It Happened
in History!
(Go to It Happened in History Archives) 


J. M. Barrie

Of all the fantasy writers throughout the ages, one stands worlds apart from the rest.  On the one hand, James Matthew Barrie was a successful journalist, playwright, and children's book author.  On the other, he was a dreamer who became world-renowned for creating the story of the boy who never grew up, Peter Pan (1904).

Set in Never Land, Barrie's implausible story about an ageless boy who could fly like the wind featured a hero who led an extraordinary life.  With his band of merry boys, he battled the nefarious Captain Hook, a bitter and hostile world around him, and the disbelief of grown-ups who felt he couldn't be true.

"When the first baby laughed for the first time, the laugh broke into a thousand pieces and they all went skipping about, and that was the beginning of fairies." - from Peter Pan

J. M. Barrie was born of working-class parents on May 9, 1860, in the lowland village of Kirriemuir, in Forfarshire (now Angus), Scotland.  His father, David, was a handloom weaver.  His mother, Margaret Ogilvy, was the daughter of a stonemason.  They had ten children, Barrie being next to the youngest.  Nicknamed Jamie, young Barrie used to listen to tall tales of pirates from his mother, who read her children Robert Louis Stevenson's adventure stories in the evenings. 

When Barrie was seven, his brother, David, died in a skating accident.  The child had been his mother's favorite, and following his death, she grew into a deep depression.  While Barrie's mother derived some consolation from the realization that David would remain a boy forever, Barrie drew inspiration.  In his desperate attempt to be loved and to replace David in his motherís life, he began wearing his brother's clothing and eventually "became" David.  By the time Barrie had reached 14, the same age at which his brother had died, he stopped growing.  He remained only five feet tall for the rest of his life.

Over the next few years, a compulsive-obsessive relationship between mother and son grew stronger.  His mother's tie to her son would haunt the author for his entire life. 

By the time he had entered his teens, Barrie had become interested in theater and literature.  He read all the works he could find by authors such as Jules Verne, Mayne Reid, and James Fenimore Cooper.  With the keen attention of a journalist, he observed his fellow students, who were all taller and more outgoing than he.  They were all also interested in the opposite sex, an interest Barrie never seemed to cultivate.

After primary school, Barrie enrolled at Dumfries Academy at the University of Edinburgh, where his first play, Bandelero the Bandit, was performed by the Dumfries Amateur Dramatic Club in 1877.  After receiving his M.A. in 1882, Barrie went to work as a reporter for the Nottingham Journal before moving to London in 1885, where he toiled away as a freelance writer.  He sold much of his work, which was mostly humor, to several prestigious journals, including The Pall Mall Gazette

While moving up the societal ladder, Barrie remained shy and aloof.  He suffered an acute complex about his masculinity and his attractiveness to women.  At barely five feet tall, he viewed himself as a physical and a social failure.  His later writings would be dominated by articles and essays delving into the concepts of manhood and homosexual desires.

Despite his insecurities, Barrie's first mystery novel, Better Dead (1888), successfully poked fun at several famous people of the day.  He had come to befriend writer G. B. Shaw, who chided Barrie's pipe-smoking as a filthy habit, as well as H. G. Wells, whom Barrie enjoyed taunting.  Once he said to Wells, "It is all very well to be able to write books, but can you waggle your ears?"  When a friend noticed that Barrie ordered Brussels sprouts every day, he explained, "I cannot resists ordering them.  The words are so lovely to say." 

With associates Jerome K. Jerome, Arthur Conan Doyle, P.G. Wodehouse, and other famed writers, Barrie founded a cricket club called the  Allahakbarries.  Doyle was the only member who could actually play cricket. 

A remarkably versatile person, Barrie rarely missed an opportunity to explore life's offerings.  During World War I, he made a Western film with literary friends Shaw, William Archer, and G. K. Chesterton.

In 1888, Barrie's first modicum of success came with his book, Auld Licht Idylls, which were short sketches of Scottish life.  Critics praised the book for its creativity.  His next novel was the melodramatic The Little Minister (1891), which became a popular success and was eventually filmed three times.  After seeing his work on the screen, Barrie began writing mostly for the theater.

In 1894, the author married actress Mary Ansell, who had appeared in his play, Walker, London.  According to Janet Dunbar's biography (1970), Barrie the husband was impotent.  He explained to his new wife his unwillingness to engage in sex by saying, "Boys can't love."

Although the couple had no children, Barrie had many whom he considered friends.  One little girl, Margaret Henley, who died at the age of six, used to call him "my friendy," which in her lisp came out sounding like "fwendy" or "wendy."  Barrie immortalized the child in Peter Pan by naming his heroine Wendy.

In 1902, Barrie published The Little White Bird, a novel mostly undistinguished except that it mentioned Peter Pan by name.  The story was a first-person narrative about a wealthy bachelor clubman and his attachment to a little boy named David.  Taking this boy for walks in Kensington Gardens, the narrator tells him of Peter Pan, who can be found in the Gardens at night.  Barrie wrote the stage play for Peter Pan, which was produced in 1904.  The book wasn't published until 1911, when it appeared under the title, Peter and Wendy.  In the novel's epilogue, Peter visits a grown-up Wendy.

"Every time a child says 'I don't believe in fairies' there is a little fairy somewhere that falls down dead." - from Peter Pan

Peter Pan had evolved in the author's mind from stories that he'd told to the five young sons of his close friend, Sylvia Llewelyn Davies.  She was a motherly figure with whom Barries formed a familial tie.  Davies' husband, Arthur, wasn't at all pleased with the affection his wife lavished on Barrie.  When in 1909 Barrie's wife began an affair with writer Gilbert Cannan, Barrie's marriage ended in divorce.

When Davies and her husband died tragically of cancer, Barrie was made the unofficial guardian of their sons, although he was closer to being a brother figure to them than a father.  Nevertheless, he decided to adopt the boys and raise them as his own.  His life with the boys is probably the single greatest inspiration for the creation of Peter Pan in 1904.  Barrie once explained, "By rubbing the five of you violently together, as savages with two sticks to produce a flame, I made the spark of you that is Peter Pan."

But life as a single father was far from idyllic.  George, one of the sons, died in World War I.  Michael drowned himself with his boyfriend in Oxford, an especially difficult blow to Barrie.  Peter, who had become a successful publisher, struggled with depression for most of his life and finally committed suicide in 1960.

After Peter Pan, Barrie wrote two more fantasy plays, Dear Brutus (1917), about a group of people who enter a magical forest and are changed into the people they might have been under different circumstances, and Mary Rose (1920), about a mother searching for a lost child, even as she dies and becomes a ghost. 

In 1922, Barrie received the Order of Merit.  Ministers, duchesses, movie stars, and other admirers called upon him at his penthouse at Adelphi Terrace.  Barrie was elected lord rector of St. Andrew's University and, in 1930, became chancellor of Edinburgh University. 

By 1937, Barrie's health had begun to deteriorate rapidly.  Although the last ten years of his life had been some of the most productive, he was dejected with life.  J. M. Barrie finally died quietly on June 3, 1937 at the age of 77.

Discover J. M. Barrie

Search Now:

Indulge Yourself - Check Out Today's Best-Selling
Fiction - Nonfiction - DVDs

- HOME -

NOTE: All material on this site is copyright protected.  No portion of this material may be copied or reproduced, either electronically,  mechanically, or by any other means, for resale or distribution without the written consent of the author.  Contact the editors for right to reprint.  All copy has been dated and registered with the American Society of Authors and Writers.  Copyright 2006 by the American Society of Authors and Writers.







Hit Counter