March 18, 2018

Christopher Robin and the Milnes

On this day in 1920 Christopher Robin Milne was born, an only child to A. A. Milne. Christopher also wrote, his first two books, Enchanted Places and The Path Through the Trees, being memoirs of his growing up and out from under the shadow of the fictional Christopher Robin. The first of these, written after both parents had died, has partly the tone of setting-the-record-straight, partly that of settling-the-score. Each day of writing, Milne said, was "like a session on the analyst's couch" in an effort to look both his father and Christopher Robin in the eye.

Christopher Milne's surest love in his first decade was for his Nanny, and for the fields, wood and river of the family's weekend Sussex retreat. His feeling was that he was but "a part-time hobby" to his parents and that, had he suddenly disappeared, "I would certainly not have missed my father." Amid the general resentment at parental neglect and exploitation, Milne singles out as being particularly rankling his father's first, famous Christopher Robin poem, "Vespers" (When We Were Very Young, 1924):
    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.

    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.

    If I open my fingers a little bit more,
    I can see Nanny's dressing-gown on the door.
    It's a beautiful blue, but it hasn't a hood.
    Oh! God bless Nanny and make her good....
Bad enough that the real event had Nanny at the side of the three-year-old child and father the ironic observer; far worse Christopher's "toe-curling, fist-clenching, lip-biting embarrassment" over the poem's sentimentality. While made a target of schoolboy taunts and parodies -- "Hush, hush, nobody cares! / Christopher Robin has fallen downstairs" -- Christopher felt denied in real life any benefit that might have come from his father actually gushing over him or Childhood.

There was closeness during adolescence, but apparently not enough. Christopher rarely saw his parents once he married and moved to Devon to run a bookshop, his mother not once in her 15 years of widowhood. The older Christopher not being interested in them, Pooh, Eeyore and Piglet, along with the later Kanga and Tigger -- these two were given by Dad, suspects Christopher, partly for "their literary possibilities," and Owl and Rabbit were fictions all along -- were sent by his father on book tour in America, and finally found a permanent home at the New York Public Library.

Literary agent Stephen Slesinger made a deal with Milne in the '30s to market Pooh; for the past dozen years Stephen Slesinger Inc. has been suing Disney Corporation for hundreds of millions of dollars in royalties which they claim to be owed -- but a fraction of the nearly one billion dollars which Pooh earns Disney annually.

Winnie-the-Pooh continues to hold down a spot on the lists of bestselling children's books, and the Pooh industry continues apace. In his Introduction to Postmodern Pooh, sequel to The Pooh Perplex, Frederick Crews notes the recent appearance of Pooh's Little Fitness Book and Eeyore's Gloomy Little Instruction Book, The Tao of Pooh and The Te of Piglet, Pooh and the Philosophers and Pooh and the Psychologist.... Crews's books offer a satiric lifeline to "college students adrift on the choppy, horizonless seas of literary interpretation." One of the parodic essays in the sequel book takes the troubled Milne family as focus. Titled "The Courage to Squeal," the essay is written by one "Dolores Malatesta," who wishes she could give Christopher the psycho-surgery she gave herself - "a parentectomy, replacing my family of origin with a family of choice."

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