The man behind Winnie-the-Pooh

Monday Book Reviews

November 26, 1990|By Linda Liggett Meyer

A.A. MILNE: The Man Behind Winnie-the Pooh. Written by Ann Thwaite. Random House. 553 pages. $29.95. IN A.A. Milne's "The House at Pooh Corner," Rabbit thinks that Christopher Robin "respects Owl, because you can't help respecting anybody who can spell TUESDAY, even if he doesn't spell it right." The same could be said of Ann Thwaite's new biography of Milne. Her efforts are to be respected even if she doesn't get it right.

Thwaite's book is long on facts and short on interpretation. Her obviously painstaking research has produced a hefty volume chock full of unnecessary detail and trivia. Do we really need to know that unsalted butter was served at Milne's first boarding school?

Leon Edel, the distinguished biographer of Henry James, says that in the writing of a life the "love affair [with one's subject] has to be terminated if a useful biography is to emerge." That's the problem. Thwaite loves her subject and has never gotten over the initial infatuation long enough to form any objective, or even subjective, inferences between the man and his work. But the raw material is there for the reader to do so. Thwaite enthusiastically presents the life and times of the man, who despite a small genius for caprice and nonchalance, would have no more than passing interest for us today were it not for a stuffed bear.

Milne began life in an English public school where his father, John Vine Milne, was the headmaster. Later in his life Milne wrote of his parents, [my father] "was the best man I have ever known: by which I mean the most truly good, the most completely to be trusted, the most incapable of wrong. He differed from our conception of God only because he was shy, which one imagined God not to be, and was funny, which one knew God was not ... As a child I gave my heart to my father. We loved Mama too, though not so dearly ...I don't think I ever really knew her."

Mama, it seemed, was not the player in Milne's life that Papa was. In one of Thwaite's few attempts at relating Milne's early life to his later work she wonders if it is "pure chance, or is it deeply significant, that the only female creature in Milne's Forest is Kanga, the competent mother, doling out Strengthening Medicine, otherwise known as Extract of Malt?"

Had Thwaite made more intelligent ventures such as this, rather than being obsessed with niggling details, the book would be ultimately more satisfying. Milne's long life was rich with relationships, successes and failures that are ripe for the picking. His relationship with his older, never-quite-the-equal brother, Ken; with Daphne, his abiding, yet vain and exploitative wife; and, most critical of all, with his only son Christopher Robin are not given the inquiry they deserve.

In his own book "The Enchanted Places," written in 1974, Christopher Milne seeks atonement with the father he loved and with Pooh. He bitterly stated that "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 nothing but the empty fame of being his son."

Although he was to soften his stance later, a few years before his father's death Christopher Milne vented his spleen. "Ever since I was quite a small boy, I have hated being Christopher Robin . . . [My father] had as little to do with children as possible. I was his only child and I lived upstairs in the nursery. I saw very little of him . . . It was [my mother] who provided most of the material for my father's books." Thwaite reports that it was rumored that after reading these words the older Milne changed his will. With her penchant for every other detail about his life, couldn't she have checked this out, too?

The man who left us the likes of Pooh, Tigger, Kanga, Eeyore and the other characters from in and around the "Hundred Acre Wood" wanted more than anything to be taken seriously as a writer. He succeeded as a humorist and playwright, but ultimately did not achieve fame for what he would have chosen. As the author of four of the most successful children's books ever written, Milne grew weary of his reputation as the creator of Pooh and company.

"When We Were Very Young" was published in 1924 when Milne as 42. "Winnie-the-Pooh" came out in 1926, "Now We Are Six" in 1927, and the last one, "The House at Pooh Corner," in 1928. Although he died in 1955 at age 73, he never wrote another word in the 27 intervening years that eclipsed the reputation he had gained from these four books.

In the end "Winnie-the-Pooh" brought wealth but no comfort to the Milne family. A.A. Milne could never escape his celebrity as the writer of whimsical children's books. Indeed, it is said that "whimsical" came to be the word he hated most. in the English language."

Malcolm Muggeridge wrote that "life holds no more wretched occupation than trying to make the English laugh." Milne's greatest successes made life wretched for his only son, alienating him from both parents. This is the story Thwaite, a writer of children's books herself, should have elaborated, instead of leaving it to the last chapter, interspersed with the lists of commercial ventures Pooh has spawned.

Linda Liggett Meyer is a Baltimore free-lance writer.

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