Today is the birthday (1860) of Sir James Matthew Barrie, 1st Baronet, OM, Scottish author and dramatist, the child of a family of small-town weavers, and best remembered today as the creator of Peter Pan. Barrie was born in Kirriemuir, Angus, to a conservative Calvinist family. His father, David Barrie, was a modestly successful weaver. His mother, Margaret Ogilvy, had assumed her deceased mother’s household responsibilities at the age of eight. Barrie was the ninth child of ten (two of whom died before he was born), all of whom were schooled in at least the three Rs, in preparation for possible professional careers. His siblings were; Alexander (1842 – 16 July 1914), Mary Ann (1845–1918), Jane (14 March 1847 – 31 August 1895), Elizabeth (12 March 1849 – 1 April 1851), Agnes (23 Dec 1850–1851), David Ogilvy (30 January 1853 – 29 January 1867), Sarah (3 June 1855 – 1 November 1913), Isabella (4 January 1858 – 1902) and Margaret (9 July 1863 – 1936). He was a small child (he grew to only 5 ft 3 ½ in. ), and drew attention to himself with storytelling. When he was 6 years old, Barrie’s next-older brother David (his mother’s favourite) died two days before his 14th birthday in an ice-skating accident. This left his mother devastated, and Barrie tried to fill David’s place in his mother’s attentions, even wearing David’s clothes and whistling in the manner that he did. One time Barrie 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. Eventually 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 Forfar Academy. At 14, 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.
Barrie wished to follow a career as an author, but was dissuaded by his family who wanted him to have a profession such as the ministry. With advice from Alec, he was able to work out a compromise: he was to attend a university, but would study literature. He enrolled at the University of Edinburgh, where he wrote drama reviews for the Edinburgh Evening Courant. He graduated and obtained an M.A. on 21 April 1882.
He worked for a year and a half as a staff journalist on the Nottingham Journal following a job advertisement found by his sister in The Scotsman, then returned to Kirriemuir, using his mother’s stories about the town (which he renamed “Thrums”) for a piece submitted to the newspaper St. James’s Gazette in London. The editor ‘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). The stories depicted the “Auld Lichts”, a strict religious sect that his grandfather had once belonged to. Literary criticism of these early works has been unfavorable, tending to disparage them as sentimental and nostalgic depictions of a parochial Scotland far from the realities of the industrialized nineteenth century, but they were popular enough to establish Barrie as a successful writer. After the success of the “Auld Lichts”, he printed Better Dead (1888) privately and at his own expense, and it failed to sell. 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 theater, beginning with a biography of Richard Savage and written by both himself and H.B. Marriott Watson (performed only once, and critically panned). He immediately followed this with Ibsen’s Ghost (or Toole Up-to-Date) (1891), a parody of Henrik Ibsen’s dramas Hedda Gabler and Ghosts The production of the play at Toole’s Theatre in London was seen by William Archer, the translator of Ibsen’s works into English, who enjoyed the humor of the play and recommended it to others.
Barrie also wrote 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 civilization. As a boy the movie version of this play was a favorite.
Peter Pan first appeared in his novel The Little White Bird, published in the UK by Hodder & Stoughton in 1902, and serialized in the U.S. in the same year in Scribner’s Magazine. Barrie’s more famous and enduring work, Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, had its first stage performance on 27 December 1904. This play introduced audiences to the name Wendy, which was inspired by a young girl, Margaret Henley, who called Barrie ‘Friendy’; she could not pronounce her Rs very well and so it came out as ‘Fwendy’. It has been performed innumerable times since then, and was developed by Barrie into the 1911 novel Peter and Wendy. It has since been adapted into feature films, musicals, and more. The Bloomsbury scenes show the societal constraints of late Victorian and Edwardian middle-class domestic reality, contrasted with Neverland, a world where morality is ambivalent. George Bernard Shaws described the play as “ostensibly a holiday entertainment for children but really a play for grown-up people.”
