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
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.
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.
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