Monday, May 10, 2010

Peter Pan: Still A Boy At 150

One Of Arthur Rackham's Illustrations For Peter Pan In Kensington Gardens (1906).

This was the first children's book about "The Boy Who Would Not Grow Up." It was essentially a reprint of five chapters from JM Barrie's novel for adults, Little White Bird (1902).

Few authors have inspired as much armchair Freudianism as JM Barrie, the Scottish creator of Neverland, and its most famous residents, Captain Hook, Tinker Bell, and Peter Pan. In celebration of what would have been his 150th year, The National Library of Scotland is hosting a May 2010 exhibit charting Barrie's life and career. The aim of the show is to display the rare treasures, including first editions, letters, and theatrical ephemera, found in the Edinburgh library's collections. But any display of Barrie's art inevitably leads to speculation about the talented and troubled man who produced it.

Sir James Matthew ('JM') Barrie, Baronet, by George Charles Beresford (1902).

(Image Courtesy Of The National Portrait Gallery, London.)

James Matthew Barrie was born on May 9, 1860 in the factory town of Kirriemuir. He was the ninth of ten children, two whom died in infancy. When Barrie was six his older bother David, who was two days shy of fourteen, died in a skating accident. His mother, Margaret, made no secret of the fact that David had been her favorite child. His death devastated her, and she comforted herself by saying her lost boy would forever remain a child, never to grow up, and never to leave his mother. Thus were the seeds of Peter Pan sown in James's boyhood brain.

Barrie spent his childhood obsessively attempting to replace his dead brother in his mother's affections, even going so far as to don David's clothes. But the enshrined memory of a favorite son was an impossible act for James to follow: "In those nine-and-twenty years she lived after his death he was not removed one day farther from her, for when I became a man... he was still a boy of 13." His competition with the sainted and forever young ghost was doomed. Barrie doted on his mother, and later wrote a fawningly adoring biography of her, to no avail. James became rich, famous, and a peer of the realm, but Mom always liked David best.

Barrie's Novel Tommy And Grizel (1900). It Predates Peter Pan, But It's Hero Is Also A Boy Who Won't Grow Up.

"Poor Tommy! He was still a boy, he was ever a boy, trying sometimes, as now, to be a man, [but] always when he looked round he ran back to his boyhood as if he saw it holding out its arms to him and inviting him to come back and play. He was so fond of being a boy that he could not grow up. What is genius? It is the power to be a boy again at will."

Barrie's boyhood misfortunes shaped a warped adult psyche, but did they also stunt his growth? There is speculation that the trauma induced in him a condition called "psychogenic dwarfism." This syndrome is brought on by severe childhood stress, and is marked by a low level of growth hormones. The result is a drastically reduced stature, and a lack of sexual maturity. Barrie's adult height is variously recorded as between 4 feet, 10 inches and 5 feet 3 1/2 inches. He fathered no children, began shaving only at age 24, and was reportedly completely asexual his entire life. His marriage, said to have been unconsummated, ended in divorce due to his wife's open infidelity. Barrie once confided in his private journal: "Long after writing P Pan its true meaning comes to me: desperate attempt to grow up, but can't."

The Llewelyn Davies Brothers In 1905, with their father, Arthur. Baby Nicholas is in his father's arms. Jack is to his father's right, Peter at center, George to his left, and Michael in the foreground.

Arthur, who never cared for Barrie, died of cancer in 1907. In his dedication to the brothers of the published script for Peter Pan (1928), Barrie wrote: "I clutch my brows in vain to remember whether the writing of the play was a last desperate throw to retain the five of you for a little longer, or merely a cold decision to turn you into bread and butter."

(Image Courtesy of Wikipedia.)

The most intense relationships of Barrie's life were formed with children. Specifically with the five Llewelyn Davies brothers, whom he adopted upon their parent's deaths. They were the original audience for, and inspiration of, his tales of Neverland. In his introduction to the stage version of Peter Pan, Barrie wrote to the boys: "I suppose I always knew that I made Peter by rubbing the five of you violently together, as savages with two sticks produce a flame. That is all Peter is, the spark I got from you." Sadly, Barrie's use of his adopted sons as kindling to ignite the flame of Peter Pan inevitably caused them to be burned.

The darkest take on the Llewelyn Davies boys and their relationship with their adoptive father, and one that seems wholly without merit, is that Barrie was a pedophile. While Barrie's love for the boys did border on the morbid, and was certainly obsessive and smothering, it was not sexual. The youngest of the brothers, Nicholas, told Barrie's biographer, Andrew Birkin: "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 was an innocent, which is why he could write Peter Pan."
In a replay of his mother's adoration of her son David, Barrie openly favored two of the boys, George and Michael, above the others. This led to a lifelong resentment towards Barrie by Jack, the second eldest brother. But Jack at least escaped Barrie's influence relatively unscathed. The same could not be said of Michael, nor of the boy who gave Barrie's most famous character his name, Peter.

A Report Of Michael's Death From The Daily Sketch, A British Tabloid.
The caption mentions both Barrie and Peter Pan.
(Image Courtesy Of Wikipedia.)

Michael drowned at age 20, found clinging to the body of another boy, said to have been his lover, in a pond near the University of Oxford. Both Barrie, who later said the incident "was in a way the end of me," and Nicholas Llewelyn Davies, believed the deaths resulted from a suicide pact. Middle child Peter lived his entire life in the shadow of his literary namesake. He so despised being known worldwide as, "the real Peter Pan," that he referred to Barrie's work as "that terrible masterpiece." His adult life was marked by unhappy relationships and alcoholism, and he threw himself under a train just a month shy of the centennial of Barrie's birth. (In a death that had nothing to do with Barrie's influence, the oldest of the bothers, George, died at 21, shot in the head at the World War I Battle of Flanders.)

Peter Presides Over The Paradise Of Neverland.
Illustration by F.D. Bedford For the 1911 American Edition.

"I don't want to go to school and learn solemn things. No one is going to catch me...and make me a man! I want always to be a little boy and to have fun."
(Image Courtesy Of Wikipedia.)

JM Barrie's life in his own private twilight zone between boyhood and manhood made it impossible for him to form healthy adult relationships. But it also allowed him to create one of the most enduring characters in children's literature. Barrie himself always maintained that Peter Pan was a story for adults, and was all too aware of its genesis in his own mental and physical immaturity. In a rare admission of melancholy he noted in his diary: "Six foot three inches...if only I had really grown to this, I would not have bothered turning out reels of printed matter. Read that with a bitter cry!"


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