J.M. Barrie and the Lost Boys: The Real Story Behind Peter Pan

J.M. Barrie and the Lost Boys: The Real Story Behind Peter Pan

by Andrew Birkin

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J. M. Barrie, Victorian novelist, playwright, and author of Peter Pan or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, led a life almost as magical and interesting as as his famous creation. Childless in his marriage, Barrie grew close to the five young boys of the Llewelyn Davies family, ultimately becoming their guardian and devoted surrogate father when they were orphaned. Andrew Birkin draws extensively on a vast range of material by and about Barrie, including notebooks, memoirs, and hours of recorded interviews with the family and their circle, to describe Barrie’s life and the wonderful world he created for the boys.

Originally published in 1979, this enchanting and richly illustrated account is reissued with a new preface to mark the release of Neverland, the film of Barrie’s life, and the upcoming centenary of Peter Pan.

“A psychological thriller . . . one of the year’s most complex and absorbing biographies.”—Gerald Clarke, Time

“A terrible and fascinating story.”—Eve Auchincloss, Washington Post

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300098228
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 07/11/2003
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 344
Sales rank: 649,545
Product dimensions: 6.25(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Andrew Birkin has written many screenplays, including The Name of the Rose with Alain Godard and The Story of Joan of Arc with Luc Besson. He is currently writing the script for Patrick Suskind’s Perfume.

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Yale University Press

Copyright © 2003 Special Trustees of Great Ormond Street hospital Children's Charity
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-300-09822-7

Chapter One

'On the day I was born we bought six hair-bottomed chairs, and in our little house it was an event', wrote Barrie in Margaret Ogilvy, a portrait of his mother and his own boyhood. Certainly his birth caused little stir in a family that already numbered two boys and four girls, but the implied poverty was an affectation adopted by Barrie in later life. His father, David Barrie, was a hand-loom weaver of more than average means, and the dominant priority in the Barrie household was one of fierce educational ambition rather than a struggle for survival. By the time James Barrie was six, that ambition had been partly realized. Alexander Barrie, the eldest son, had graduated from Aberdeen University with first-class honours in Classics, and had opened his own private school in Lanarkshire. The second son, David, was thirteen, and showed every sign of emulating Alexander's achievements; moreover he was tall, athletic, handsome and charming, the Golden Boy of his mother's eye. Margaret Ogilvy (who had retained her maiden name in accordance with an old Scots custom) was the driving force of the family, and all her hopes were focused on the aspiration that David would one day become a Minister. The six-year-old James was,by comparison, something of a disappointment. He showed no particular academic promise, nor did he possess his brother's looks. He was small for his age, rather squat, with a head too large for his body. In short, the runt of the family.

Until he was six, James Barrie lived in the shadow of David. But in January 1867, David was killed in a skating accident on the eve of his fourteenth birthday. Barrie was too young to remember the tragedy with any clarity, his chief memory being that of playing with his younger sister Maggie under the table on which stood David's coffin. For his mother, however, it was a catastrophe beyond belief, and one from which she never fully recovered. 'She was always delicate from that hour, and for many months she was very ill', wrote Barrie in Margaret Ogilvy. 'I peeped in many times at the door and then went to the stair and sat on it and sobbed.' Barrie's elder sister, Jane Ann, was quick to perceive the damaging effect that Margaret Ogilvy's protracted grief was having on her youngest son:

'This sister told me to go to my mother and say to her that she still had another boy. I went excitedly, but the room was dark, and when I heard the door shut and no sound come from the bed I was afraid, and I stood still. I suppose I was breathing hard, or perhaps I was crying, for after a time I heard a listless voice that had never been listless before say, "Is that you?" I think the tone hurt me, for I made no answer, and then the voice said more anxiously "Is that you ?" again. I thought it was the dead boy she was speaking to, and I said in a little lonely voice, "No, it's no' him, it's just me." Then I heard a cry, and my mother turned in bed, and though it was dark I knew that she was holding out her arms.

'After that I sat a great deal in her bed trying to make her forget him.... At first, they say, I was often jealous, stopping her fond memories with the cry, "Do you mind nothing about me?" but that did not last; its place was taken by an intense desire ... to become so like him that even my mother should not see the difference, and many and artful were the questions I put to that end. Then I practised in secret, but after a whole week had passed I was still rather like myself. He had such a cheery way of whistling, she had told me, it had always brightened her at her work to hear him whistling, and when he whistled he stood with his legs apart, and his hands in the pockets of his knickerbockers. I decided to trust to this, so one day after I had learned his whistle (every boy of enterprise invents a whistle of his own) from boys who had been his comrades, I secretly put on a suit of his clothes ... and thus disguised I slipped, unknown to the others, into my mother's room. Quaking, I doubt not, yet so pleased, I stood still until she saw me, and then-how it must have hurt her! "Listen !" I cried in a glow of triumph, and I stretched my legs wide apart and plunged my hands into the pockets of my knickerbockers, and began to whistle.

