April 5, 1960, a 63-year-old man crossed London's Sloane Square,
walked into the underground station and threw himself under a train. "Barrie's
Peter Pan killed by London Subway Train" announced the New York
Times; "Peter Pan Commits Suicide" echoed Fleet Street - "The
Boy Who Never Grew Up Is Dead". It was the final indignation for
Peter Llewelyn Davies, a successful publisher who had been branded
`the real Peter Pan' all his life. Although his four brothers - George,
Jack, Michael and Nico - received similar notoriety, Peter suffered
the most, and came to loathe his association with what he termed "that
terrible masterpiece". In his dedication to the play, J M Barrie
claimed Peter Pan was an amalgam of all five Davies boys: "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." Undoubtedly the Davies boys had a profound influence
on Peter's creation - as did that creation on all of them - but his
true genesis began almost exactly one hundred years prior to Peter
Davies' death, in the small Scottish mill town of Kirriemuir, where
James Matthew Barrie was born on May 9, 1860.
For the first six years of his life, James Barrie lived in the shadow of his glorious elder brother, David. But on the eve of his fourteenth birthday, David was killed in a skating accident. Such was their mother's grief that the runtish little Barrie determined to replace the dead boy, trying to become so like him "that even my mother should not know the difference. But 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." If his mother derived a measure of consolation from the notion that David, in dying a boy, would remain a boy for ever, Barrie drew inspiration. As he later wrote, "Perhaps Peter Pan is just a boy who died young, and this is how the author conceived his subsequent adventures." But in his desperate attempt to replace David, Barrie virtually became David, arresting his own development at the age at which his brother had died. At 14 - and 5ft - he stopped growing; he did not start shaving until 24. Half a century later he privately confided in his notebook, "Long after writing P Pan its true meaning comes to me - desperate attempt to grow up, but can't." He made his perception more public in a parenthetical observation in the printed play of Peter Pan (1928):
MRS DARLING: Let me adopt you too! ...
PETER: I don't want to go to school and learn solemn things. No one is going to catch me, lady, and make me a man! I want always to be a little boy and to have fun.
(So perhaps Peter thinks, but it is only his greatest pretend.)It was a physical and psychological mutation that placed him in a no-man's land between childhood and maturity. When put to creative use, it gave him his unique perspective on life, and enabled him to conceive such plays as Quality Street (1901), The Admirable Crichton (1902), Dear Brutus (1917) and Mary Rose (1920). In private life it brought him loneliness, fame, frustration, and fortune. "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!"
By 1897, Barrie's reputation as a novelist and playwright was firmly established on both sides of the Atlantic. He had married the actress Mary Ansell in 1894, and although they had no children, Barrie already numbered several among his intimates. An early child-friend was the poet W E Henly's four-year-old daughter Margaret, who referred to Barrie as "my friendy". This coyness was compounded by a fashionable inability to pronounce her r's, and the word came out as "fwendy" or "wendy". Margaret died when she was six, but Barrie immortalized her in Peter Pan by christening his heroine Wendy, thus creating a new name.
Barrie's London home was only a short hop across the road from Kensington Gardens, where he was in the habit of walking his enormous St Bernard dog, Porthos. It was here that he first met George Llewelyn Davies - a spectacularly attractive five year old who strolled in the company of his younger brother Jack, their nurse Mary Hodgson, and their baby brother Peter. The attraction was mutual, for Barrie could wiggle his ears, perform magic feats with his eyebrows, and seemed to be remarkably well-informed on the subject of fairies, murders, cricket, pirates and desert islands. At a dinner party later that year, Barrie found himself sitting next to "the most beautiful creature I had ever seen." She was Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, daughter of the novelist George du Maurier and sister of the actor Gerald du Maurier (who would later become the first Captain Hook). Barrie learned that Sylvia was married to a young barrister, Arthur Llewelyn Davies, and had three sons: George, Jack, and a baby - Peter. Gradually the penny dropped.
