J.M. Barrie and Peter Pan
As the ninetheenth century merged into the twentieth, The Sorrows of Young Werther lost favor. The young man held powerfully in thrall of his child-spirit was no longer an appealing, or even recognizable, figure in the larger culture. Spirited boys continued to be rendered, and rendered well, in literature by great masters like Dickens and Twain, but Pip and Oliver, Tom and Huck, bore no relation to the tortured and tremulous figure of Werther. The preferred trajectory of boys on the brink of manhood was up and out into the actual fray of worldly affairs, not a dreamy return to the wonders and sweetness of prior light. Boys on the brink of manhood, many of them unschooled naturals, were spirited enough, but they were determined to make their way, succeed or fail, live or die, in the world in which they found themselves. The favored stories thrust vulnerable boys into challenging and even life threatening situations through which they negotiated with tragic or heroic consequences. Some, like Tom and Huck and Kipling’s Stalky, were inspired rascals, but even in their aversion to established propriety, they were geniuses of practical accommodation; they knew how to get around.
In the decades spanning Queen Victoria’s coronation and the outbreak of the First World War, British stories of boys coming of age were set in distinctive schools, schools in which the remote expectations of the teaching masters bore less on a boy’s daily life than did the infrastructure of an exacting, often lawless boy-code. In tales ranging from Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s Schooldays through Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That boys endured painful beatings, harsh privations, and injustices—all of it far removed from maternal nurturance and domestic comfort of any kind—as a crucible of effective manhood. The boyhood passage was a test, and while tough and spirited boys like Tom Brown ultimately pass the test, it was quite possible to fail, as the handsome and promising Eric Williams failed in Frederic W. Farrar’s cautionary classic, Eric, or Little by Little. These stories held the promise, as did Horatio Alger’s American stories of determined orphan boys rising through their own determination to great wealth, that boy-energy rightly channeled led to worldly success—along with the unexamined assumption that in such success lay all the satisfaction a boy could hope for.
But against the backdrop of this procession of stories in which plucky or lucky boys made their way in a rough-and-tumble world, there was first a stirring and then a full flowering of an altogether different kind of story. These were stories told both for and about children, stories that wanted nothing to do with the waking, working world. Humphrey Carpenter, in surveying the profusion of children’s literature composed between Victoria’s reign and the Great War, calls the entire enterprise “a secret garden,” after Frances Hodgson Burnett’s l911 book by that name. The landmark books that appeared in this vein were indeed about enchanted arcadian places discovered by solitary and especially dreamy children. These secret places included the underwater world entered by the presumably drowned chimney sweep in Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies, the Kingdom of Oz in Frank Baum’s Oz books, Alice’s Wonderland, the lovely riverbank and wood of Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, the three-acre wood of A.A. Milne’s Christopher Robin and Pooh, and of course J.M. Barrie’s Neverland.
The boys in these stories do not seek to grow up into productive young men. They are not strengthened and improved by hardship; they are sustained by wonder and delight. James Matthew Barrie (1860-1937) was arguably a boy in spirit his entire life, but he was in his thirties when he conceived of the character Peter Pan and in his forties when he wrote Peter into the script of his famous play (1904). The inspiration for Peter and the other children in the play were derived directly from children Barrie knew and loved. The prototype may have been Barrie’s older brother, David, who died tragically in a skating accident when he was thirteen and James six. David’s death sank their mother into a grief from which she never fully recovered. Barrie recalled as a boy dressing in his late brother’s clothes to try, without success, to lift his mother’s spirits. David Barrie would represent vividly for his six-year-old-brother the boy who never grew up.
In a number of striking ways J.M. Barrie never grew up himself. Born into a large family of Scots weavers, he became as a young man a phenomenally successful novelist (Sentimental Tommy, The Little Minister) and playwright (The Admirable Crichton, Quality Street, Peter Pan). A good friend to the most admired writers of his day, including George Bernard Shaw, Arthur Conan Doyle and H.G. Wells, he was unassuming and unsmiling in his personal manner, but given to sudden whimsical utterances. In the course of an early conversation with the great Wells, he is reported to have remarked, “It is all very well to write books, but can you waggle your ears?” At full maturity Barrie stood at five feet.
