Yesterday was the birthday of J.M. Barrie the author of Peter Pan (May 1860 to 19, June 1937). Barrie was instrumental to the creation of the myth of the eternal boy as a literary device and as a psychological metaphor. His creation so struck a chord that his “boy” would lend his name to an actual mental disorder. Barrie’s life was as interesting as his creation. His youth was marred by the early death of his brother, his mothers favorite son which many have instilled within the young James a seed that would flower as Peter Pan the boy who would never grow up. Indeed Barrie once commented that while he aged his brother David remained always a boy of 13.
As an adult Barrie found himself in a loveless and possibly unconsummated marriage to Mary Ansell which was dissolved in an effort to avoid scandal. His familial relations as well as his relations to friends has long been the source of speculation but none more so than his curious relationship to the Llewelyn Davies family, and especially to Sylvia Llewelyn Davies , the daughter of George du Maurier (Punch cartoonist and author of teh novel Trilby) and her children George, John, Peter, Michael and Nicholas. The father, Arthur died in 1907, an event which some scholars suggest played directly into Barries need to be the stage manager of the play that was other peoples real life. There is no doubt as to his need to be in control, but to exactly what extent is debatable. There can be no doubt as to closeness which Barrie had with his new adopted family, but the depth of that attachment has been debated. Some argue in Barrie’s favor, claiming that his interest was unselfish and pure. And indeed the surviving children never made any claims to suggest that the relationship with “Uncle Jim”, as they called him, was anything but proper. Nicholas went so far as to flatly refuse the accusations, which never circulated during Barrie’s lifetime. His critics conversely have accused him of being a sexual predator and master manipulator who beguiled a grieving Sylvia and her family into his circle of influence where he might exploit the children for “copy”, a word he used often in his diaries. This claim can be safely dismissed when held against the light of evidence but it still lingers and likely will never go way owing to Barrie’s affinity to children.
His fondness for children, especially boys was in much the same vein as Lewis Carroll’s fondness for “child friends” and both eagerly and actively surrounded themselves with their company. Regardless of the nature of sexuality or relations it is his literary creation which more than anything endures and will likely endire for a great while to come. It came at an important juncture, near the very end of an era popularly called the golden age of childrens literature. Golden ages, however can only be identified after the fact.
For Barrie, his creation stood on the precipice that seperated the world of the Victorians and Edwardians, which was in many ways a pinnacel age of nursuries and lazy summer afternoons (although this is an idealized truth far from the reality of most children) from the modern world that saw terrible global wars and the destruction of childhood innocence, especially in Great Britain. The first of these wars would claim the life of one of the very children whom Barrie surrounded himself with and who provided the inspiration for the lost boys; George Llewelyn Davies was killed in action in 1915. While only a few years later Michael drowned (possibly the result of a suicide pact) in the ill omened Sanford Pool near Oxford. Thus the man who gave the world Peter Pan, the only boy who could never grow up, himself grew up surrounded by the death of children for whom he was greatly fond.
Peter Pan was as a childrens book and a fairy tale, a nursury story and a work of philosophy but at its heart it was always a tragedy of youth and it is this which makes the story so powerful and enduring.