Jul 1, 2010

The Enchanted Places by Christopher Milne

The Enchanted Places by Christopher Milne

You can call [this] a sort of companion to the Pooh books. In the first chapters I have attempted a picture of Milne family life that both inspired and was subsequently inspired by the books. In the later chapters I have attempted a picture of my father. If I have imagined an audience it has been a gathering of Pooh’s friends and admirers, and I have tried to answer the sort of questions that I imagined friends of Pooh wanting to ask. They would want to know about the real Pooh and the real Forest and whether there really was an Alice. They would want to know something about the real little boy who played with Pooh in the Forest. And finally they would want to know something about the man who turned all these things into stories and verses.
The Enchanted Places is a memoir by the man who’s best known to the world as Christopher Robin: A.A. Milne’s son, or the little boy who actually owned a teddy bear named Pooh and played with it in a forest. The book mostly focuses on Milne’s country childhood in the 1920’s and 1930’s, and the time period, with the mixture of lingering Edwardian sensibilities and modernity I so love about the early twentieth-century, is a big part of its appeal.

There is, however, a darker side to The Enchanted Places, which Milne mostly reveals in the epilogue. One of the reasons why I so love the Winnie-the-Pooh stories is because they seem to be written with absolute respect for childhood and for the imaginary world of its young protagonist. But A. A. Milne’s intimate portrayal of Christopher Robin came at a cost: regardless of the fact that the character from the books is a mixture of the real Christopher Robin, of A.A. Milne’s own childhood, and of pure imagination, what the books effectively did was expose the young Milne’s childhood before the whole world.

Let me start by saying that this question is not the main focus of the book. However, it’s what I’ll focus on the most here, because it’s what I found the most interesting. I suspect this is a conflict a lot of writers feel: the people you’re close to will inspire you to write, and possibly they’ll be involved in situations you’ll want to include in your stories, however disguised. But as much as you do disguise the facts, there is always some potential there for making people feel exposed and hurting their feelings. Is it a form of personal betrayal if a writer decides to write freely? In A.A. Milne’s case, there weren’t even any attempts to disguise anything – he gave the little boy in the Pooh books the name of his real-life son, and the young Christopher Robin starred in theatre adaptations of the stories and recorded Pooh-inspired phonograph records.

This was all very well when Christopher Robin was a little boy, but things took a darker turn when he grew older and went to boarding school, only to have his classmates torment him by playing the aforementioned records over and over again. There’s also the fact that a very private moment of his life and a very specific, temporary identity had been immortalised and were perpetually associated with him, regardless of who or how old he had become. Can you imagine having complete strangers asking after your favourite childhood toy when you’re thirteen, seventeen, twenty-three or thirty-eight?

This probably makes A.A. Milne sound ruthless, and it might make you think that Christopher had good reasons to resent his father. But The Enchanted Places is actually not written with any hint of anger and resentment. The younger Milne’s tone reminded me of that of Craig Thompson in Blankets: he writes with sadness and regret, but he tries to understand and forgive a man who was doing the best he knew now. He even apologetically suggests that his readers skip the epilogue if they’re not up to dealing with the less-than-charming side of his childhood. He comes across as a mild and gentle man, and somehow that made his story all the more moving.

Moving is a fitting word to describ eThe Enchanted Places as a whole – there was something about Christopher Milne’s vulnerability, about his nostalgic recollection of a childhood spent in solitary communion with nature, about his private imaginary world made public, about the pain he suffered as he grew older, and about his conflicted relationship with his father that really got to me. This is a quiet, lovely memoir, and a book I won’t soon forget.

Sadly The Enchanted Places is now out of print, as are Christopher Milne’s other two biographies. But there’s a book called Beyond the World of Pooh in print, which seems to include selections from all three. If like me you dislike the idea of abridged books, you might be able to find a used copy same as I did.

Favourite passages:
People sometimes say to me today: “How lucky you were to have had such a wonderful father!” imagining that because he wrote about me with such affection and understanding, he must have played with me with equal affection and understanding. Can this really be so totally untrue? Isn’t this most surprising?
No, it is not really surprising, not when you understand.
There are two sorts of writer. There is the writer who is basically a reporter and there is the creative writer. The one draws on his experiences, the other on his dreams. My father was a creative writer and so it was precisely because he was not able to play with his small son that his longings sought and found satisfaction in another direction. He wrote about him instead.

