came to loathe the harsh glare of the limelight he felt forced to endure, many years after he had grown out of playing with teddy bears and toy soldiers.

Famous almost from birth, Christopher’s early years were scarred by vicious taunts and cruel bullying, and he battled relentlessly against the public perception of him; he felt that everyone he met always expected him to be cheerful and cute. Christopher came to detest the phenomenal popularity of the character his father created, and a bitter rift developed between the two men that never healed.’

The terrible gulf between the real Christopher Robin and his fictional counterpart will be starkly highlighted this month when Disney releases a new film, which neatly glosses over the unpalatable reality of their turbulent relationship.

In the forthcoming movie, Christopher Robin, Ewan McGregor portrays the title role as a frustrated businessman who has lost his youthful imagination. The character and his long-suffering wife Evelyn, played by Hayley Atwell, have an adorable daughter called Madeline, although Christopher is too busy at work to spend much time at home. The film, which is a mixture of live action and CGI animation, sees Christopher reunited with imaginary cartoon versions of his childhood toys, reminding him of how he used to play as a child.

But this fictionalised version of events has almost no bearing on the truth of the Milne family dynamic. In reality, Christopher loathed his father and horrified his parents with an incestuous marriage to his first cousin, which resulted in a severely handicapped child. And both he and his father died still seething with resentment over the global success of Winnie-the-Pooh, which may have brought them untold wealth and fame but never gave either of them a moment of joy.

Milne had never wanted to be a children’s author. He started out as a sketch writer for the satirical magazine Punch, and had been enjoying a successful career penning adult plays and detective novels when he announced that he fancied a stab at children’s poetry, following the arrival of his baby son in the summer of 1920. His first attempt, When We Were Very Young, sold an astonishing 50,000 copies in the first eight weeks, and it remains one of the best-selling books of all time. Royalties poured in from then on, but none of his success ever made him happy. Milne longed to be taken seriously as a political commentator, but no matter what else he wrote, he was permanently labelled a children’s storyteller. His admirers plagued him with constant demands for more junior fiction, which soon became an intolerable burden.

He only ever wrote two volumes of short stories for children, Winnie-the-Pooh, which was published in 1926, followed by The House At Pooh Corner in 1928. In between he wrote his second collection of nursery rhymes, Now We Are Six, published in 1927.

Although Christopher was only eight years old when his father’s last children’s book was published in 1928, irreparable damage had already been done. The children’s stories may have been a mere 70,000 words in total, but they were enough to cause pain that would last a lifetime. For the next 60 years, Christopher would angrily go on to claim that his father had exploited precious and important moments from his pivotal childhood years without bothering to consult him first. He was furious that he had never given permission for his childhood to be made public property, and to Christopher, the best-selling books would always be a source of ‘toe-curling, fist-clenching, lip-biting embarrassment’.

He dropped the ‘Robin’ the moment he arrived at boarding school but his true identity was soon revealed, and, needless to say, schoolboys can be cruel to one another. They discovered that when he was very little, Christopher had been recorded reciting several of his father’s best-loved poems, with Milne insisting at the time: ‘He loves it, is quite unshy, and speaks beautifully.’ But what should have been a harmless recording session would come back to haunt them both in years to come.

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Daily Mail