'She lived twenty-nine years after his death ... But I had not made her forget the bit of her that was dead; in those nine-and-twenty years he was not removed one day farther from her. Many a time she fell asleep speaking to him, and even while she slept her lips moved and she smiled as if he had come back to her, and when she woke he might vanish so suddenly that she started up bewildered and looked about her, and then said slowly, "My David's dead!" or perhaps he remained long enough to whisper why he must leave her now, and then she lay silent with filmy eyes. When I became a man ... he was still a boy of thirteen.'

If Margaret Ogilvy drew a measure of comfort from the notion that David, in dying a boy, would remain a boy for ever, Barrie drew inspiration. It would be another thirty-three years before that inspiration emerged in the shape of Peter Pan, but here was the germ, rooted in his mind and soul from the age of six.

When not acting out the role of his dead brother, Barrie would invent other parts for himself. Some were performed in amateur theatricals in his mother's wash-house; others in real life:

'When I was a very small boy, another as small was woeful because he could not join in our rough play lest he damaged the "mourning blacks" in which he was attired. So I nobly exchanged clothing with him for an hour, and in mine he disported forgetfully while I sat on a stone in his and lamented with tears, though I knew not for whom. It was this same vicarious curiosity, this 'devouring desire to try on other folk's feelings as if they were so many suits of clothes', that led the young James Barrie to question his mother about her own girlhood. 'Those innumerable talks with her made her youth as vivid to me as my own, and so much more quaint, for, to a child, the oddest of things, and the most richly coloured picture-book, is that his mother was once a child also.' Margaret Ogilvy had a captive audience of one as she unfolded the picture-book of her own childhood: 'She was eight when her mother's death made her mistress of the house and mother to her little brother, and from that time she scrubbed and mended and baked and sewed, ... then [rushed] out in a fit of childishness to play dumps or palaulays with others of her age.'

The story of Margaret Ogilvy's childhood expanded into other stories, told to her as a small girl: tales of the weaving community before the Industrial Revolution, of a Scotland long vanished and coloured by her memory. Many of these stories concerned the Auld Lichts, or Old Lights, a religious sect to which Margaret Ogilvy had belonged before her marriage. These tales, or Idylls, never failed to fire Barrie's imagination, and were, at a later date, to provide him with much of the source material for his articles and 'Thrums' novels. But it was the image of the substitute mother that was to take the deepest root: the memory of his own mother as a little girl, refashioned and remoulded into numerous heroines, epitomized as Wendy mothering the Lost Boys and Peter Pan in the Neverland. In Margaret Ogilvy, Barrie admitted with pride that 'I soon grow tired of writing tales unless I can see a little girl, of whom my mother has told me, wandering confidently through the pages. Such a grip has her memory of her girlhood had upon me since I was a boy of six.'

Barrie's sense of rejection and inferiority, suffered while in the shadow of David, was largely dispelled by his younger sister Maggie. She worshipped him, and her unswerving loyalty and devotion helped to restore in him a measure of self-confidence. Barrie's father, on the other hand, appears to have had little influence on his son's character and development. He is scarcely mentioned in any of Barrie's autobiographical writings, beyond a cursory reference to him in Margaret Ogilvy as 'a man I am very proud to be able to call my father', and it was left to his mother to fire the boy with an enthusiasm for literature:

'We read many books together when I was a boy, "Robinson Crusoe" being the first (and the second), and the "Arabian Nights" should have been the next, for we got it out of the library (a penny for three days), but on discovering that they were nights when we had paid for knights we sent that volume packing, and I have curled my lips at it ever since.... Besides reading every book we could hire or borrow I also bought one now and again, and while buying (it was the occupation of weeks) I read, standing at the counter, most of the other books in the shop, which is perhaps the most exquisite way of reading.'