The wind roaring in the tress, roaring in the giant sycamore that grew in the lawn just outside my nursery window. (“What would happen if the wind blew it down? Would it flatten the house, do you think?”) The rain beating on the water and the river rising to meet it. The snow, a rare visitor, and so all the more exciting when it came. Misty days when Gills Lap vanished and it might be fun to see if you could get lost and then cleverly find yourself again. Sunny days when the trees were dark and heavy with leaf and the air was heavy with the scent of meadow-sweet and the river was almost asleep. These were the Cotchford weathers, new and exciting to me; and for my father, perhaps, awakening memories of country holiday weathers when he was a boy. These are the weathers you will meet in the books.

If you read a book and it influences you greatly, or even if you just enjoy it very much, you long to persuade others to read t too. A book is not just to be read privately in the evening in front of the fire. It is a pleasure to be shared; it is the cement that bonds person to person in greater sympathy and understanding. It was, after all, their shared love of the light verse of C.S. Calverley and Owen Seaman that helped to bring my parents together.
Reviewed at:
The Captive Reader
Stuck in a Book

(Have I missed yours?)

28 comments:

  1. Thats sad its out of print, I dont normally like memoirs but Id make an exception for this, I will keep my eye out.

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  2. Lovely review, Ana! 'The Enchanted Places' looks like a beautiful book! Sad to know that it is out of print. I will search for it in the library or at the used-bookstore.

    It is a tricky thing, from a writer's perspective, to use real-world events and people as inspiration in books. I guess some people might like it for a while, if their portrait is positive and others may not if the portrait in the book, which is similar to them, is not really flattering. I remember that Somerset Maugham used many of his friends and acquaintances as inspiration for characters in his novels, and his friends and acquaintances who read them, got annoyed with that and stopped talking to him. It was quite insightful reading about Christopher Milne's thoughts on how his father didn't play with him, but wrote about it in his books. I loved reading all the passages you have quoted.

    (And yay, I made it this time - for the first time I am one of the first commenters to your post :))

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  3. I've always wanted to know more abut what was behind the original Pooh stories, so I think I'd like to read this. Too bad it is out of print. I heard somewhere once that the original "Pooh" was a real bear Christopher Robin used to visit at the zoo. Apparently it really was his stuffed toy? How sad about the relationship with his father.

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  4. This is one of my very favourite books. I've actually seen the original Winnie the Pooh at one of the libraries in New York (and the Piglet, Tigger (who was bought especially for purposes of plot) and Kanga!)

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  5. I can't imagine how much teasing he must have faced. My flatmates when I lived in England told me horrific stories about being bullied in school, which seems to be endemic to English people everywhere (Roald Dahl, C.S. Lewis...), and they weren't even such tempting victims as Christopher Robin. I hope he did not get the crap kicked out of him.

    I like the passage about his father being a poor playmate - it reminded me of little Hamnet in Gaiman's "A Midsummer Night's Dream".

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  6. Isn't the most common writing advice, "Write what you know?" But what do you do if the people you know don't want to be written about? There is no clear-cut answer.

    I'd always heard that Christopher was fairly bitter about the whole thing. Wasn't there a fairly recent book about him?

    You have gotten me interested in this topic, I will say.

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  7. Sorry for the above double post. I wanted to make sure before I left a comment about this so I'm back.

    The real Winnie-the-Pooh is on display at the New York Public library. Here's a link...

    http://www.nypl.org/locations/tid/36/node/5557

    I just may go pay him a visit.

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  8. Sorry for the above double post. I wanted to make sure before I left a comment about this so I'm back.

    The real Winnie-the-Pooh is on display at the New York Public library. Here's a link...

    http://www.nypl.org/locations/tid/36/node/5557

    I just may go pay him a visit.

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  9. I love the Pooh stories, but am sorry that they came at such a price. I have a semi-well-known uncle whose children, my cousins, I'm sure can relate to the quote you provided about people asking, "What is it like to have such a wonderful father?" Often the things that make a person 'great' to the public are exactly the things that make them not so great at home. (No offense to my uncle, whom I adore - just stating the facts.)

    Anyway, this sounds wonderful, so maybe I'll see if my library can track a copy down for me.

