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A.A. Milne | Biography

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Alan Alexander Milne was born on January 19, 1882, in London. His father, John, the eldest son of a Scottish Presbyterian minister, grew up poor and somewhat ignored; his childhood contributed to his attentive and affectionate parenting of his own family. Studying for his Bachelor of Arts degree at night while working full time, the elder Milne prized education above all. By the time the third son Alan was born, John Milne owned and was headmaster of Henley House, a small school. The family lived in a house attached to the school, and all three boys had their early education there. Milne describes his father as a gifted teacher—kind, serious, and humorous. He grew up in a home that was by all accounts happy.

As a third son, Milne described himself as having all the luck of the third son in fairy tales: he was smarter, handsomer, and more loved than his brothers. Alan Milne was especially close to his brother Ken, 16 months his senior. Despite his third-son "superiority," in his autobiography Milne describes Ken as "kinder, larger hearted, more lovable, more tolerant, sweeter tempered—all of that or none of that, it doesn't matter, he was just nicer." The friendships among his fictional characters are reminiscent of his relationship with his brother.

Milne was an early reader, a lover of mathematics, and an above-average student. At school, he and Ken wrote humorous articles and poems together under the initials AKM. Milne went on to win a mathematics scholarship to Cambridge, where he became the editor of the Cambridge student publication, Granta, and decided to write for a living. After struggling as a freelance journalist, Milne became an assistant editor at the humor magazine Punch. During the eight years he spent there, he contributed many pieces and published his first book: The Day's Play, a collection of his submissions. While at Punch, he met Dorothy (Daphne) de Sélincourt, goddaughter of the editor. Daphne was an avid reader of Milne's and shared his sense of humor. They married in 1913. His first children's poem, "Vespers," which had great success, was written for her, and she sold it to Vanity Fair (in the United States). She remained a muse and contributor to her husband's work throughout their lives together.

Milne left Punch to join the Royal Warwickshire Regiment of the British army. Although opposed to war in principle, Milne felt it his duty to serve in World War I and enlisted in 1915. The months he spent on the French front cemented his lifelong pacifism; however, he did not oppose England's entry into World War II, for he believed Nazism was a real evil that had to be countered. After falling ill with trench fever, Milne spent most of the remainder of World War I in London writing plays for the amusement of the soldiers (in collaboration with Daphne) and writing to bolster support for the British war effort.

Above all else, Milne considered himself a playwright. Indeed had he not imagined the "best bear in all the world," he might be remembered as such. A play he had written at the urging of J.M. Barrie (of Peter Pan fame), Wurzel-Flummery, was produced by Barrie in 1917. Soldiers and civilians flocked to attend his plays, enjoying relief from the realities of wartime London. His play Mr. Pim Passes By, produced in 1919, became a tremendous success. Free from financial worry, Milne continued to write whatever pleased him.

In 1920 Christopher Robin Milne, called Billy by his parents and friends, was born. For her son's first birthday, in 1921, Daphne Milne bought him a stuffed bear from Harrod's. The bear would be immortalized in Milne's writing. In 1924 Milne published his first book for children, When We Were Very Young, a collection of short poems (in which readers are first introduced to a swan called Pooh and to Edward Bear). The book was so successful that Milne continued to write for children, and in 1926 published Winnie-the-Pooh, followed by Now We Are Six (1927), and finally The House at Pooh Corner (1928). E.H. Shepard, whom Milne had known at Punch, illustrated all four books.

Milne's stories—considered love stories to his son, Christopher Robin—may have been the single biggest reason for the later estrangement between them. Christopher Robin (Billy Moon, as he later called himself) was doted on by his parents. However, he was an introverted child, and the attention paid him for being the character of Christopher Robin made him uncomfortable and unhappy. In fact, he reportedly felt he had been used and his likeness manipulated, with his father's success resting upon his young child's shoulders. Apparently he read none of the stories in which he figured so prominently until he was an adult and a writer himself. The stories that made Christopher Robin so beloved a character and afforded his family wealth and the luxury of time together also created a rift. A.A. Milne was famously ambivalent about his fame, stemming as it did from his "trifles."

A.A. Milne went on to write more plays, a detective novel, political nonfiction, and an autobiography. His children's books were so successful, however, that Milne's other works, of which he was quite proud, became overshadowed and largely forgotten. Lamenting in verse, Milne wrote, "When I wrote them, little thinking/All my years of pen and inking/Would be almost lost among/These four trifles for the young."

Milne died at home on January 31, 1956. His children's books have been translated into 50 languages, and E.H. Shepard's drawings are universally recognized and beloved.

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