The Extraordinary Life of A A Milne

The Extraordinary Life of A A Milne

by Nadia Cohen


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VERY few authors can ever dream of coming close to the legacy left by AA Milne. He remains a household name in almost every corner of the globe thanks to a phenomenally popular collection of whimsical children’s stories about a boy named Christopher Robin and his beloved teddy bear.

Generations of children have grown up loving the tales of Winnie The Pooh and his friends from the Hundred Acre Wood, which are still among the most popular – and profitable - fictional characters in the world.

But while the adorable poems and stories have brought unparalleled joy to millions, Alan Alexander Milne, himself was never able to enjoy the fame and fortune they brought him. He died deeply resenting Pooh’s success, as far as he was concerned those stories were just such a tiny fraction of his literary work, but nothing else he produced came close in terms of public appreciation.

Milne died still unable to reconcile the fact that no matter what else he wrote, regardless of all the plays and stories for adults he had published, he would always be remembered as a children’s storyteller.

And his son, widely hailed as the inspiration for the adorable character of Christopher Robin, could never accept his unique place in literary history either. He had barely reached his teens before he grew to loathe his famous father, who he bitterly accused of exploiting his early years.

The Extraordinary Life of AA Milne delves deep into the life of Milne and sheds light on new places, and tells stories untold.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781526704467
Publisher: Pen and Sword
Publication date: 01/23/2018
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Nadia Cohen is an entertainment journalist who has worked at a number of national newspapers and magazines including Grazia and the Daily Mail. As a show-business correspondent she covered film festivals, premieres and award ceremonies around the world. Nadia was headhunted for the launch of a new American magazine, In Touch Weekly, and spent several years living and working in New York. She now lives in London and juggles family life with writing contemporary and historical biographies.

Read an Excerpt


'It's always useful to know where a friend-and-relation is, whether you want him or whether you don't.'

Very few authors can ever dream of coming close to the legacy left by A.A. Milne. He remains a household name in almost every corner of the globe thanks to a phenomenally popular collection of whimsical children's stories about an adorable little boy named Christopher Robin and his beloved teddy bear. Generations of children have grown up loving the tales of Winnie-The-Pooh and his friends from the Hundred Acre Wood, which are still among the most popular – and profitable – fictional characters in the world.

But while the poems and stories bring unparalleled joy to millions today, just as they did when they were first published almost a century ago, their creator Alan Alexander Milne himself was never able to fully enjoy the fame and fortune they brought him. He died deeply resenting Winnie-the-Pooh's enormous success, since as far as he was concerned those stories were merely a tiny fraction of his literary work; yet no matter how hard he tried, nothing else he produced during his long and fascinating career as a playwright and political activist ever came close in terms of public appreciation.

Throughout his charmed life the author blatantly defied the rigid social rules of the day. He ignored widespread and scurrilous gossip about his unconventional marriage, as his wife spent weeks at a time with her lover in New York while he entertained actresses in London. During two world wars, in times of great patriotism and national pride, he brushed aside accusations of cowardice as he campaigned for peace, and he never recovered from the heartache of losing his adored older brother tragically young.

All the wealth and adulation meant nothing since the author never resolved a bitter feud with his only son, the real-life Christopher Robin, who accused him of exploiting his childhood for his own inspiration and profit. Just like his father, Christopher was unable to come to terms with the unique place he held in literary history. He felt he was never given a choice. After suffering vicious bullying throughout his teens he grew to loathe his famous family, and could not forgive Alan for destroying those precious early years.

Despite a long illness that left him confined to a wheelchair, even on his deathbed Alan simply could not reconcile the fact that no matter what else he wrote, regardless of all the plays and stories for adults he had published, he would always be remembered fondly – but simply – as a children's storyteller.

It has always been widely assumed that the famous tales were written about the imaginary adventures that his son had with his nursery toys, but it has now emerged that Alan actually drew much of the material from his own idyllic childhood. From the day he was born, on 18 January 1882 in Mortimer Road, North London, Alan Alexander was destined for literary success. He showed a remarkably advanced flair for writing from an extraordinarily young age, thanks to encouragement from his doting father John Vine Milne, the headmaster of Henley House, a small private boy's school in Hampstead. John was absolutely delighted by the arrival of the youngest of his three sons and took a particularly keen interest in Alan's early education. He was naturally gifted, and John was thrilled when the boy mastered reading at the age of 21/2 – way ahead of both his older brothers David Barrett and Kenneth John. 'In Papa's house it was natural to be interested,' Alan remarked years later. 'It was easy to be clever.'