Barrie’s sexless, childless marriage to the actress Mary Ansell ended in divorce. His most intimate, apparently chaste, relationships were with the married Sylvia Llewelyn-Davies and her five boys whom Barrie met and befriended in the course of walking his dog in Kensington Gardens. After a few years of their acquaintance, Arthur Llewelyn-Davies, the boys’ father died, and when, just three years later, Sylvia died as well, Barrie served as personal and financial guardian for all five boys through their maturity. Barrie claimed to derive the character of Peter Pan from the Llewelyn-Davies boys and once told them, “I made Peter by violently rubbing the five of you together, as savages with two sticks produce a flame. That is all he is, the spark I got from you.” (Yeoman,71) There is no indication of any kind that Barrie’s interest in the boys was in any way sexual or pathological. With one of the sons, Michael, Barrie corresponded daily, until Michael’s death, probably a suicide drowning in Oxford when Michael was twenty. Long after Barrie’s death, in 1979, the youngest Llewelyn-Davies son, Nicholas, wrote to a biographer, “I never heard one word or saw one glimmer of anything approaching homosexuality or paedolphilia: 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.” (Yeoman 147)
Mainly what Barrie liked to do with the Llewelyn-Davies boys was play. He liked to scuffle about on the grass and, when they boys were younger, dress up with them in American Indian outfits and play out imagined adventures. He liked to preside over standard outdoor games, improvise hikes and fishing trips. Later in life, the middle Llewelyn-Davies son Peter would recall that Barrie’s emphasis with him and his brothers was “on the lighter side of life,” not “culture.”
Despite his extraordinary literary success, Barrie was never a notably happy man. He periodically fell into debilitating bouts of headache and depression. While he never succeeded in restoring his mother to good spirits after his brother David’s death, he remained devoted to her. He fell in love with a series of beautiful actresses, in addition to his wife, and perhaps loved Sylvia Llewelyn-Davies most deeply of all, but the affection he felt was kept largely to himself. He once wrote a jocular account of being forever out of young women’s romantic consideration because of his diminutive height and stature; a man like himself, he concluded, could never be considered sufficiently “dangerous.” He had a gift for male friendship and for imaginative play, but he spent a great deal of time alone. He was throughout his life a self-deprecating man, a cipher. The man who once said famously, “Nothing that happens after we are twelve matters very much,” did not outwardly rebel against the cultural requirements of growing up. He managed his financial and other adult responsibilities overall conservatively and responsibly. But the slight, dark little man who would go on to be knighted and a much beloved figure in British national life was always something of a boy in man’s clothing. He was perhaps resigned that boys—nearly all boys—grow up, but the possibility of an exception infused him with an unusual vitality.
The novel Peter Pan begins with the declaration, “All children, except one, grow up.” The exception here is everything, and he is Peter Pan. Peter tells Wendy that he ran away from his mother and father the day he was born because he overheard them talking about what he would become when he became a man. For a time he hid away and played with the fairies in Kensington Gardens but then, because he was able to fly, made his way beyond the stars to Neverland, a verdant and teeming place peopled with pirates and red Indians and mermaids and fairies. In time Peter is joined in Neverland by a band of lost boys, infants who had fallen out of their prams and were lost by their nannies. There are no lost girls in the band because, as Peter later explains to Wendy, girls are too clever to fall out of their prams.
Neverland is almost but not quite sufficient as a superior reality for Peter; it lacks only a mother. This mother-need is not, for Barrie, a flaw in Peter as an embodiment of puer aeternus. Some kind of mother-need is, rather, an essential part of Peter’s nature, because he is a true boy, not a man-in-progress; boys have and need mothers. In the opening chapter of the story, “Peter Breaks Through,” Peter permeates the barrier between the magical confines of Neverland and real England in order to fill the mother-need in the figure of Wendy Darling, an upper middle class girl in the pre-adult flowering of her girlhood.
Neverland, like Oz and other enchanted alternative worlds evoked during this period, bears some resemblance to its characters’ real world, in this case late Victorian England. Peter’s arch enemy, the gaff-handed pirate, Captain James Hook, has, for instance, attended a good boarding school and, although otherwise bent on menacing deeds, is preoccupied with matters of “good form.” But unlike Frank Baum, whose Oz books offered substantial social commentary on American life in the Progressive Era, Neverland is not a corrected England; it is the right and only world for Peter, for a real boy. In this world a mother may be periodically desirable, but she must be a Neverland mother, a girl-mother, someone who shimmers with maternal femininity and nurturance, but who does not actually restrict or in any way shape a boy’s spirited behavior. In Wendy Peter sought and found what the much older Werther sought but only partially found in Lotte. Wendy is a kind of comfort and delight for Peter, but she is not quite essential to him or to Neverland. When after many adventures Peter guides Wendy and her brothers and the lost boys back to the Darlings’ house in London, he alone among his band refuses adoption and returns to Neverland. He pledges to return for Wendy annually, which will mean a spell of renewed child-life for her and a touch of motherly domesticity—“spring cleaning”— for him, but Peter has a boy’s porous memory and for years on end forgets to come. In the interim Wendy grows up and becomes a mother and then a grandmother, but Peter is forever boy, as he alone has the child’s gift, as Barrie put it in the book’s final sentence, of being “gay and innocent and heartless.”
