The true story behind Winnie the Pooh, one of the most beloved characters in the history of children's literature
The true story behind Winnie the Pooh, one of the most beloved characters in the history of children’s literature, is coming to life in Goodbye Christopher Robin.
The family-friendly drama revolves around author A. A. Milne, played by Domhnall Gleeson, and his son Christopher Robin, played by newcomer Will Tilston, whose stuffed animals inspired the magical world of Pooh Bear during a difficult time following the first World War.
Before they knew it, Pooh and his friends became an international sensation and later, some of the most valuable fictional characters of all time. But the books’ success also caused tension in the Milne family, exposing the author’s child to an overwhelming level of fame that plagued him during his adolescence. Milne also came to resent his creation, believing that the children’s books overshadowed his other, more serious work.
Famed British biographer Ann Thwaite explored the family’s highs and lows in her book Goodbye Christopher Robin: A.A. Milne and the Make of Winnie-the-Pooh, on which the film is based. The biography features rare interviews with the real Christopher Robin, while also relying on a wealth of archival information housed at the University of Austin. An updated version of the book, with a new forward by the film’s screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce, is on sale now.
“It was a perfect subject for me,” Thwait tells PEOPLE. “Father-child, mother-child relationships seem to be a favorite subject of mine. The relationship of Milne and Christopher Robin is at the heart of the film and of my book.”
Over the course of his life, Milne wrote seven novels, five nonfiction books and 34 plays, in addition to a plethora of short stories and magazine articles. Despite being a staunch pacifist, he served in both World Wars, and was injured at the Battle of the Somme. “It’s an absolute miracle that the books exist, because both Millne and E.H. Shepard, who illustrated Pooh, were young officers at the Somme, during the absolute worst time of the war,” Thwaite explains.
After the war, Milne suffered from post-traumatic stress, which eventually led him to relocate his family outside of London to a quiet cottage near the East Sussex woodlands. The forest surrounding the house would come to inspire Pooh’s Hundred Acre Wood.
Despite the idyllic surroundings, Milne and his wife, Dorothy, played in the film by Margot Robbie, had a complicated relationship with their son. “Some people are good with children. Others are not. It is a gift. You either have it or you don’t. My father didn’t,” Christopher later said in a rare interview with The Telegraph’s Gyles Brandreth in 1998.
His mother was also distant, placing most of his early upbringing in the hands of their nanny, Olive Rand. Dorothy also dressed her son oddly; preferring “curious clothes,” as Robin later described them to Brandreth, which made him look “girlish” with their “golden tresses.”
Still, the father and son ended up bonding over long walks through the surrounding woods, inventing stories and playing with his favorite toys: his teddy bear Winnie, which he named after a famous black bear he often visited at the London Zoo, along with Piglet, Eeyore, Kanga, Roo and Tigger.
“At the heart of the film is really this joyful time that he and his father had in the enchanted forest,” Thwait says. “Although it’s a very complex story, I think those scenes of the father and son playing are at the heart of it.”
Milne eventually wrote four children’s books that made up the Winnie the Pooh anthology, beginning with the poetry series When We Were Very Young, which came out in 1924, when Robin was 5. The final book, The House at Pooh Corner, was published in 1928. The books were instantly popular, and within eight weeks, the first collection had sold more than 50,000 copies. When the last book appeared, each title was selling several hundred thousand copies worldwide, according to Brandreth.
“Not everyone realizes that right from the beginning the books were enormously successful in America,” Thwait says. “Of course they went on to be translated all over the world, but it was very much a transatlantic, British-American phenomenon.”
At first, Robin enjoyed the success, later telling Brandreth that he “quite liked being famous” and that “it was exciting and made me feel grand and important.” But eventually, his role in the book’s promotion began to take a toll. He spent countless hours replying to fan letters under his nanny’s supervision, and his image and voice were used all over the world to help sell copies.
Milne decided to stop writing children’s books after finishing the fourth Pooh book, at one point citing his “amazement and disgust” at his son’s fame as his reason for moving on. “I feel that the legal Christopher Robin has already had more publicity than I want for him,” Milne wrote, according to BBC. “I do not want C.R. Milne to ever wish that his name were Charles Robert.”
After Milne put the books behind him, he and Christopher became closer. Their bond lasted for the next nine years, as they enjoyed spending time together doing “the Times crossword and algebra and Euclid,” Christopher later remembered.
But his life was once again overshadowed by his childhood fame when he left for boarding school in 1930. He was picked on relentlessly by his fellow classmates, who would torment him by playing old Winnie the Pooh records he had recorded as a child. “The film does address the painful time he had at school,” Thwait says. “Some people use the word bullying, but it wasn’t bullying, it was teasing.”
Following boarding school, Christopher studied at Cambridge, and then went to fight in the Second World War before returning to Cambridge to finish his degree. He struggled to find work after graduating, and began to blame his father and Pooh for his problems. He later told Brandreth that he felt his father “had got where he was by climbing on my infant shoulders, that he had filched from me my good name and had left me with nothing but the empty fame of being his son.”
This was a dark time for Christopher, who felt like a man “with a household name but no role in life.” Meeting his future wife in 1948 helped revive his spirits, but it also caused further strain on his relationship with his parents. His wife, Leslie, was a cousin on his mother’s side, but Leslie’s father and Christopher’s mother had been estranged for decades.
Eventually, he and Lesley married and moved to Devon to open a bookstore. Christopher discovered his own skill as a writer, and published three volumes of an autobiography, which also helped him come to terms with his own identity. But sadly, he rarely saw his father in the years leading up to Milne’s death in 1956. His mother died 15 years later, but he only saw her once in that time.
While he spent most of his life refusing to benefit from the profits from Winnie the Pooh, he eventually did accept the money to help take care of his daughter Clare, who has special needs. “I had to accept it, for Clare’s sake,” he said. The income generated from the books has been enormous, and in 1966, Walt Disney purchased the characters in a 40-year licensing deal.
Despite his father’s incredible success – his children’s books sold about seven million copies in his lifetime – Milne was never able to escape the shadow of Pooh with his subsequent work. He died regretting that those four short books, “containing, I suppose 70,000 words, the number of words in an average-length novel,” eclipsed the rest of his career. He was also irked by the assumption that he had a “fondness for children,” later saying that he had “never felt in the least sentimental about them,” according to Brandreth.
Christopher, on the other hand, found peace with his father’s creation. “It’s been something of a love-hate relationship down the years, but it’s all right now,” he told the journalist two years before his death in 1998. “Believe it or not, I can look at those four books without flinching. I’m quite fond of them really.”
Goodbye Christopher Robin is in theaters now.