Quaint but appealing: a still from Disney's Winnie-the-Pooh, released in 2011 ©WALT DISNEY PICTURES/UNIMEDIA/CAMERA PRESS

The curse of Winnie-the-Pooh

AA Milne grew to loathe his most famous creation
October 13, 2016

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Best Bear in All the World (Egmont, £14.99)

This October marks the 90th anniversary of the publication of AA Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh. To celebrate, and take financial advantage, the publisher Egmont has produced a sequel to the original series entitled Best Bear in All the World. Within its lavish gold covers, the Best Bear contains four new stories by Paul Bright, Brian Sibley, Kate Saunders and Jeanne Willis, with accompanying illustrations by Mark Burgess in the style of EH Shepard. A new character, Penguin, joins the usual suspects from the Hundred Acre Wood.

The collection follows on from a series of birthday celebrations for the loveable bear, including a new Disney cartoon film released in May, and an exhibition at the British Library, which features a map of the Hundred Acre Wood (see “What’s on this month” p78). Such attention has been far from unwelcome. Winnie-the-Pooh’s popularity reached fever pitch this year. In a July poll, he was voted the UK’s “best-loved children’s book character,” above Harry Potter and Bilbo Baggins. Later that month, it was reported that a Pooh-shaped cloud was spotted hovering over a children’s charity event in Dorset. In an interview with the Telegraph, the film star Jim Broadbent—the narrator of the Disney cartoon—said: “Without Winnie-the-Pooh, I wouldn’t be an actor.” He appeared to be speaking seriously.

Charming as the Winnie-the-Pooh stories are, it is hard to see why they have been so successful. Their premise is not unique: several other children’s stories published around the same time—such as Rupert Bear, who first appeared in the Daily Express in 1920—feature an anthropomorphic ursine character. Today, the quaintness of Pooh’s world seems dated and cloying even for a children’s book. The series revolves around a trouser-less bear congregating with a donkey, a kangaroo, a tiger and a piglet in a forest in Sussex. It is bizarre.

Two reasons are at the root of Pooh’s success. The first is the elegant simplicity of Milne’s writing. He has a knack for seamlessly threading philosophical wisdom into a straightforward narrative, producing stories that are thoughtful and instructive without being heavy-handed. “You’re braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think,” is deceptively neat. The character of Pooh himself, slow to learn but relentlessly curious, is endearing to both children and adults.

The second—arguably stronger—reason for Pooh’s popularity is its inspiration. The stories are based on a “real boy,” Milne’s son Christopher Robin, and his teddy-bear Winnipeg, or “Winnie.” Tigger, Eeyore, Piglet, Roo and Kanga were Christopher’s other toys. Such blurring of fact and fiction doubtless sparked the imagination of the children who first read the stories, and the fact that the real Christopher could be contacted via letter, often responding to fan-mail with help from his nanny, brought an extra dimension of realism to the illustrated tales. Indeed, it was the celebrity of Milne’s son that kick-started the Winnie-the-Pooh franchise—one that eventually trickled into the American mainstream through Disney: the first of 19 cartoon films was released in 1977. Today the Milne estate is worth £275m, making Pooh Bear three times richer than Kim Kardashian.

Not everyone, though, is a Pooh enthusiast. One notable critic was the bear’s creator—Milne himself. Exasperated by the label “children’s author,” he came to resent the “whimsical” stories and the commercial success they had brought him. In tones that echo Eeyore, he lamented the eclipse of his earlier reputation in a 1952 poem:

So—the Children’s Books: a short Intermezzo of a sort: When I wrote them little thinking All my years of pen-and-inking Would be almost lost among Those four trifles for the young.

For over half his life, Milne enjoyed a versatile writing career. Graduating from Cambridge with a mathematics degree in 1903, he worked as an assistant editor at Punch before his first play, Wurzel-Flummery, made him a literary star in 1917. A string of successful comedies followed, establishing him as an eminent dramatist on both sides of the Atlantic. A contemporary reviewer described Mr Pim Passes By (1921) as “perfection,” and Milne himself as “the most persistent and fecund of the brand-new regulars.”

Traces of the Winnie-the-Pooh sensibility can be found in these plays. Milne was not a vicious satirist, but a playful one, and as early as 1925 his gentle comedy led to a comparison with another versatile children’s author. “Milne’s humour is quiet and sympathetic; it is akin to the humour of… Lewis Carroll,” wrote one reviewer in The English Journal. Milne was “the rarest of birds—not a wit, nor a smart aleck, but a genuine humorist.”