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  10. It is sad that the book is out of print - the book sounds fascinating.

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  11. It's easy to understand after reading this why Simon T put it on his '50 Books You Must Read..." list, isn't it? It took a while for me to warm up to, but by the end I loved it. I was able to get my hands on a copy of The Path Through the Trees (or rather Simon was and he sent it to me) and am really looking forward to it. Such a shame that these books aren't more readily available.

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  12. This sounds fascinating. I'll have to keep my eye out for a copy at used book stores. Thanks for the review.

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  13. I had never thought about how the popularity of the book affected the real Christopher Robin. It sounds like a very bittersweet read and I think, one I'd really like to take a look at. I am also sorry to hear that it's out of print. I am sure a copy can be had somewhere though, so I shall be looking. Thanks for the great review, Nymeth!

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  14. I am so intrigued by this! I was never really into the Pooh books, but this memoir sounds fascinating. Too bad it's out of print, though.

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  15. That sounds both sad and beautiful, I love when people show that things can be both at the same time and that emotions are often very complex.

    I´ve actually never read any Pooh stories, probably am the only person, but I think I´d love to read this more than the actual stories. So sad that it´s out of print, but maybe your review will inspire a republishing :)

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  16. How interesting and sad. Especially that first passage you quoted about his father being unable to play with him as a child.
    http://thebookworm07.blogspot.com/

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  17. How sad that the stories that thrilled us as children proved to be so tortuous for the author's son. I can imagine he would have preferred to grow up and not in any way be associated with the character in his father's book. I always thought of Christopher Robin as an introverted, sensitive boy. Being that sort of boy in real life would have caused his son a great deal of angst. It sounds like an interesting read. I can probably find it at my library.

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  18. Ah, I was already to pick this up. Out of print? Argh--gonna have to put my used book store on the alert for it.

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  19. I hate that treasures like this go out of print :( I'll see if I can find it on Paperback Swap though. I find stories like this so interesting. I would imagine that A.A. Milne meant Winnie the Pooh to be sort of an ode to his son, but of course his son would feel exposed to the world with the popularity that this series gained. I can't imagine the conflict that would be there. I hope I can find this!!

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  20. I got it on Paperback Swap :D

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  21. I adore the Pooh stories!! My mother read them aloud to us at first & had a real talent for Reading Words That Begin With Capital Letters. And "bother" is an integral part of my vocabulary (which is the long way of saying Milne was very influential in our household). I, too, had heard that Christopher was not exactly pleased at the way his father had raided his childhood for content. So I'm both curious about this book, and afraid to read it. I always want to remember that somewhere on a hill surrounded by trees " a little boy and his Bear will always be playing."
    You gave this a wonderful, sensitive and thoughtful review.

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  22. i don't read memoirs either but as always you make me want to read this thanks to your excellent review!

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  23. In first reading this, I thought it was one of those novelizations of what Christopher Robin would feel like if he were a real boy. But I see that it is a true story. Oh, poor Christopher. What a way to grow up!

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  24. I love the Pooh stories and it would be great to know ‘the story behind the story’…
    It’s so sad the book is out of print but I’ll look for it in the secondhand bookshops anyway!
    Thank you for the great review :)

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  25. I love the Pooh stories and I've heard about Christopher Milne's frustrations. That's one reason I hesitate to bring my son into my book blogging: no photos, no videos, not his name. Because he's growing and changing and he hasn't chosen to be a public figure. But then, it's not quite the same as a Christopher Robin being the character in a book. That boarding school story sounds so sad. Not sure if I'll read this soon -- I'll have to keep an eye out for the used.

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  26. I loved the Pooh stories growing up, and this sounds like a fascinating memoir! Thank you for sharing!

    I put this in my Friday Five at Kate's Library!

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  27. I had no idea that this memoir existed. It sounds fascinating. I'll have to watch for it. Thanks for the review.

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  28. Wow, I never even thought about what the real life Christopher Robin might have gone through--nor did I know he read the story for phonograph recordings! How bizarre would that be?

    I think the vast majority of artists, writers or otherwise, consider anything and anyone they come across in life fair game. Look at J. Cronin--the plot of The Passage supposedly came from his daughter's imagination, not his. I wonder how she feels about her dad appropriating her stories for a book?

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