J.M. Barrie wrote one of the most famous and enduring works of children’s literature - Peter Pan. Despite being written over a hundred years ago, this fairy tale continues to delight adults and children everywhere in books, in movies and on stage.
And yet Barrie himself - a strange, retiring man who longed to re-live his boyhood again - is little known. A celebrity writer in his own lifetime who was shy and out of time. He created a huge body of work both before and after Peter Pan which is mostly unread today. So was the man behind one of literature’s most magical stories?
Read my short biography to find out more on the man behind Peter Pan.
Barrie, circa 1895
James Matthew Barrie was born in Scotland, the ninth of ten children. His father was a weaver. All of the children were educated in reading, writing and arithmetic to prepare them for professional careers. James was the storyteller from a young age and his mother adored sharing with him the books from her childhood, such as Robinson Crusoe and Walter Scott.
When he was six, his older brother David died suddenly in an accident. Apparently his mother’s favourite, James desperately tried to fill his place by dressing in his clothes and imitating his speech and mannerisms. In the biography of his mother, Margaret Ogilvy (1896), he said that his mother found comfort in the fact that David never had to grow up and could stay a little boy forever - perhaps an inspiration for Peter Pan? He later wrote, “…perhaps Peter Pan is just a boy who died young, and this is how the author conceived his subsequent adventures.” Being frozen at the age of his brother’s death affected him personally in many ways - he stopped growing at the age of 14, just 5 foot 3, of which he would later lament bitterly, “…six foot three inches ... if only I had really grown to this, I would not have bothered turning out reels of printed matter.”
From the age of 8, James was intermittently educated at the Dumfries School in Glasgow. He loved to read, especially the popular and plentiful “penny dreadfuls” of the time. At the academy, he and his friends would act out pirate stories and eventually founded a drama club. The first play he produced was Bandelero the Bandit.
Always intending to be a writer, he enrolled in the University of Edinburgh, graduating in 1882. There he wrote drama reviews for the Edinburgh Evening Courant. Following this, he began working as a staff writer at the Nottingham Journal. He also experienced a small success in writing a series of Scottish stories for the St James’ Gazette. These would form the basis for his first three novels: Auld Licht Idylls (1888), A Window in Thrums (1890), and The Little Minister (1891). They now date poorly, but at the time found an audience who enjoyed sentimental stories of rural Scottish life. He continued to write novels, with middling success.
James’ third play Walker London was performed in 1892 and he through this he met his wife, actress Mary Ansell. They married in 1894 at his parent’s home, in the Scottish tradition. Barrie enjoyed his long walks in the Kensington Gardens, and in 1900 they bought a home at 100 Bayswater Road, directly overlooking the gardens. That year they also bought a small cottage in the Surrey countryside. It was a short and unhappy marriage. In 1909, Mary began an affair with Gilbert Cannan. Unwilling to break it off, Barrie risked the scandal and sought a divorce on grounds of infidelity, which was granted later that year. He continued to support her with a yearly allowance, even after she married Cannan.
The character of Peter Pan would first appear in his 1902 novel, The Little White Bird. This character appeared again in the story we know so well today in his 1904 stage play Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. Most of James’ other plays were heavily laden with social themes of the time. Peter Pan, while ostensibly a play for children, cleverly conceals Barrie’s beliefs and a gently critique of the social mores of the time period. The stuffy and formal middle-class home of the Darlings is sharply contrasted by the wild freedom of Neverland, with its ambiguous morals. The play was an instant success with both children and adults.
Barrie also introduced the name “Wendy” into the English lexicon. A friend’s child, Margaret, who could not produce her R’s, would call him “Fwendy” instead of “Friendly”. Margaret, who would die at age six, would be immortalised as Wendy forever.
Actress Betty Bronson (center) stars in the silent film Peter Pan (1924)
Barrie later adapted the play into a book, called Peter and Wendy. In 1929, he gave the copyright for all the Peter Pan works to the Great Ormand Street Hospital, the main hospital in London. They continued to benefit from this to this day.
Jack Llewelyn-Davies, photographed by J.M. Barrie. The Llewelyn-Davies family visited his cottage at Black Lake and he put together a photo-book for the family entitled The Boy Castaways of Black Lake Island, 1901. There is one known copy is existence.
Barrie’s chief inspiration for the world of Peter Pan was his friends the Llewelyn-Davies family and their five children. He first met two of the children with their nanny whilst walking his St Bernard in Kensington Gardens. He would regale them with his stories and silly antics. Later that year, he met their mother Sylvia at a dinner party and soon became a regular fixture in the Llewelyn-Davies house and grew very close to them. He invented the character of Peter Pan to entertain the oldest boys, George and Jack, describing Peter as the “spark” he captured from all five boys. When their father Arthur died in 1907, Barrie became a de-facto father and supported them financially. Sylvia herself died a few years later in 1910, and entrusted in her Will that Barrie become the boy’s guardian along with several other family members. He raised them along with the boy’s nanny.
Barrie bowling in a cricket game
Barrie had a great many literary friends, including Robert Louis Stevenson, whom he corresponded with in Samoa for many years but never met, and George Bernard Shaw, who lived next door to him for a while. He was very close to H.G. Wells, who assisted him following the dissolution of his marriage. He was also a member of the Authors Cricket Club, playing alongside Arther Conan Doyle, P.G. Wodehouse and A.A. Milne.
The Peter Pan statue in Kensington Gardens
In 1914, a statue of Peter Pan was erected in Kensington Gardens, and it stands there still. Barrie was reportedly unhappy that the sculptor has chosen a different child to model for it rather than the real “Peter”, he didn’t believe it captured his essence.
He died at the age of 77 in Marlybone in 1937. St Paul’s Cathedral was set aside for his memorial service and over a thousands mourners turned up to his funeral in Forfareshire church. In 2005, The Great Ormond Street Hospital commissioned Geraldine McCaughrean to write a sequel called Peter Pan in Scarlet.
The little blocks that make up the mythology of Peter Pan were rooted in Barrie early on - the premature death of his favourite brother, a life fixed in childhood forever. A desperately unhappy marriage, but also the great love of his adopted family, the Llewelyn-Davies. Barrie’s other works prove he was an accomplished dramatist and skilled writer. But the Peter Pan stories revealed his soul and his deepest self - the anguish of growing up, the magic of childhood and adventure.
Finding Neverland (2004), starring Kate Winslet
Visit: The Arboretum, Nottingham