Peter is heartless in that he is holds his inalienable boy-spirit above even the sweetest particular attachments. He is forever drawn to Wendy, but not to the temporal, mutable Wendy who will grow up. Peter, except when he forgets, will return for Wendy in the form of her daughter and then her granddaughter and on into an infinity of thrilling new adventures and play. In this sense the enchantment carried by the figure of Peter Pan does not lie in the familiar story reenacted on stages and screens and inscribed in books. The enchantment lies, rather, in Peter’s invigorating capacity for imaginative renewal, his constancy in inconstancy. He is “heartless” in that he is bound by no sentimental or moral obligation. On the initial flight from London to Neverland, Wendy’s brother Michael drops off to sleep and nearly plummets fatally into shark-infested seas. Wendy cries for Peter to save him. Teasingly, Peter is slow to intervene: “…it was lovely the way he did it; but he always waited till the last moment, and you felt it was his cleverness that interested him and not the saving of human life.” (PP,57)
Years later when Wendy has been restored to her family in London and Peter’s formerly lost boys have been adopted by the Darlings and are now proceeding through school, Peter returns to the Darling nursery. Wendy excitedly asks him about the old things. She tries to reminisce about their nearly fatal encounter with Captain Hook, an adventure that concluded with Peter’s turning the tables and sending Hook to his death in the jaws of the crocodile who had earlier taken his hand. Peter is bewildered. He has forgotten Hook. “I forget them after I’ve killed them,” he tells her.
Peter charms and enchants because he is indomitable and resilient, not because he is naïve or cute or good. It is tempting to say that he is not altogether lovable, but he is profoundly lovable. Peter is hated only by Hook, and the chief reason is Peter’s irrepressible “cockiness.” He won’t defer, to grownups or to anyone else. Wendy loves him, as does her wistful mother and, later, Wendy’s offspring. Perhaps the deepest yet most seldom articulated response to the figure of Peter Pan on the part of audiences and readers is that one loves and longs for him. Peter is lovable, but he cannot be possessed.
Because of his utterly uncompromised embodiment of boy-spirit and Barrie’s remarkable skill in evoking that spirit, Peter Pan continues to invigorate and trouble those who encounter him more than a century after the play’s debut. Steven Spielberg and John Schumacher have revisited the condition of lost boys with great artistic seriousness in two very different films, Hook (1991) and Lost Boys (1987). Even more recently, Marc Forster’s Finding Neverland (2004) explores the relationships between Barrie and Sylvia Llewelyn-Davies and her sons in order to indentifiy the psychological source of the characters in Peter Pan. The deepening relationship between Barrie and the Llewelyn-Davies mother and sons is touchingly enacted in the film, but the film succeeds even more surely in suggesting the transformative power of fantasy and play in real boys’ lives.
Again, Barrie served faithfully as guardian to the Llewelyn-Davies boys after their parents died. Along the way he watched them grow up and begin to make their adult accommodations. There is no indication that he unduly tried to shape their futures or influence their practical or vocational choices. He was devastated when the oldest boy, George, was killed at the front in the First World War and again when the fourth boy, Michael, drowned at Oxford. Barrie knew the boys would grow up, and he continued to care for them personally as they did so. One cannot know with certainty, but one suspects the quality he most hoped to see alive in his adopted charges was the sheer belief in the liberating capacity of imagination and play.
There is a reliably emotional moment in every performance of Peter Pan in which Peter’s sidekick fairy Tinkerbell hovers between life and death. At this point Peter enjoins the audience directly to affirm their belief in fairies by clapping their hands. Invariably the children—and others—mount a crescendo of applause, and Tinkerbell lives. In a preface to an edition of his plays, Barrie recounted an episode while fishing with Michael when the boy was twelve, on the cusp between uninhibited childhood and guarded adolescence. Barrie asks Michael who, at that very moment, Michael would most like to see.
‘ “Of course,” said Michael, “I would most like to see Johnny Mackay.”
“Well then, wish for him.”
“It can’t do any harm to wish.”
‘Contemptuously he wished, and as the ropes were thrown on the pier he saw Johnny waiting for him, loaded with angling paraphernalia. I know no one less like a fairy than Johnny Mackay, but for two minutes Michael was quivering in another world than ours. When he came to, he gave me a smile which meant we understood each other, and thereafter neglected me for a month, being always with Johnny…’(Yeoman 148)
It was Barrie’s singular gift to be able to make people quiver in another world than ours—even while standing squarely in the latter. Barrie had known that kind of elevation, that transcendence himself. He had known it when he was a boy, and he could sense it in the boys he came to know and befriend when he was a man. Boys may grow up, and the world may work on, but as long as there is just one who does not, then the membrane between the golden world and the working world is still permeable—a boy like Peter, or Michael for that matter, could still “break through.”