Barrie's relationship with the Davies family, hitherto restricted to brief encounters with the boys in the Park, now became the focal point of his deepest emotional yearnings. The Loss of Innocence was no new theme to Victorian sensibilities: "Shades of the prison-house close in upon the growing boy" bemoaned Wordsworth, while Matthew Arnold - the government's Inspector of Schools - positively incited truancy in The Scholar-Gypsy: "Fly hence, our contact fear! / Still fly - plunge deeper in the bowering wood!" Even A E Housman, the greatest Latin scholar of his age, advised youth to "think no more - it's only thinking / Lays lads underground," echoed by Barrie's close friend Thomas Hardy in Jude The Obscure (1896): "If [Jude] could only prevent himself growing up! He did not want to be a man." Barrie himself had already explored the theme in his adult novel, Tommy and Grizel (1900):
Even Baudelaire was of a similar opinion: "Genius is childhood recaptured." Since Barrie also believed that "writing about a boy is the next best thing to being one," he soon began "flinging off the years and whistling childhood back" - with the help of the Davies boys. In a rare interview in 1915, he confided to the New York Times, "It was such fun telling them about themselves. I would say, `Then you came along and killed the pirate' and they would accept every word as the truth. That's how Peter Pan came to be written. It's funny that the real Peter Pan - I called George that - is off to the war now ..."
In the company of George and Jack, Barrie fulfilled his "finest dream in the world: that I am a boy again." The meetings, formerly restricted to Kensington Gardens, now infiltrated the Davies' nursery, where the dour little Scotsman treated the boys to a diet of deadpan humour and fairy stories with a distinctly amoral flavour. One of these stories began to focus on their baby brother Peter. According to Barrie, Peter would one day fly away to Kensington Gardens so as to remain a boy forever. Slowly Peter Davies became Peter Pan, a poor little half-and-half outcast, part mortal, part immortal, who lived with the fairies by day and roamed the Gardens after Lock-Out Time at night, digging graves for unfortunates who had fallen out of their prams. When children died, Peter accompanied them on their journey to a place that was to become the Never Never Land - a child's paradise, haven of the Lost Boys, abounding in pleasures designed to gratify a boy's appetite for bloodthirsty adventure. Such visions prompted George to speculate that "to die must be an awfully big adventure!" Barrie jotted down such remarks in his ubiquitous notebook, and began to weave them into a novel for adults, The Little White Bird (1902), in which a lonely bachelor meets a boy in Kensington Gardens. Together they invent the story of Peter Pan - not the Peter of the play, but a baby boy who lives on the island in the Serpentine. These Peter Pan chapters, which formed a story nested within the adult story, were later republished in 1906 as Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, illustrated by Arthur Rackham and bearing the prophetic dedication:
TO SYLVIA AND ARTHUR LLEWELYN DAVIES AND THEIR BOYS
In August 1901, Barrie invited the Davies family to spend their summer holiday at his wife's country house, Black Lake Cottage, near Farnham. The Black Lake itself provided an ideal setting in which to continue their exploits, which Barrie recorded with a camera. At the end of the holidays, he compiled the photos - with captions and chapter headings (à la Coral Island) - into a book, The Boy Castaways of Black Lake Island. The edition was limited to two copies, one of which he gave to the boys' father, who promptly lost it on a train - "doubtless Arthur's own comment on the whole fantastic affair" as Peter Davies later wrote. Although Peter Pan did not figure in the story, many of the other elements were present: a South Seas lagoon, Indians, and a band of cut-throat pirates led by the fiendish Captain Swarthy.
I’ll break off here and not give away the rest ... unless of course, you want to and find out the rest. If not, you can either read up on The Boy Castaways holiday in more detail in ’s 1941 version, ’s in-depth 1955 account, or my own retelling in in ) or go straight to the The Boy Castaways gallery itself (click the 'gallery' icon below).
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