Alan was originally named Alexander Sydney, but his father returned to the register office to make the change within weeks, after deciding to rename him after his own beloved uncle Alan, known as Ackie, who lived with the family at the time. The earliest photo that survives of Alan was taken in 1886 when he was just 4 years old. He is seated alongside his two brothers – all of them blonde, blue-eyed boys – and all three are dressed in black velvet suits, buttoned knickerbockers and large lace collars, with long curly hair. According to the tradition of the time, children's hair was not cut until they reached the age of 10, and Alan never forgot ceremoniously handing his flowing locks over to his mother Maria in a paper bag following his first haircut.

John Milne was a traditional father in many ways, urging his boys to be strong, independent and adventurous – he wanted 'manly little fellows' and Alan lived up to every expectation. He enjoyed the best of town and country life, since at that time Hampstead was at the very edge of London and a penny bus would take the boys from their street to the countryside of Cricklewood, where they were free to have adventures in just two short miles. A century ago Mortimer Road, which is now Mortimer Crescent, was a very respectable address. Indeed, the Milne's nearest neighbours included a solicitor, a stockbroker, and a retired colonel, as well as the political author Annie Bessant. Next door to Henley House was a convent, St Peter's House, home to twenty-five nuns and twenty-five girls, who were a constant source of fascination to the Milne boys! The illustrator E.H. Shepard, who would later bring the Winnie-the-Pooh tales so perfectly to life through his expressive drawings, was living just five minutes' walk away, but he and Alan did not meet and form their fruitful partnership until they were working together at the satirical magazine Punch many years later.

Henley House, which is now a block of flats run by Camden Council, was never just an ordinary family home. Looking back in 1939 Alan described it as: 'One of those private schools, then so common, now so unusual. For boys of all ages'. The 1881 census showed that there were thirteen boarders aged between 6 and 16 living at the school, one boy's parents were based in Paris, another came from as far as Montenegro Bay; coincidentally the Milne family also had strong connections to Jamaica since John had been born there, the eldest son of a Scottish Congregational Minister called William Milne, who met his wife Harriet Newell Barrett after travelling to Jamaica to work as a missionary. William, who Alan later called 'the world's most unworldly muddler', fathered ten children although his income never went beyond eighty pounds a year, so the family lived exclusively on porridge and only four of the children survived to adulthood. By 1874 John had been sent back to England where he found work as an apprentice in an engineering firm, although he spent his evenings studying Latin and Greek in the hope of qualifying as a teacher. He achieved his goal and took a job at a boy's school in Shropshire, and as a keen flute player he would often attend musical evenings at a local girls' school where he met his future wife Sarah Maria Heginbotham, Alan's mother, who was always known as Maria.

John adored teaching, and always felt far more at ease with children than adults, although he looked so young that he had to grow a beard to help control his pupils who were often bigger than him. He was certainly one of the most popular members of staff, but his methods were controversial by the standards of the day and he landed himself in trouble at the Shropshire school when, just a week after the headmaster warned the boys that they would go to hell if they did not work hard, he told them there was no such place as hell and no everlasting fire. Not long after this scandal, John proposed to Maria, who turned him down initially. She was happily single and used to living alone, having had her heart broken by another man some years earlier. But John persisted, and eventually she accepted. John said: 'In my wife I had a wonderful gift', and in her only surviving letter, written when Alan got married and she was 73, Maria wrote a moving tribute to her own thirty-five happy years of 'well-chosen partnership'.

John and Maria married near her home in Buxton, Derbyshire, on 27 August 1878; John was 33 and Maria was already 38 years old, which at that time was considered late to marry and certainly rather old to start a family. Their first son Barry was born three-and-a-half years later, and Maria was well into her forties by the time Alan came along. Following their wedding, the couple moved down to London and took over Henley House from a man called John Leeds who had been running it unsuccessfully – with just nine boarders – and the Milnes reopened the school under new management in the autumn of 1878. John feared they had invested their life savings in 'twenty or thirty inky desks and half a dozen inky boys'.

It was a time before school regulation or inspections, so school owners were pretty much left to their own devices when it came to the curriculum, but if parents wanted their children to be educated beyond the compulsory leaving age of 12, they had no choice except to pay. The classical education offered by fee-paying grammar schools was already being seen as old fashioned, and private schools like Henley House attempted to plug the gaps in secondary education.

Alan took great inspiration from his hard-working father, and friends of the family would later draw many comparisons between John and his son's famously wise and thoughtful character Owl. When Owl made his first appearance in Winnie-The-Pooh, Alan wrote: '"And if anyone knows anything about anything," said Bear to himself, "It's Owl who knows something about something. Or my name's not Winnie the Pooh," he said. "Which it is." While both wore a traditional schoolmaster's cap and gown, John was not pretentious or pedantic like Owl, and never used long words in a bid to impress. And unlike Owl, John had a great sense of humour. His middle son Ken was just 3 years old when he apparently said that his father had 'too much laugh' for a schoolteacher.

