Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1937

Article abstract: Milne wrote light comedy and drama but was most successful with his stories and poems for children, especially those featuring Winnie-the-Pooh.

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Early Life

Alan Alexander Milne was born in London in 1882 the third and youngest son of a school headmaster. Milne won a highly competitive scholarship to Westminster school in 1893 and entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1900. Although he was supposed to study mathematics, he devoted his time and energy to writing. In 1902 he was appointed editor of Granta, a prestigious literary magazine at the university.

On graduation in 1903, Milne went to London and became a freelance journalist, publishing mostly sketches and pieces of light humor. Milne sold several dozen poems and short items to Punch, the leading British humor magazine. In 1906 these brought him to the attention of Punch’s new editor, Owen Seaman, who offered him an assistantship. Milne accepted and, as a staff writer over the next eight years, published a constant stream of witty and charming trifles that established his reputation. Many of his pieces were collected and reappeared as books—The Days Play (1910), The Holiday Round (1912), and Once a Week (1914). In 1913, capping his growing success, he married his editor’s goddaughter, Dorothy de Selincourt.

Shortly after the outbreak of World War I, Milne took a leave of absence from the magazine and enlisted in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. Serving as a signals officer, he was sent to the front in France in late July, 1916, for the great battle of the Somme, where the British army suffered its most severe casualties in a long and bloody war. By early November, after three and one-half months in the trenches around the Mametz Woods, Milne was lucky to be sent home as an invalid with a severe case of trench fever. This probably saved his life.

After some months recuperating, he did the rest of his military service in Britain turning out propaganda for the War Office. He used his free time in the army to write plays. In the face of endless casualty lists, it seemed inappropriate to continue publishing his usual collections of amusing material from Punch. He did, however, allow a “fairy tale for adults,” Once on a Time, to appear in 1917. That year, his friend Sir James Barrie, one of the most successful playwrights of the day, had Milne’s short farce Wurzel-Flummery produced with some success in the West End (the London equivalent of Broadway) as part of an evening of his own short plays. On being demobilized from the army early in 1919, Milne gave up his editorial position at Punch to take up his own independent writing career full time.

Life’s Work

Milne’s first play after returning to civilian life, Mr. Pim Passes By (1919), was quickly produced on the West End to great acclaim and launched his career as a major writer for the London stage for the following decade. Mr. Pim Passes By was soon followed by seven other plays through 1924, including The Dover Road (1922) and The Great Broxapp (1923). In addition, Milne wrote a best-selling “whodunit,” The Red House Mystery (1922), a novelized version of Mr. Pim, and published several new collections of his short humorous pieces and poems from Punch, Vanity Fair, and elsewhere titled Not That It Matters (1919), If I May (1920), and The Sunny Side (1922). In the midst of this flood of productivity, in August, 1920, the Milnes had their first and only child, a little boy they named Christopher Robin.

Milne was rather shy and reserved, as his father had been. Though Christopher Robin was usually looked after by a nursemaid, Milne began to write poems and songs to amuse him when they spent time together. His wife suggested that these should be published. After some had appeared individually, Milne had them collected as When We Were Very Young (1924), which rapidly became a considerable success. Though Milne continued to turn out a generally well received drawing-room comedy for the West End stage every year or two for the rest of the decade, the poems, songs, and stories written for his son began to overshadow his other work.

As Christopher Robin grew a little older, his father made him and his teddy bear the leading characters in a series of short stories. They appeared in 1926 as Winnie-the-Pooh, with delightful illustrations by an old colleague from Punch, E. H. Shepard. The book immediately captured the hearts of children and adults alike across the English-speaking world. This double success in the children’s market was soon followed by another equally popular volume of songs and poems, Now We Are Six (1927), and a second book of Pooh stories, The House at Pooh Corner (1928), which added the wise owl, Piglet, Kanga, Eeyore the gloomy donkey, and the assertive Tigger to the cast of characters. Milne’s fertile whimsy and Shepard’s graceful line drawings used the real Christopher Robin as a model for the literary one. The physical surroundings of the Milne weekend cottage in the Sussex countryside were turned by Shepard’s sketches into the enchanting woodland of Christopher and Pooh’s adventures.

In 1930 Milne, capitalizing on his triumph as a gentle entertainer of young children, adapted Kenneth Grahame’s delightful nursery classic The Wind and the Willows (1908) for the stage as Toad of Toad Hall. This added to his sweeping success in writing for children.

For Milne and his son, Christopher Robin the literary creation and his teddy bear became something of a burden. As he grew older, the shy boy did not care to be teased by his schoolmates about being a literary icon. His father had to suppress his displeasure that his writing for children had eclipsed the rest of his career. At the same time, the taste for his kind of amusing drawing-room comedies, mysteries, and fanciful romances began to fade.

