WHEN WE WERE VERY YOUNG A biography and film explore the lives of AA Milne and Christopher Robin
The true inspiration for Christopher Robin, and his journeyintothedappledsunlightandshadowsof Winnie-the-Pooh’s woodland world
He longed for immortality – but not exactly
immortality he got,’ Ann Thwaite says to me of AA Milne, the creator of Christopher Robin and Winnie-the-Pooh. Thwaite and I are sitting by the fire in the beautiful Norfolk mill house she shares with her husband, the poet Anthony Thwaite, talking about Milne’s difficult relationship with his own creations. The classic volumes of verses When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six brought him the kind of fame enjoyed by just a handful of authors; and Thwaite’s acclaimed biography of Milne, published in 1990, offered a nuanced portrait of the writer whose world of childhood lives for ever in the Hundred Acre Wood.
Now the story of Winnie-the-Pooh’s origins has been brought to life in a wonderful film, Goodbye Christopher Robin, directed by Simon Curtis (Woman in Gold, My Week with Marilyn) and starring Domhnall Gleeson and Margot Robbie as Alan and Daphne Milne, with the newcomer Will Tilston as eight-year-old Christopher Robin Milne: for the boy in the books was drawn from Milne’s adored only child. Ann
Thwaite will vouch for the movie’s accuracy: she served as an advisor all through its making, reading scripts, watching takes, advising on issues such as whether Milne wrote his famous books on a typewriter (he didn’t). And it’s clear that the film’s stars knew that Thwaite was a rich source for their work.
‘Domhnall Gleeson was very keen to show me that he knew the book–when we had lunch he talked about it quite a lot,’ Thwaite says. ‘Often actors, I know, barely have time to read a book like mine! But he was very much trying to get to the sort of person Milne was. He was saying how easy it was to imagine that, and trying hard to bring him to life – which was very nice for me.’
Milne didn’t set out to be a writer for children. Before When We Were Very Young was published in 1924, he had been a successful playwright, part of a circle that included JM Barrie, HG Wells and PG Wodehouse. It was as a dramatist he hoped to be remembered: but dramas such as Mr Pim Passes By and The Dover Road are works for the archives now. He would write that he had striven for success ‘… little thinking/ All my years of pen-and-in king/ Would be almost last among/ Those four trifles for the young ’.
The story that isn’t told in the film is of the break that came between the adult Christopher Robin and his parents. After his service in World War II, Christopher Robin struggled to find work. He had, Thwaite says: ‘all sorts of dreary and unsuitable jobs’. And as Christopher Robin wrote: ‘In pessimistic moments, when I was trudging London in search of an employer wanting to make use of such talents as I could offer, it
Below: AA Milne with his son Christopher Robin in 1926