Barrie also subscribed to various 'Penny Dreadfuls' the forerunners of adventure comics-which were, like the later Neverland, 'not large and sprawly ... with tedious distances between one adventure and another, but nicely crammed'. In addition to the staple diet of blood and thunder, pirates and desert islands, the penny comics contained serial characters, including a young girl who sold water-cress and bore a striking resemblance to 'that little girl, of whom my mother has told me'-the young Margaret Ogilvy:

'This romantic little creature took such hold of my imagination that I cannot eat water-cress even now without emotion. I lay in bed wondering what she would be up to in the next number; I have lost trout because when they nibbled my mind was wandering with her; my early life was embittered by her not arriving regularly on the first of the month. I know not whether it was owing to her loitering on the way one month to an extent flesh and blood could not bear, or because we had exhausted the penny library, but on a day I conceived a glorious idea, or it was put into my head by my mother, then desirous of making progress with her new clouty hearthrug. The notion was nothing short of this, why should I not write the tales myself? I did write them - in the garret - but they by no means helped her to get on with her work, for when I finished a chapter I bounded downstairs to read it to her, and so short were the chapters, so ready was the pen, that I was back with the new manuscript before another clout had been added to the rug.... They were all tales of adventure (happiest is he who writes of adventure), no characters were allowed within if I knew their like in the flesh, the scene lay in unknown parts, desert islands, enchanted gardens, with knights (none of your nights) on black chargers, and round the first corner a lady selling water-cress. ... From the day on which I first tasted blood in the garret my mind was made up; there could be no hum-dreadful-drum profession for me; literature was my game.'

At the age of thirteen, Barrie 'put the literary calling to bed for a time, having gone to a school where cricket and football were more esteemed'. His childhood was over. In Margaret Ogilvy he wrote:

'The horror of my boyhood was that I knew a time would come when I also must give up the games, and how it was to be done I saw not (this agony still returns to me in dreams, when I catch myself playing marbles, and look on with cold displeasure); I felt that I must continue playing in secret.'

For a man seemingly convinced that the end of boyhood is the end of life worth living - 'nothing that happens after we are twelve matters very much'-it comes as something of a surprise to find that he recalled his five years spent at Dumfries Academy as being the happiest of his life. But Barrie had Found a Way; moreover, there was no need for him to play in secret, for on the very first day at school he met another boy who shared his own appetite for high adventure. The boy's name, according to the school register, was Stuart Gordon:

'But that wasn't the name he was known by at school. He came up and asked me my name. I told him. It didn't seem to please him. He said, "I'll call you Sixteen String Jack." I asked his name, and he said it was Dare Devil Dick.'

Dare Devil Dick was one of the characters in the 'Penny Dreadful' comics so familiar to Barrie, a boy who had run away to sea and become a pirate. Gordon invited him to join his own pirate crew, and Barrie readily accepted:

'... when the shades of night began to fall, certain young mathematicians shed their triangles, crept up walls and down trees, and became pirates in a sort of Odyssey that was long afterwards to become the play of Peter Pan. For our escapades in a certain Dumfries garden, which is enchanted land to me, were certainly the genesis of that nefarious work. We lived in the tree-tops, on coconuts attached thereto, and that were in a bad condition; we were buccaneers and I kept the log-book of our depredations, an eerie journal, without a triangle in it to mar the beauty of its page. That log-book I trust is no longer extant, though I should like one last look at it, to see if Captain Hook is in it.'

Although Barrie was soon to develop an almost legendary shyness and reserve, there were few signs of this during his years at Dumfries. He quickly became immersed in school life, playing football for the Dumfries Academy XI, taking part in monthly recitations, the Debating Society, fishing expeditions and frequent visits to the local theatre:

'The theatre in Dumfries ... was the first I ever entered; so it is the one I liked best. I entered many times in my' school days, and always tried to get the end seat in the front row of the pit, which was also the front row of the house, as there were no stalls. I sat there to get rid of stage illusion and watch what the performers were doing in the wings.... Such doings led inevitably to the forming of a dramatic club at school for which I wrote my first play, "Bandelero the Bandit". No page of it remains, but though it played for less than half an hour it contained all the most striking scenes that boy had lapped up from his corner seat, and had one character (played by same boy) who was a combination of his favourite characters in fiction.'

In later life, Barrie often lamented that he had never written anything shocking, daring or harmful. His first dramatic effort, 'Bandelero the Bandit', was considered all of these by a clergyman who denounced it in the columns of a local newspaper as being a grossly immoral play. Barrie was, not unnaturally, delighted by the clergyman's attack, and he and his accomplice, Wellwood Anderson, wrote off to Sir Henry Irving and other theatrical personalities of the day, enlisting their support in the cause of the Dramatic Club. The splendour of the clergyman's vitriol, which ran to several columns, was only slightly marred by the newspaper's dramatic critic, who reviewed the play in more sober terms:

'Two awful villains, Gamp and Benshaw, were characters in Barrie's play "Bandelero the Bandit".


Excerpted from J. M. BARRIE & THE LOST BOYS by ANDREW BIRKIN Copyright © 2003 by Special Trustees of Great Ormond Street hospital Children's Charity. Excerpted by permission.
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