In the 1930’s, economic depression and the rise of the Nazi dictatorship cast a shadow over Europe. Milne had no further great successes in the West End, though he continued to write plays that were produced, among them Michael and Mary (1930) and Miss Elizabeth Bennett (1936), an adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1813 novel Pride and Prejudice. He also turned out a novel, Two People (1931), and two collections of stories, The Secret (1929) and The Magic Hill (1937).

In the darkening political climate, Milne became active in public affairs by raising an articulate voice against the folly of another war in Peace with Honour (1934). As a veteran of the trenches he had earned the right to be heard respectfully and became a figure of some importance in the antiwar movement. At the decade’s end he worked on his Autobiography (1939; published in Britain as It’s Too Late Now), which appeared just as the dam burst and World War II began.

Milne published little during the war, though he bitterly denounced Nazism in several widely circulated pieces that justified the conduct of the war against fascism. He published a volume of poetry, Behind the Lines (1940), on life on the home front. The Milnes watched anxiously as a grown-up Christopher Robin went off to war as an officer in the Royal Engineers in 1942. Their son served in the Middle East, Tunisia, and Italy, where, in October, 1944, he was wounded in the head. Christopher recovered and returned home safely.

Milne’s career did not revive after the war, though Winnie-the-Pooh insured his continuing prosperity. He published a novel, Chloe Marr (1946); two collections of short stories, Birthday Party (1948) and A Table Near the Band (1950); The Norman Church (1948), a long philosophical poem; a collection of essays called Year in Year Out (1952); and a final play, After the Flood (1951). His audience for light comedy had vanished.

In October, 1952, Milne suffered a severe stroke. An operation that he endured in December failed, leaving him partially paralysed. This normally sunny-tempered if shy man spent the last years of his life in a wheelchair as a difficult patient, worrying about his estranged relationship with his son. He died in January, 1956. Christopher Robin’s teddy bear, however, had been sent to the United States where Milne’s American publisher engaged him to promote the continuing sales of the children’s books before he was eventually retired to a place of honor on display at a branch of the New York Public Library.

Summary

A. A. Milne’s career as a leading dramatist of the 1920’s, as a craftsman of drawing-room comedies and whimsical romances (a label he hated), was eventually eclipsed by his brilliantly imaginative writing for children. His creation, Winnie-the-Pooh, has taken his place in the world of classic children’s literature alongside Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1900), Sir James Barrie’s Peter Pan (1904), and Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. At the time of Milne’s death, his American publishers estimated they had sold seven million copies of the Pooh stories in various editions. The stories have continued to sell steadily since then and have been translated into twenty-five foreign languages, from Bulgarian to Japanese. Even a Latin version, Winnie Ille Pu, was successful in 1960. Milne’s bear became the subject of a satire on literary criticism, The Pooh Perplex (1963) by F. C. Crews, and the star of a Walt Disney animated film (1966). If the author is largely forgotten, his creation remains a long-lived best-seller and a recognizable icon in toy shops and cartoons across the industrial world.

Bibliography

Connolly, Paula. Winnie-the-Pooh and the House at Pooh Corner: Recovering Arcadia. New York: Twayne, 1995. A literary study by an academic tightly focused on Milne’s output as a writer for children. Connolly treats his work seriously, putting it in historical and critical context with other classics for young readers.

Harry-Smith, Tori. A. A. Milne: A Critical Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1982. This provides a thorough and extensive guide both to Milne’s own work and to the writing about him. It is indispensable for any extensive research project.

Milne, A. A. Autobiography. New York: Dutton, 1939. Released under the title It’s Too Late Now in England, Milne’s informative account of himself spends more time on his childhood and youth than on his years of success, about which he is disarmingly modest. There is relatively little theater gossip, and he treats his frontline service in World War I briefly, underplaying the grim realities. His impatience with the overshadowing of his work by the writing for children is only touched on. As in all his work, the principal intention is to entertain and amuse.

Milne, Christopher. Enchanted Places. New York: Dutton, 1974. Christopher Robin’s own memoir on what his early life was like presented his father as a cool and rather detached figure.

Milne, Christopher. The Path Through the Trees. New York: Dutton, 1979. This subsequent memoir about Christopher Robin’s adult life, adds a few details about his father but is warmer in tone and is dedicated to his memory.

Swann, Thomas Burnett. A. A. Milne. New York: Twayne, 1971. A literary study by an academic who reviews all of Milne’s output systematically, arranged by category, and, within each, chronologically. Swann summarizes the individual works and offers a brief chronology of Milne’s life and literary career. His critical judgements reinforce the conventional view that the writing for children was brilliant and the balance is rather deservedly forgotten.

Thwaite, Ann. A. A. Milne: His Life. London: Faber & Faber, 1990. This full and careful study of Milne’s life is closely based on his personal and literary papers and on interviews with his surviving extended family. This is a sympathetic work by a writer of children’s literature herself and is the only large-scale biography.

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