Pupils arriving at Henley House found John was most unusual in his teaching methods, since he preferred to think of exams as 'not tests of what a boy has learnt, but intended to make him think'. He would ask the boys to name things in the world that appeared most beautiful, and the reply that delighted him most was 'a boy with a smiling countenance'. It was a happy school and when prizes were awarded, John made sure every boy who got more than seventy-five per cent of the possible marks received a prize: 'There was no danger of emulation becoming envy,' he insisted. And when his sons were toddlers he would perch them on a table to hand out the pupils' prizes: 'Without affection the schoolroom is a hard, forbidding place. With love, it becomes the next best place to home', John said. Clearly Henley House was an unconventional school in many ways, the most notable being that John did not bother with many of the strict rules that governed other Victorian establishments at the time. He once surprised his pupils by announcing: 'You will find no rule, for instance, that you may not put soup down your neighbour's back, or that you may not go to church in your football dress'. Discipline was reserved for more important things – he could not stand lying, cheating or bullying.

Although John said that the boys would always go to their mother first when they needed comfort, Alan adored his father, and never enjoyed quite such a close relationship with Maria. Years later when he came to write about his parents, Alan said:

He 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 we 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. And when summing up his relationship with his mother, he explained:

A mother's job is not to prevent wounds, but to bind up the wounded. She had the Victorian woman's complete faith in the rights of a father. It was he who was bringing us up. He conceded her the Little Lord Fauntleroy make-up and did his best to nullify its effect.

After Alan was born, there would be no more children for the Milnes, although John longed for a girl, as he admitted in 1928: 'My only regret was that we had no daughters. But my wife used to say, "Sons are good enough for me..'"

Maria remained very much in the background throughout Alan's childhood. Although she was an excellent cook and artist – her schoolgirl tapestry of The Last Supper remains intact – Alan and his brothers appeared to have thought little of her and she does not seem to appear in his work. The most memorable female character that Alan created was Kanga, Roo's sensible mother, who did very little apart from scold the other animals and dish out Extract of Malt, known as Strengthening Medicine. The various other women who appear in Alan's poems were based on either his somewhat frivolous wife Daphne de Selincourt, or Christopher Robin's nanny Olive Rand. Like Kanga, Maria was unemotional and not easily upset. She left most of the childcare to her husband who was responsible for educating and disciplining them. The boys recalled many happy memories of hiking with their father during long summer holidays spent in the idyllic Shropshire countryside. Maria made sure she had her way with the children's clothes and their hair, but her influence did not reach far beyond that, and Alan had very few memories involving his mother: 'When I was a child I neither experienced nor felt the need of, the mother-love of which one reads so much and over which I am supposed so mistakenly, to have sentimentalised', he said later.

As was common at the time, Maria employed a nanny, Beatrice Edwards, to help with the children, and the boys were utterly devoted to her. They called her Bee, and before becoming a pupil at Henley House, Alan was under her watchful eye almost constantly. She slept in his bedroom at home, and each morning she walked him to Wykeham House nursery school. Alan enjoyed his days at the small school, which was run by sisters Alice and Florence Budd, and he won several prizes for his writing which was outstanding from a very young age. Bee would read him his favourite stories, Uncle Remus and Reynard The Fox, and when he later came to read for himself, Alan loved Treasure Island and The Swiss Family Robinson, which encouraged his love of the outdoor life and desert islands – he later said his best holidays had been to small islands including the Orkneys, Sicily and Capri.

Just like the happy characters he later created, Alan's world was more influenced by nannies and nursery rules than his actual parents, and his priorities were friendship, hunger and a desire for adventure. For much of their childhood Alan and his older brother Ken shared a long-running fantasy that they would wake up one morning and find that everyone else in the world was dead. Each night after lights out they would embellish the fantasy – imagining themselves stepping over Bee's lifeless body, thrilled that there was nobody to ask if they had washed. After checking there were no others survivors, they planned to sneak out and explore the world. They imagined helping themselves at local sweet shops, and driving a horse bus – since animals were always spared their fictitious plague. Alan and Ken were never particularly close to their eldest brother Barry who was rarely involved in their games, since he was often absent from home for long periods; suffering from a series of childhood illnesses he was sent to convalesce from Scarlet Fever at a farm in Hendon.

Although Alan and Ken dreamt longingly of freedom, they actually had a great deal of independence, and spent their time roaming fields, forests, cricket pitches and golf courses. 'Almost as babies, we were allowed to go for walks by ourselves anywhere, in London or in the country,' Alan recalled. As a young boy he was happiest when it was just him and Ken, as they shared everything:

We were inseparable, Alan said. Sometimes, when fighting, so mixed up as to be indistinguishable. We never ceased to quarrel with each other, nor to feel the need of each other. Save for the fact that he hated cheese, we shared equally all belief, all knowledge, all ambition, all hope and all fear.