Barrie had a long string of successes on the stage after Peter Pan, many of which discuss social concerns. The Twelve Pound Look concerns a wife divorcing a peer and gaining an independent income. Other plays, such as Mary Rose and a subplot in Dear Brutus, revisit the idea of the ageless child. Later plays included What Every Woman Knows (1908). His final play was The Boy David (1936), which dramatized 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 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 helped his family to care for him when he fell very ill in 1893 and 1894. They married in Kirriemuir on 9 July 1894, shortly after Barrie recovered, and Mary retired from the stage; but the relationship was reportedly unconsummated, and the couple had no children. The marriage 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 hideaway where Barrie could entertain his cricketing friends and the Llewelyn Davieses (below). 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. A few of Barrie’s friends, knowing how painful the divorce was for him, wanted to avoid bad press. They wrote to newspaper editors asking them not to publish the story (only three papers did).
The Llewelyn Davies family played an important part in Barrie’s literary and personal life, consisting of Arthur (1863–1907), 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 dog Porthos in the park. He 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. She told Barrie that Peter had been named after the title character in her father’s play, Peter Ibbetson. Barrie became a regular visitor at the Davies household and a common companion to the woman and her boys, despite the fact that both he and she were married to other people. In 1901, he invited the Davies family to Black Lake Cottage, 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 misplaced it on a train. The only surviving copy is held at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University.
The character of Peter Pan was invented to entertain George and Jack. Barrie would say, to amuse them, that their little brother Peter could fly. He claimed that babies were birds before they were born; parents put bars on nursery windows to keep the little ones from flying away. This grew into a tale of a baby boy who did fly away. Arthur Llewelyn Davies died in 1907, and “Uncle Jim” became even more involved with the Davies family, 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 recently 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, her brother Guy du Maurier, and Arthur’s brother Compton. 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 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” (referring to Hodgson’s sister) to come and help her; Barrie instead wrote “Jimmy” (Sylvia’s nickname for him). Barrie and Hodgson did not get along well, but served together as surrogate parents until the boys were grown.
Barrie suffered bereavements with the boys, losing the two to whom he was closest in their early twenties. George was killed in action in 1915, in World War I. Michael, with whom Barrie corresponded daily while at boarding school and university, drowned in 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 his Morgue from family letters and papers, interpolated with his own informed comments on his family and their relationship with Barrie. Peter committed suicide by throwing himself in front of a train shortly after completing the work.
Barrie died of pneumonia on 19 June 1937 and was buried at Kirriemuir next to his parents and two of his siblings. 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.
Here is an excerpt about food from Peter Pan and Wendy:
I suppose it was all especially entrancing to Wendy, because those rampagious boys of hers gave her so much to do. Really there were whole weeks when, except perhaps with a stocking in the evening, she was never above ground. The cooking, I can tell you, kept her nose to the pot, and even if there was nothing in it, even if there was no pot, she had to keep watching that it came aboil just the same. You never exactly knew whether there would be a real meal or just a make-believe, it all depended upon Peter’s whim: he could eat, really eat, if it was part of a game, but he could not stodge [cram down the food] just to feel stodgy [stuffed with food], which is what most children like better than anything else; the next best thing being to talk about it. Make-believe was so real to him that during a meal of it you could see him getting rounder.
I can’t imagine that the Lost Boys were stodging on things that were “good for them.” I’m thinking more in terms of pies and cakes, but maybe Wendy had some influence. She was cast by Barrie as a surrogate mother for them (which they liked), but which comes across as rather sexist these days. In any case I’m going to give a good and stodgy recipe.
Peter Pan® Is a well known peanut butter company, so peanut butter seems like a fitting starting point. I’ll admit right up front that I have a hard time with peanut butter. My mother made me nothing but peanut butter sandwiches to take to school for lunch when I was in primary school, and after that I developed a strong aversion. 45 years later I found I could tolerate it in small doses once in a while in things where it was not the main ingredient.
Here’s Peter Pan®’s recipe page which includes sweet and savory dishes for you to leaf through.
Here’s an old standby that kids love along with the classic PB&J (which my son still stodges down at age 23).
Peanut Butter and Banana Sandwich
Toast two pieces of dark bread. Slather both pieces with peanut butter and then cover one side with thickly sliced bananas. Top with other slice, dust with powdered sugar and a little cinnamon, and slice in two diagonally.