Just as Carroll’s mathematical eminence did not put him off writing children’s books, Milne’s comic reputation in the theatre world did not prevent him from experimenting with other literary forms. During his most successful years as a playwright, he continued to publish poetry, novels, satire and short stories. He was also an early advocate for the British film industry. In 1920, he wrote four screenplays for Minerva Films, two of which—Five Pound Reward and The Bump—survive in the BFI archives.

Currently, Milne’s best-known work for adults is The Red House Mystery (1922). It is his only detective novel, written in a crisp, concise style far from the plodding lyricism of Winnie-the-Pooh, or the light musicality of his plays. It is easy to see why it attracted praise from Milne’s Punch colleagues and fans of his stage shows. The Red House Mystery is hardly a dark, suspense-thriller. Instead we follow the detective Tony Gillingham as he japes about with his dim friend Bill, and solves the central mystery like a logic puzzle. The overall effect is Sherlock Holmes-lite. (Milne was a great admirer of Arthur Conan Doyle: his first published piece of writing was a Holmes parody, and the two authors played cricket together).

In a 1944 essay, Raymond Chandler sharply criticised The Red House Mystery for this lightness, claiming that although it was “an agreeable book,” and “amusing in the Punch style,” the story featured only as a “problem of logic and deduction” and therefore offered a “false” situation. Chandler’s criticism was possibly laced with envy. In the same essay, he noted that The Red House Mystery had been in print in the US for over 16 years: “That happens to few books of any kind,” he wrote. The UK has seen 23 editions, and it is still in print now.

In his introduction to the second edition of The Red House Mystery, Milne wrote: “The only excuse which I have for writing anything is that I want to write it; and I should be as proud to be delivered of a Telephone Directory con amore as I should be ashamed to create a Blank Verse Tragedy at the bidding of others.” This gives a good indication of the scope of Milne’s output as well as his literary integrity. By the time he was 40, he had written 11 plays, four screenplays, four novels, and enough Punch articles to fill four anthologies.

Following the commercial success of his children’s books, Milne found it difficult to reintegrate into the literary scene. Short stories and essay collections came and went without attracting attention; his plays began to receive lukewarm reviews. After a series of flops, one of Milne’s final stage shows—aptly titled Gentleman Unknown—was put on in 1938. His son described it as “a failure.”

Christopher Robin Milne, who also came to resent the books for overshadowing his life, documented his father’s struggle in his 1974 autobiography: “If I wanted to escape from Christopher Robin, so, too, did he.” Before Winnie-the-Pooh, Milne always wrote “what he had wanted to write. His luck was that this was also what the public wanted to read. Now his luck was deserting him.”

So were his former colleagues. In 1939, Milne attempted to write again for Punch—the magazine which he had earlier helped to pull out of a post-First World War slump. But the return was a disaster. His light verse fell heavily, and the editor EV Knox told him so. In the years that followed, Milne continued to write in dribs and drabs, but only really achieved recognition for his children’s poems and adaptations, such as his Kenneth Grahame dramatisation Toad of Toad Hall.

So why the sudden turn around? What caused the Pooh Bear curse? Christopher Robin put it down to bad luck; others might blame Milne’s diminishing talent or relevance. Part of the reason for Milne’s fall in popularity—at least in high-brow circles—surely also lies in Dorothy Parker’s scathing review of his sequel The House at Pooh Corner (1928) for the New Yorker. Writing under her pseudonym Constant Reader, Parker commented: “the time was that Milne was my hero,” but “when Mr Milne went quaint, all that was over. Now he leads his life, and I lead mine.”

Parker formed part of the New York literati that looked up to Milne as a satirist. It was Alexander Woollcott—Parker’s colleague at the New Yorker—who, in 1922, described The Red House Mystery as “one of the three best mystery stories of all time.” Yet the type of writer who admired Milne for his wit in Punch or his crisp style was bound to ridicule him for the tweeness of Winnie-the-Pooh. Milne’s use of “hummy” instead of “honey,” Parker wrote, “marks the first place in The House at Pooh Corner where Tonstant Weader fwowed up.” The comic playwright became a joke, and his reputation never recovered.

“In England, it is easier to make a reputation than to lose one,” Milne wrote in It’s Too Late Now, his 1939 autobiography. Today the words seem pertinent: 2016 marks not only Winnie-the-Pooh’s 90th birthday, but also the 60th anniversary of AA Milne’s death. That Milne is now less celebrated than his creation would doubtless irritate him. But among the festivities for his “silly old bear,” there may be reason for the author to rest assured. His early comedy The Dover Road was revived by Jermyn Street Theatre in October, and next year sees the release of a Hollywood film about Milne, starring Domhnall Gleeson and Margot Robbie. It may yet not be too late.