Today in Literary History – May 9, 1860 – “Peter Pan” author J.M. Barrie is born

J.M. Barrie, the playwright and novelist who created Peter Pan, “the boy who wouldn’t grow up,” was born on May 9, 1860 to a Scottish Calvinist family. Barrie had an eventful and in many ways a terribly sad life.

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Barrie was the ninth of 10 children. When he was 6 his next oldest brother, David, his mother’s favourite, died accidentally on the day before his 14th birthday.

His mother was inconsolable, but comforted herself with the belief that David would always remain pure and innocent to her and not be tainted by adult imperfections. Barrie did his best to replace David in his mother’s affections but always felt her rejection. To say the least, Barrie suffered from “mother issues” for most of his life.

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The first appearance of Peter Pan came in Barrie’s 1902 novel The Little White Bird. In the book Peter Pan is only a week old when he flies away from his family to live with the fairies who come out at night in Kensington Gardens in London and remains that age throughout.

Peter always thinks that he can return to his mother at any time, but when he tries to return a year or so later he finds that the windows are  barred and his mother is lavishing her attention on her newborn baby.

Kensington Gardens is important in Barrie’s story. He lived nearby and often walked his dog, Porthos, there. (Barrie was once described waggishly as “loving little boys and large dogs.”)

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It was there that he first met “the Llewlyn Davies boys,” the five sons of the sister of Gerald du Maurier, a very famous actor who had appeared in several of Barrie’s plays, including as the original Captain Hook in Peter Pan  (and also the father of novelist Daphne du Maurier, then a child herself).

Barrie became obsessed with the Llewlyn Davies brothers, spending most of his time playing with them and entertaining them with stories that eventually became his famous stage play about Peter, Wendy, Captain Hook, and The Lost Boys in 1904 and the novel in 1911.

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The play was an enormous success and made Barrie rich and famous. The boys’ father died in 1907 and their mother in 1910. Barrie, then 50 years old, falsified their mother’s handwritten will, changing “Jenny” to “Jimmy” (the name he was known by in the family) as her choice for guardian for the children.

Barrie looked after the boys’ material well-being and education, but as they grew older he became less interested in them. One of the brothers died in the First World War and two others committed suicide in adulthood.

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Barrie with four of the Llewelyn Davies boys (and the Duchess of Sutherland, their hostess at the time) later in life.

Barrie was married for 15 years, but the marriage was never consummated, an embarrassing fact that came out during a painful divorce.

Barrie’s relationship with the boys has been described by some as “morbid” and “creepy,” but to others it was innocent. Nicholas, the youngest of the brothers and the only one to survive into old age, said “I don’t believe that Uncle Jim ever experienced what one might call a stirring in the undergrowth for anyone — man, woman, adult or child. He was an innocent.”

Barrie died in 1937 at the age of 77.

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