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J. M. Barrie

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James Matthew Barrie in 1890
James Matthew Barrie in 1890

Sir James Matthew Barrie, 1st Baronet, (May 9, 1860 – June 19, 1937) was a Scottish novelist and playwright. He is best remembered for creating Peter Pan, the boy who refused to grow up, whom he based on his real-life friends, the Llewelyn Davies boys. He is also credited with popularising the name Wendy, which was very uncommon before he gave it to the heroine of Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up. During his lifetime he was also well known for his other works, which include numerous successful novels and plays. He has been the subject of several biographies, both books and dramas.


Childhood and adolescence

Barrie was born in Kirriemuir, in the Scottish county of Angus, to a conservative Calvinist family. His father David Barrie was a modestly successful weaver. His mother Margaret Ogilvy (who followed the local custom of keeping her maiden name) had assumed her deceased mother's household responsibilities at the age of 8, making her a lifelong homemaker. Barrie was the ninth child of ten (two of whom died before he was born). The Barrie children were all schooled in at least the three Rs, both because the Barrie's believed in education, but also in preparation for possible professional careers for the boys. Jamie Barrie was a small child (he only grew to 5 feet 3.5 inches as an adult), and drew attention to himself with storytelling.

When he was 6 years old, Barrie's next-older brother David (his mother's favourite) died in an ice-skating accident, two days before his 14th birthday. This left their mother devastated, and Jamie tried to fill David's place in his mother's attentions, even wearing David's clothes and whistling in the manner that he had. One time he entered her room, and heard her say "Is that you?" "I thought it was the dead boy she was speaking to," wrote Barrie in his biographical account of his mother, Margaret Ogilvy (1896), "and I said in a little lonely voice, 'No, it's no' him, it's just me.'" Barrie's mother found comfort in the fact that her dead son would remain a boy forever, never to grow up and leave her. It has been speculated that this trauma induced psychogenic dwarfism, and was responsible for his short stature and apparently asexual adulthood, but the symptoms don't really fit: Barrie was short, but clearly a fully matured adult. As time went on, Barrie and his mother entertained each other with stories of her brief childhood and books such as Robinson Crusoe and The Pilgrim's Progress.

At the age of 8, Barrie was sent to the Glasgow Academy, in the care of his eldest siblings Alexander and Mary Ann, who taught at the school. When he was 10 he returned home and continued his education at the nearby Forfar Academy. At 13, he left home for Dumfries Academy, again under the watch of Alexander and Mary Ann. He became a voracious reader, and was fond of penny dreadfuls, and the works of Robert Michael Ballantyne and James Fenimore Cooper. At Dumfries he and his friends spent time in the garden of Moat Brae house, playing pirates "in a sort of Odyssey that was long afterwards to become the play of Peter Pan". They formed a drama club, producing his first play Bandelero the Bandit, which provoked a minor controversy following a scathing moral denunciation from a clergyman on the school's governing board.

Literary career

Barrie wished to pursue a career as an author, but was persuaded by his family — who wished him to have a profession such as the ministry — to enroll at the University of Edinburgh. There he wrote drama reviews for a local newspaper. He worked for a year and a half as a staff journalist in Nottingham following a job advertisement found by his sister in a newspaper. He returned to Kirriemuir, using his mother's stories about the town (which he renamed "Thrums") for a piece submitted to a paper in London. The editor didn't care for Barrie's follow-up submissions, but "liked that Scotch thing", so Barrie wrote a series of them, which served as the basis for his first novels: Auld Licht Idylls (1888), A Window in Thrums (1890), and The Little Minister (1891). Literary criticism of these early works has been unfavourable, tending to disparage them as sentimental and nostalgic depictions of a parochial Scotland far from the realities of the industrialised nineteenth century, but they were popular enough to establish Barrie as a very successful writer. His two "Tommy" novels, Sentimental Tommy (1896) and Tommy and Grizel (1900), were about a boy and young man who clings to childish fantasy, with an unhappy ending.

Meanwhile, Barrie's attention turned increasingly to works for the theatre, beginning with a biography about Richard Savage (performed only once, and critically panned). He immediately followed this with Ibsen's Ghost (1891), a parody of Henrik Ibsen's dramas Hedda Gabler and Ghosts (unlicensed in the UK until 1914), it had created a sensation at the time from a single private performance). The production of Barrie's play in London was seen by critic William Archer, the translator of Ibsen's works into English, who enjoyed the humour of the play and recommended it to others. Barrie also authored Jane Annie, a failed comic opera for Richard D'Oyly Carte (1893), which he begged his friend Arthur Conan Doyle to revise and finish for him. In 1901 and 1902 he had back-to-back successes: Quality Street, about a responsible "old maid" who poses as her own flirtatious niece to win the attention of a former suitor returned from the war; and The Admirable Crichton, a critically-acclaimed social commentary with elaborate staging, about an aristocratic household shipwrecked on a desert island, in which the butler naturally rises to leadership over his lord and ladies for the duration of their time away from civilisation.

