James Matthew Barrie, journalist, playwright and novelist, was born on the 9th of May, 1860.
James Matthew Barrie became world famous with his play and story about Peter Pan, the boy who refuses to grow up and creates his own world of Red Indians, Captain Hook and Tinkerbell, the fairy. As the conceited leader of the ‘Lost Boys of Never Land’, Peter seeks to dodge forever the world of adulthood. There’s an element of ‘autobiography’ about the story of Peter, but there was far more to Barrie’s career than Peter Pan. Barrie also created the fictional ‘Admirable Crichton’ (as opposed to the real life Scottish polymath) and several of his plays appeared on the big screen as well as the stage. Barrie socialised with other such great figures of literature as G.B. Shaw, who did not like his pipe smoking, and H.G. Wells. With some of his friends, including Jerome K. Jerome, Arthur Conan Doyle, and P.G. Wodehouse, Barrie founded a cricket club, called Allahakbarries. Amusingly, Doyle was the only member of that motley crew who could actually play cricket. Barrie’s penthouse, at Adelphi Terrace, was also visited by ministers, duchesses, and movie stars, such as Charlie Chaplin.
James Matthew Barrie was born on the 9th of May, 1860, in the village of Kirriemuir, in north east Scotland. He was the ninth of ten children and the third son. Jamie, as he was called, was inspired by tales of pirates from his mother, who read her children adventure stories in the evenings. Before her marriage, Margaret belonged to a religious sect called the ‘Auld Lichts’, and many of her stories from that time later inspired Barrie’s work. After going to school in Kirriemuir and Forfar, James was taken to Glasgow by his elder brother Alexander. Then they moved to Dumfries, where he became interested in theatre and devoured works by such authors as Jules Verne and James Fenimore Cooper. He put on his own plays at Dumfries Academy and was determined to be a writer, but the family wanted him to go to Edinburgh University to get a degree. He agreed to go and, after four years grind, he received his M.A. in 1882.
During that time in Edinburgh, Barrie also managed to write articles for a city newspaper. He then worked as a journalist for the ‘Nottingham Journal’, before moving to London, with empty pockets, in 1885, as a freelance writer. He sold his writings, mostly humorous, to fashionable magazines, such as ‘The Pall Mall Gazette’. In 1888, Barie gained his first fame with ‘Auld Licht Idylls’, sketches of Scottish life inspired by his mother’s stories, which critics praised for its originality and humour. His early stories were set in a fictionalised version of Kirriemuir, which he called Thrums. These were published in the ‘St. James Gazette’, the editor of which wrote to him, saying “I like that Scotch thing. Any more of those?” These stories were followed by ‘When a Man’s Single’ and ‘A Window in Thrums’.
Barrie’s melodramatic novel, ‘The Little Minister’, which became a huge success, was dramatised in film and, afterwards, Barrie wrote quite a lot for the theater. However, many successful novels followed and James was thrilled when Robert Louis Stevenson wrote to him, from Samoa. Two of Barrie’s best plays, ‘Quality Street’, about two sisters who start a school “for genteel children”, and ‘The Admirable Crichton’, in which a butler saves a family after a shipwreck, were produced in London, in 1902, and also later filmed. In the same year, Peter Pan first appeared by name, in Barrie’s adult novel ‘The Little White Bird’.
Barrie’s internationally famous Peter Pan was first performed at the Duke of York’s Theatre, London, in 1904, but the play had to wait several years for a definitive printed version and it did not appear as a narrative story until 1911. The tale was entitled ‘Peter and Wendy’ and Barrie donated his rights in the book to Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children. In the novel’s epilogue, Peter visits a grown-up Wendy.
Peter Pan evolved gradually from the stories that Barrie told to Sylvia Llewelyn Davies’s five young sons. She was the daughter of the novelist, George du Maurier, and a motherly figure, with whom Barrie formed a long friendship. Her husband, Arthur, was not overly happy about Barrie’s invasion of the family, however, when Sylvia and Arthur died, Barrie became the unofficial guardian of their sons. In reality, he was perhaps more a sixth brother than an adoptive father. It is also said the material for Peter Pan came out of the stories Barrie spun for the Gordon boys, sons of a local solicitor, whose family were then living at Moat Brae, in Dumfries.
Barrie wrote two more fantasy plays, ‘Dear Brutus’ and ‘Mary Rose’, which is the story of a mother who is searching for her lost child and eventually becomes a ghost. This theme and the character of Wendy in Peter Pan, owes much to the influence of Barrie’s mother. His mother fell into depression when Barrie was seven and his brother David, who had been her favorite child, died in an accident. Barrie tried to take his place in her affections by dressing up in the dead boy’s clothes. A somewhat obsessive relationship grew between mother and son, and this seemed to mark the rest of his life. Peter Pan may also be a tribute to his brother, David, who never got the chance to grow up.
In 1894, Barrie married the actress, Mary Ansell. The marriage was childless and ended in divorce, in 1909. According to Janet Dunbar’s biography, published in1970, Barrie was impotent; he told Mary, “Boys can’t love.” Much has been made of this in recent times, in which there has been a tendency to ‘point the finger’ at many figures from the past, but who cares? In recognition of his real achievements and true contributions, Barrie received several honours, including a baronetcy, in 1913, the Order of Merit, in 1922, and the Freedom of Dumfries, in 1924. He gained the Rectorship of St. Andrews University, to which he delivered a moving address on courage, in 1922, and the Chancellorship of Edinburgh University, in 1930.
James Matthew Barrie died on the 19th of June, 1937, and his grave is in Kirriemuir cemetery. Barrie’s birthplace at No. 4, Brechin Road, is maintained as a museum by the National Trust for Scotland.