The Disadvantages of Being Christopher Robin

Christopher RobinA. A. Milne (1882 – 1956) published a number of novels, plays, and poems before he wrote the two children’s books that would make him famous. The books were about a group of animals that included a teddy bear named Winnie-the-Pooh, a donkey named Eeyore, a pig named Piglet, a tiger named Tigger, and two kangaroos named Kanga and Roo. Together with their human friend, a boy named Christopher Robin, they had a series of adventures in the Hundred Acre Wood. The first book was Winnie-the-Pooh (1926) and the second was The House at Pooh Corner (1928).

The inspiration for Christopher Robin was Milne’s son of the same name who was born in 1920, and Winnie-the-Pooh was named after Christopher Robin’s teddy bear. Without a doubt Milne gave the boy in the stories his son’s name out of love and respect. And as a child Christopher enjoyed it when people realized that he was the inspiration for the character in the well-known books. But, as always happens, children grow up and the things that delighted them as children can become embarrassing and burdensome when they are adults. And so it happened in this case.

When Christopher began to attend school his playmates teased him about the Winnie-the-Pooh books and about a poem, “Vespers,” that appeared in a book of poetry titled When We Were Very Young that was published by his father in 1924. Even worse “Vespers” was set to music and was recorded by the very popular British singer Vera Lynn during World War II under the title “Christopher Robin Is Saying His Prayers.” Imagine how Christopher must have felt when he and his fellow soldiers heard Lynn’s version of the song which, like the poem, begins

Little Boy kneels at the foot of the bed, / Droops on the little hands little gold head. / Hush! Hush! Whisper who dares! / Christopher Robin is saying his prayers.

and then

God bless Mummy. I know that’s right. / Wasn’t it fun in the bath to-night? / The cold’s so cold, and the hot’s so hot. / Oh! God bless Daddy – I quite forgot.

There was also a parody of the poem that in part reads “Hush, hush, nobody cares! / Christopher Robin has fallen downstairs.”

Naturally, Christopher’s pleasure in having a character in a book named after him – and his feelings toward his father – changed drastically over time. “In pessimistic moments,” he would later write, “it seemed to me almost that my father had got to where he was by climbing upon my infant shoulders, that he had filched from me my good name and had left me with the empty fame of being his son.”

In 1948 Christopher, much to his mother’s displeasure, married his first cousin Lesley Sélincourt  (the daughter of his mother’s brother). The marriage badly damaged the relationship between Christopher and his mother. In 1951 he and Lesley opened a bookshop in Dartmouth which seemed a bit odd since book lovers would certainly want to meet the real-life Christopher Robin. Nevertheless, Christopher and Lesley ran the bookshop for many years without the assistance of any royalties from the Pooh books. Christopher visited his father a few times before his death in 1956, but refused to have anything to do with his mother. When she died years later they were still estranged. Christopher’s only child, Claire, was born a few months after his father’s death. She had cerebral palsy.

Winnie and FriendsOver the years Christopher became reconciled to his unwanted fame (though he never came to like “Vespers”) and wrote three autobiographical books in which he addressed his various feelings about being Christopher Robin. He also often spoke genially to lovers of the Pooh books. He gave Winnie-the-Pooh and some of his other stuffed animals to his publisher who in turn gave them to the New York Public Library in 1987.   A NYPL article discusses the precautions that are taken to preserve these beloved artifacts, and another article lists interesting facts about the stuffed animals and about the Milne family. One of the interesting details offered in the second article is that in 1998 a member of the British Parliament decided that Pooh and the other animals should be returned to England. It was discussed and everyone ultimately agreed that they should remain in America where they were quite happy.

Christopher Robin Milne, at peace we may hope, died in his sleep on April 20, 1996. He was 75 years old.

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