The first appearance of Peter Pan came in a long section of The Little White Bird, which was serialised in the United States, then published in a single volume in the UK in 1901. Barrie's most famous and enduring work, Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up, had its first stage performance on December 27, 1904. This play introduced audiences to the name Wendy, which was inspired by a young girl, Margaret Henley, who called Barrie "friendy", but could not pronounce her Rs very well and so it came out as "fwendy". The play has been performed innumerable times since then, was developed by Barrie into the 1911 novel Peter and Wendy, and has been adapted by others into feature films, musicals, and more. The Bloomsbury scenes show the societal constraints of late Victorian middle-class domestic reality, contrasted with the Neverland, a world where morality is ambivalent. George Bernard Shaw's description of the play as "ostensibly a holiday entertainment for children but really a play for grown-up people", suggests deeper social allegories at work in Peter Pan. In 1929 Barrie specified that the copyright of the Peter Pan works should go to the nation's leading children's hospital, Great Ormond Street Hospital in London. The status of the copyright in modern times has been somewhat complex.

Barrie had a long string of successes on the stage after Peter Pan, many of which discuss social concerns. The Twelve Pound Look shows a wife divorcing a nobleman and gaining an independent income. Other plays, such as Mary Rose and a subplot in Dear Brutus revisit the image of the ageless child. Later plays included What Every Woman Knows (1908). His final play was The Boy David (1936), which dramatised the Biblical story of King Saul and the young David. Like the role of Peter Pan, that of David was played by a woman, Elisabeth Bergner, for whom Barrie wrote the play.

Barrie had considerable income from his work (especially Peter Pan). He used this to help finance the production of commercially unsuccessful stage productions. Along with a number of other playwrights, he was involved in the 1909 and 1911 attempts to challenge the censorship of the theatre by the Lord Chamberlain.


Barrie travelled in high literary circles, and in addition to his professional collaborators, he had many famous friends. Novelist George Meredith was an early social patron. He had a long correspondence with fellow Scot Robert Louis Stevenson, who lived in Samoa at the time, but the two never met in person. (Stevenson's Treasure Island was an influence on Peter Pan.) George Bernard Shaw was his neighbour for several years, and once participated in a Western that Barrie scripted and filmed. H. G. Wells was a friend of many years, and tried to intervene when Barrie's marriage fell apart. Barrie met Thomas Hardy through Hugh Clifford while he was staying in London.

After the First World War Barrie sometimes stayed at Stanway House in Gloucestershire, and paid for the pavilion at Stanway cricket ground. Barrie founded an amateur cricket team for his friends. Conan Doyle, Wells, and other luminaries such as Jerome K. Jerome, G. K. Chesterton, A. A. Milne, Walter Raleigh, A. E. W. Mason, E. V. Lucas, Maurice Hewlett, E. W. Hornung, P. G. Wodehouse, Owen Seaman, Bernard Partridge, Augustine Birrell, Paul du Chaillu, and the son of Alfred Tennyson played in the team at various times. The team was called the Allahakbarries, under the mistaken belief that Allah akbar meant Heaven help us in Arabic (rather than God is great).

Barrie befriended Africa explorer Joseph Thomson and Antarctica explorer Robert Falcon Scott. He was godfather to Scott's son Peter, and was one of the seven people to whom Scott wrote letters in the final hours of his life, following his successful – but doomed – expedition to the South Pole.

Barrie's close friend Charles Frohman, who was responsible for producing the debut of Peter Pan in both England and the U.S. and other productions of Barrie's plays, famously declined a lifeboat seat when the RMS Lusitania was sunk by a German U-boat in the North Atlantic, reportedly paraphrasing Peter Pan's famous line from the stage play, "To die will be an awfully big adventure."

He met and told stories to the young daughters of the Duke of York, who would later become Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Margaret.


Barrie became acquainted with actress Mary Ansell in 1891 when he asked his friend Jerome K. Jerome for a pretty actress to play a role in his play Walker, London. The two became friends, and she joined his family in caring for him when he fell very ill in 1893 and 1894. They married in Kirriemuir on July 9, 1894, shortly after Barrie recovered, and Mary retired from the stage. The wedding was a small ceremony in his parents' home in the Scottish tradition. In 1900 Mary found Black Lake Cottage, at Farnham, Surrey which became the couple's "bolt hole" where Barrie could entertain his cricketing friends and the Davieses.

The marriage was reportedly sexless and the couple had no children. Beginning in mid 1908, Mary had an affair with Gilbert Cannan (an associate of Barrie's in his anti-censorship activities), including a visit together to Black Lake Cottage, known only to the house staff. When Barrie learned of the affair in July 1909, he demanded that she end it, but she refused. To avoid the scandal of divorce, he offered a legal separation if she would agree not to see Cannan any more, but she still refused. Barrie sued for divorce on the grounds of infidelity, which was granted in October 1909.

