Sir James Matthew Barrie, 1st Baronet, OM (9 May 1860 – 19 June 1937), more commonly known as J. M. Barrie, was a Scottish novelist and dramatist. Most people remember him for inventing the character of Peter Pan, whom he based on his friends, the Llewelyn Davies boys.
Born in Kirriemuir, Angus the second-youngest of ten children, Barrie received his formal education at Dumfries Academy and the University of Edinburgh. He became a journalist in Nottingham then in London and became a novelist and subsequently a playwright.
Made a baronet in 1913, Barrie lies buried at Kirriemuir next to his parents, sister, and elder brother David who had died in a skating accident just before his 14th birthday.
Barrie set his first novels in Kirriemuir which he referred to as "Thrums" (his father worked as a weaver). Barrie often wrote dialogue in Scots. He subsequently wrote for the theatre including Quality Street (1901), What Every Woman Knows (1908), and The Admirable Crichton (1902). His last play, The Boy David (1936), dramatized the Biblical story of King Saul and the young David. Like the role of Peter Pan the role of David was played by a woman — Elisabeth Bergner.
His Thrums novels were hugely successful when they were published starting with Auld Licht Idylls (1888). Next came A Window in Thrums (1889), and The Little Minister (1891). His two 'Tommy' novels Sentimental Tommy and Tommy and Grizel came in 1896 and 1902 and dealt with themes much more explicitly related to what would become Peter Pan. The first appearance of Pan came in The Little White Bird (1901).
In 1891 Barrie wrote Ibsen's Ghost, a parody of Henrik Ibsen's drama Ghosts which had just been performed for the first time in England under the Independent Theatre Society led by J. T. Grein. Barrie's play was first performed on May 31 at Toole's Theatre in London. Barrie seemed to appreciate Ibsen's merits; even William Archer, the translator of Ibsen's works into English, enjoyed the humor of the play and recommended it to others.
Peter Pan had its first stage performance on 27 December 1904. In 1924 he specified that the copyright of the play should go to Great Ormond Street Hospital in London. The current status of the copyright is complex. See Peter Pan Copyright Status.
Barrie, along with a number of other playwrights, was involved in the 1909 and 1911 attempts to challenge the censorship of the Lord Chamberlain over play production in London.
Barrie and his Acquaintances
Barrie, Arthur Conan Doyle and Robert Louis Stevenson were acquaintances from university. The three of them attended Edinburgh University and they also worked for the college newspaper. J.M. Barrie met Thomas Hardy through Hugh Clifford while he was staying in London.
The Llewelyn Davies family
The Llewelyn Davies family consisted of the parents Arthur (1863–1907) and Sylvia, née Du Maurier (1866–1910) (daughter of George du Maurier), and their five sons George Llewelyn-Davies (1893–1915), Jack Llewelyn-Davies or Jack (1894-1959), Peter Llewelyn-Davies (1897–1960), Michael Llewelyn-Davies (1900–1921), and Nicholas Llewelyn-Davies or Nico (1903–1980).
Barrie became acquainted with the family in 1897 or 1898 after meeting George and Jack with their nurse Mary Hodgson in London's Kensington Gardens where he often came while walking his dog Porthos, and lived nearby. He did not meet Sylvia until later at a chance encounter at a dinner party.
He became a surrogate father to the boys, and when they were orphaned, he became their guardian. Some sources say that their mother's will specified the nurse's sister was to take custody and that Barrie forged or unintentionally mistranscribed the will. However, it was clear that he was the only one with the time and resources to bring them up together, and Sylvia objected to splitting the boys up amongst relatives.
Although some people may find his friendship with children suspicious there does not seem to be any evidence that anything inappropriate happened and the youngest of the boys Nico flatly denied that Barrie ever behaved inappropriately. Barrie was married to the actress Mary Ansell but it was a sexless and childless marriage and ended in divorce. He was godfather to Peter Scott.
The statue of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, erected in secret overnight for May Morning in 1912, was supposed to be modelled upon a photograph of Michael, but the sculptor decided to use a different child as a model, leaving Barrie very disappointed with the result. "It doesn't show the devil in Peter", he said.
Barrie suffered bereavements with the boys, losing the two to whom he was closest. George was killed in action (1915) in World War I. Michael, with whom Barrie corresponded daily, drowned (1921) in a possible suicide pact one month short of his 21st birthday, while swimming at a known danger-spot at Oxford with his friend and suspected lover Rupert Errol Victor Buxton. Some years after Barrie's death, Peter Davies, later a publisher, wrote his 'Morgue', which contains much family information and comments on Barrie. At the age of 63 Peter committed suicide by jumping in front of an Underground train.
The BBC made an award-winning miniseries by Andrew Birkin,The Lost Boys at the Internet Movie Database (also titled J.M. Barrie and the Lost Boys), in 1978, starring Ian Holm as Barrie and Ann Bell as Sylvia. It is considered a faithful biopic, which includes Arthur Llewelyn-Davies (Tim Piggot-Smith) and confronts the issue of Barrie's affection for the Davies boys. (The DVD is available in both the UK and USA)
A semi-fictional movie about his relationship with the family, Finding Neverland, was released in October 2004, starring Johnny Depp as Barrie and Kate Winslet as Sylvia Llewelyn-Davies. It omits Arthur and Nico.
Both films receive comment in the New Yorker article cited below.