Goodbye Christopher Robin

by Jennifer Bryce

Having called my blog ‘Little Smackerel’ and described my childhood pleasure of being read A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh stories, I made it my business to see the movie, Goodbye Christopher Robin, directed by Simon Curtis, playing in London right now.

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I knew that A.A. Milne was a pacifist. A lot is made of this in the movie, suggesting that the stories are an idyllic escape from the horrors of World War I. Milne fought in that war and suffered shell shock. But he saw his real business as writing essays and other works and hated being revered as the writer of children’s stories rather than more serious stuff, so I find this claim rather implausible.

One review claims that Domnhall Gleeson (as Milne) and Margot Robbie (as his wife) are wooden and exaggeratedly upper class British. I suspect that they would have spoken with ‘posh’ accents at that time – after all, Milne spent a fair bit of time at his club and wrote for (and later edited) Punch, but I did find Robbie’s portrayal as Mrs Milne, ‘Daphne’, rather unbelievable. Firstly, she looks like a 1950s bombshell with her long wavy blond hair and ‘modern’ make-up. And I had recently heard that she made up the voices for her son’s toys – surely a mother who does this finds some pleasure in playing with her son? In the film she does make the toys talk, but it seems totally out of character. I now realise that the events in James, James Morrison Morrison are true: the mother did put on a ‘golden gown’ and went off to London – for several days – to buy wallpaper, saying that she might not come back. How traumatic for her young son! Christopher Robin’s birth was difficult, probably not endearing Daphne to her baby (she’s shown just leaving him crying in his pram) and she had wanted a girl, hence later dressed Christopher in girlish outfits, as shown in E.H. Shepard’s drawings.

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The film suggested to me that Daphne encouraged the exploitation of her son and his toys and the father just went along with it. It seemed to me extraordinary that parents could have no idea of how damaging this would be for Christopher and what the horrible implications would be when he was sent to a boys’ boarding school.

I had always assumed that A.A. Milne would have been like my grandfather, who read the stories to me. Grandad was almost exactly the same age. He smoked a pipe, went to a club, read Punch. But he loved me and was interested in children, applying his intelligent imagination to all kinds of games and exciting outings. The film suggests that there was a brief time, with Daphne away in the city, when A.A. Milne bonded with his son and they shared some happy times together in the forest. But for most of his older life, Christopher was estranged from his parents. The father might have come to realise the damage he had done (his autobiography is entitled, It’s too late now) – but it was too late.

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I went away from the film feeling rather depressed – that cosy, integral part of my childhood taking on a kind of artificiality. Fortunately I came across Gyles Brandeth’s article of a year ago in The Telegraph, (14 October, 2016), ‘I knew Christopher Robin – the real Christopher Robin’, and it seems that although he continued to be estranged from his parents, who died in 1956 and 1971, Christopher Milne had established his own quiet, happy existence with his wife, running a bookshop in Devon. Christopher died in 2014. Brandeth’s words are reassuring: I last saw him in Duke Street, Chelsea, around the corner from the house where he was born. I was giving a talk to a writers’ group about his father’s work. Christopher arrived, unannounced, and, disconcertingly, sat immediately in front of me, in the first row.

I finished my talk by reading the famous final paragraph of The House at Pooh Corner: ‘So they went off together. But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.

‘Yes,’ muttered Christopher, ‘dammit.’ And he laughed.

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