Llewelyn Davies family

The Llewelyn Davies family played an important part in Barrie's literary and personal life. It consisted of the parents Arthur (1863–1907) and Sylvia (1866–1910) (daughter of George du Maurier), and their five sons: George (1893–1915), John (Jack) (1894-1959), Peter (1897–1960), Michael (1900–1921), and Nicholas (Nico) (1903–1980).

Barrie became acquainted with the family in 1897, meeting George and Jack (and baby Peter) with their nurse (nanny) Mary Hodgson in London's Kensington Gardens. He lived nearby and often walked his saint bernard Porthos in the park, and entertained the boys regularly with his ability to wiggle his ears and eyebrows, and with his stories. He did not meet Sylvia until a chance encounter at a dinner party in December. He became a regular visitor at the Davies household and a common companion to the woman and her boys, despite the fact that he and she were each married. In 1901, he invited the Davies family to Black Lake Cottage (both spouses also attending), where he produced an album of captioned photographs of the boys acting out a pirate adventure, entitled The Boy Castaways of Black Lake Island. Barrie had two copies made, one of which he gave to Arthur, who later misplaced it on a train. The only surviving copy is held at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University.

Arthur Llewelyn Davies died in 1907, and "Uncle Jim" became even more involved with the Davieses, providing financial support to them. (His income from Peter Pan and other works was easily adequate to provide for their living expenses and education.) Following Sylvia's death in 1910, Barrie claimed that they had been engaged to be married. Her will indicated nothing to that effect, but specified her wish for "J.M.B." to be trustee and guardian to the boys, along with her mother Emma du Maurier, her brother Guy du Maurier, and Arthur's brother Compton Llewelyn Davies. It expressed her confidence in Barrie as the boys' caretaker and her wish for "the boys to treat him (& their uncles) with absolute confidence & straightforwardness & to talk to him about everything." When hand-copying the will informally for Sylvia's family a few months later, Barrie inserted himself elsewhere: Sylvia had written that she would like Mary Hodgson, the boys' nurse, to continue taking care of them, and for "Jenny" (Hodgson's sister) to come and help her; Barrie instead wrote "Jimmy" (Sylvia's nickname for him). It's unclear what Barrie was thinking, since he was already accepted by everyone as their guardian; he may have simply misread it. In fact, Barrie and Hodgson never got along well, but they served as an odd couple of surrogate parents until the boys went to university and Jack was married.

Barrie also had friendships with other children, both before he met the Davies boys and after they had grown up, and there has since been speculation that Barrie was a paedophile, or that he engaged in child sexual abuse. However, there is no direct evidence of any such conduct, nor that he was suspected of it at the time. Nico, the youngest of the brothers, flatly denied that Barrie ever behaved inappropriately. "I don't believe that Uncle Jim ever experienced what one might call 'a stirring in the undergrowth' for anyone — man, woman, or child," he stated. On another occasion, he wrote, "All I can say is that I, who lived with him off and on for more than 20 years: who lived alone with him in his flat for five of these years: never heard one word or saw one glimmer of anything approaching homosexuality or paedophiliacy [sic] — had he had either of these leanings in however slight a symptom I would have been aware. He was an innocent — which is why he could write Peter Pan!" His relationships with the surviving Davies boys continued well beyond their childhood and adolescence, so his interest in them could not have been simply an attraction to their boyish attributes.

The statue of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, erected in secret overnight for May Morning in 1912, was supposed to be modeled upon old photographs of six-year-old Michael dressed as the character. However, the sculptor Sir George Frampton used a different child as a model, leaving Barrie disappointed with the result. "It doesn't show the devil in Peter," he complained.

Barrie suffered bereavements with the boys, losing the two to whom he was closest in their early twenties. George was killed in action (1915) in World War I. Michael, with whom Barrie corresponded daily while at boarding school and university, drowned (1921) with his friend and possible lover Rupert Buxton, at a known danger spot at Sandford Lock near Oxford, one month short of his 21st birthday. Some years after Barrie's death, Peter compiled what he called his Morgue from family letters and papers, interpolated with his own informed comments in his family and their relationship with Barrie.


Barrie died of pneumonia on June 19, 1937 and is buried at Kirriemuir next to his parents and two of his siblings. In a new will signed on his deathbed, he left the bulk of his estate (excluding the Peter Pan works, which he had previously given to Great Ormond Street Hospital) to his secretary Cynthia Asquith. His birthplace at 4 Brechin Road is maintained as a museum by the National Trust for Scotland.


Barrie was made a baronet in 1913; his baronetcy was not inherited. He was made a member of the Order of Merit in 1922. In 1919 he was chosen by the students to be Rector of the University of St Andrews for a three-year term, and he served as Chancellor of the University of Edinburgh from 1930 to 1937.

He has a school named after him in Wandsworth, South West London. The Barrie School in Silver Spring, Maryland, is also named in his honour.

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