The two boys usually chose to share a bed, but they would fight every morning: 'When one of us found the tide of clothes had receded in the night, leaving him bare and beached'. If it was not a school day they would usually wake early, grab handfuls of porridge oats from the kitchen if the family cook was not yet up, and sneak out of the house before anybody realised they had gone. They both agreed that breakfast was the best meal of the day, and Alan would later write:

"When you wake in the morning Pooh," said Piglet at last, "what's the first thing you say to yourself?" "What's for breakfast?" said Pooh. "What do you say Piglet?" "I say, I wonder what's going to happen exciting today?" said Piglet. Pooh nodded thoughtfully. "It's the same thing," he said.


Excerpted from "The Extraordinary Life of A.A. Milne"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Nadia Cohen.
Excerpted by permission of Pen and Sword Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgements vii

Introduction viii

Chapter 1 'It's always useful to know where a friend-and-relation is, whether you want him or whether you don't.' 1

Chapter 2 'People who don't think probably don't have brains; rather, they have grey fluff that's blown into their heads by mistake.' 13

Chapter 3 'Love is taking a few steps backward maybe even more…to give way to the happiness of the person you love.' 21

Chapter 4 'The cold's so cold, and the hot's so hot. Oh! God bless Daddy - I quite forgot.' 37

Chapter 5 'We will be friends until forever, just you wait and see.' 47

Chapter 6 'This writing business. Pencils and what-not. Over-rated, if you ask me. Silly stuff. Nothing in it.' 62

Chapter 7 'If there ever comes a day when we can't be together keep me in your heart, I'll stay there forever.' 69

Chapter 8 'If you live to be a hundred, I want to live to be a hundred minus one day, so I never have to live without you.' 82

Chapter 9 'You can't stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.' 90

Chapter 10 'A day without a friend is like a pot without a single drop of honey left inside.' 96

Chapter 11 'If the person you are talking to doesn't appear to be listening, be patient. It may simply be that he has a small piece of fluff in his ear.' 105

Chapter 12 'A little Consideration, a little thought for others, makes all the difference.' 121

Chapter 13 'It is hard to be brave, when you are only a Very Small Animal.' 140

Chapter 14 'Just because an animal is large, it doesn't mean he doesn't want kindness. 156

Chapter 15 'Promise me you'll never forget me because if I thought you would I'd never leave.' 169

Chapter 16 'How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.' 186

Bibliography 206

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The Extraordinary Life of A A Milne 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
rokinrev More than 1 year ago
I received this book from NetGalley and felt very blessed to read it. Like most of us, I grew up with the poetry and stories of A A Milne, and knew a bit about his life struggles with depression. To look at Pooh and “ When We Were Very Young”, you don’t think sadness, but Milne fought to be understood and heard as a serious writer. This book reflects that. Known for Pooh, Milne was a social commenter as well. I’m sorry that his son got bullied. I’m sorry he and his wife and his illness were at odds with many. I’m one of zillions who have seen the NYPL’s lovingly preserved actual stuffed animals that gave rise to The House at Pooh Corner and as much as I love them, the “Disney-fixation” of these very safe stories for children blots out the real story that Nadia Cohen has presented here. I highly recommend this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Wow! Thanks so very much to Netgalley, Pen and Sword and the author, Nadia Cohen, for the opportunity to rave about this book! I loved it and was surprised at how difficult it was to put down. I finished it within 48 hours of starting and that was down to the excellent way the book is put together. It's a fascinating insight into the mind, life and family of this great Author. I didn't realise what a prolific writer he was (he'd be gutted to know that I knew him solely for his Winnie the Pooh books) and I found his relationships with his wife and son riveting. I also enjoyed the 'Winnie the Pooh' quotes at the beginning of each chapter and the photographs at the end of the book. Just wonderful. 5 stars without hesitation.
brf1948 More than 1 year ago
There was obviously a whole lot of research behind this biography of Alan Alexander Milne, his family and his time. I enjoyed it as much for the insights into England during and between the World Wars as for the more personal look into the lives of the Milne family. This work makes you feel like Alan and his wife Daff and Christopher Robin were living just around the corner of time. There were disappointments - I hated that Alan was disappointed that his plays and novels, nice as they were, were overshadowed by his timeless children's stories. Hated that for a time Christopher was bullied because of his role in the popular Pooh stories. But there were wonderful highs, as well. Alan and Daff managed to continue to rub along in tandem despite their occasional unhappiness. Alan was able to get past his passive leanings to use his pen to support the military during WWII. Christopher came home from his trek through the war, with injuries but healed. Altogether an interesting look at a very special family. I received a free electronic copy of this novel from Netgalley, Nadia Cohen, and Pen & Sword History in exchange for an honest review. Thank you all for sharing your hard work with me.