AS THE WORLD knows, James Matthew Barrie was the humble handloom weaver’s son from Kirriemuir who rose, between his birth in 1860 and his death in 1937, to be the author of perhaps the most famous children’s play ever written, a baronet of the realm, and – by the work of his own pen – an immensely wealthy man. Even if he had left behind no lasting literary achievements, his life would be a fascinating one: a classic instance of the success of the 19th-century Scottish lad o’ pairts who was able, through the ambition of his parents, their profound belief in education, and his own hard work, to achieve a level of social mobility that seems dazzling, even by the standards of our own allegedly more egalitarian times.
Barrie did in fact leave behind a substantial literary legacy, and was more than one of the fashionable shooting stars of Victorian and Edwardian literary life. In Peter Pan, the hero of his great 1904 Christmas play, he created one of the iconic figures of world literature, one whose image recurs again and again in endless Hollywood re-workings of the story, and in the casual conversation of millions as they reach for a word to describe the kind of man who finds it difficult to leave boyhood behind. And although Barrie’s other literary works are less well known, many of them enjoyed both massive success in their day and a substantial life thereafter. In Scottish theatres over the last twenty years, for example, there have been professional productions of Barrie’s chilling 1920 supernatural drama Mary Rose; of his shrewd 1908 political and sex-war comedy What Every Woman Knows; of his heart-wrenching 1917 meditation on loss and might-have-beens, Dear Brutus; of his sparkling and rather sexy 1902 satire on the British class system, The Admirable Crichton – all of them lucrative popular hits in their day.
Yet despite his colossal contemporary success, and the continuing interest in his work, uneasy questions hover around the figure of J.M. Barrie, the man and the writer. In the first place, the source of the energy that drove Bar-rie from Kirriemuir to the glittering heights of his London career remains somehow mysterious, and at times – in its close association with a terrible and traumatic experience of bereavement – almost sinister. Secondly, there is still disagreement about the value of Barrie’s literary legacy, and about how much of his work truly deserves to survive the age of high sentiment and traumatic social change in which it was written.
And thirdly, the complexity of Barrie’s relationship with children and childhood is something that we, in the early years of the 21st century, seem uniquely ill-placed to assess with any kind of balance. Essentially, our culture is in the throes of a major trauma to do with the increasing disclosure of the historic extent of child sexual abuse in western societies. It is extremely difficult for us to dissociate Barrie’s passionate feelings about childhood, his intense and cloyingly romantic way of writing about children, and his obsessional relationship with the Llewelyn-Davies family, whose five young sons helped inspire Peter Pan, from the hostile image of the predatory paedophile that stalks our contemporary media; all the more so since the publication of this book has coincided with the most high-profile paedophile trial the world has ever seen, the trial of an immensely wealthy celebrity who surrounds himself with children, and who calls his Californian retreat the Neverland Ranch.
It’s in the face of these questions, then, that Lisa Chaney sets out on her long chronological march through Barrie’s life; and a gloriously interesting march it is, full of detail both vivid and painful, powerful quotation from Barrie’s voluminous notebooks, and a profound respect for the subject in hand. But it’s also, in the end, a slightly tantalising journey; perhaps because Chaney is finally able to formulate no strong structural answers to most of the questions she faces so squarely.
So far as the roots of Barrie’s drive and genius are concerned, for example, Chaney offers the theory that his need to perform and confabulate, to amuse an adored and emotionally powerful mother who had never much noticed this small and unimpressive third son among her family of ten, pre-dates even the shocking death, when Barrie was seven, of his brilliant and beautiful elder brother David; the event that plunged Bar-rie’s mother into a lifetime of mourning, and for which, by his own account, young Jamie frantically strove to compensate.
But the more Chaney describes the sequence of losses that shaped Barrie’s life, the more difficult it becomes to separate the strange character both of his writing career and of his life from the trauma of his repeated encounters with untimely death. When he was in his teens, for example, his eldest sister Mary Ann died at the age of only 33. In 1892, the fiancé of his youngest sister Margaret was killed in a riding accident; the horse had been a gift from Barrie. In 1894, following his early success as a journalist and playwright in Lon-don, he married the pretty and talented actress Mary Ansell, who had starred in his first major stage hit, Walker London; but the marriage remained unconsummated, and ended in divorce.
As for the Llewelyn-Davies family, whom Barrie first met in the late 1890’s, the misfortunes that were to befall them have become almost legendary. Arthur Llewelyn-Davies died of cancer in 1907, at the age of 44. His wife Sylvia Du Maurier, the idealised love of Barrie’s life, followed him three years later. Barrie became an official guardian to the five orphaned boys. The eldest, George, was killed on the Western Front in 1915; and Barrie’s favourite, Michael, committed suicide in 1921. It is a shocking catalogue of grief and loss; and it’s hard to avoid the feeling that it was somehow Barrie’s destiny, from the moment of his brother’s death, both to wish to see those he loved frozen in time, and also to live through agonies of loss when fate cruelly granted his wish by cutting their lives short.
But it’s in its unvarying defence of all Bar-rie’s efforts to transform his life experience into literature that Chaney’s book is at its most combative, and also its least convincing. When Chaney rises up to defend Barrie against modern accusations of paedophilia, she is magnificent and persuasive. But when it comes to the quality of Barrie’s work, Chaney’s arguments become both more convoluted, and less confident. Modern audiences fully acknowledge the continuing magical strength and profound psychological resonance of the Peter Pan story. Many will enjoy the astonishing vitality, range and wit of Barrie’s other writing, and marvel at the command of conventional dramatic structure that he developed over his long years as a passionately involved theatre writer.
But Chaney has no explanation for, and sometimes apparently no ear to hear, the thing that often makes Barrie – far more than his great London contemporaries Wilde and Shaw – seem difficult and old-fashioned to modern audiences; that reassuring, and sometimes sentimental, couthiness of tone and presentation that often gives the impression of punches being pulled, even when the subject-matter is of a relentless bleakness. Chaney is often brilliant about the social context of Barrie’s work. She points out how Bar-rie’s work mirrors the post-Darwinian loss of faith that was such a striking feature of late Victorian intellectual life. Barrie’s only god, it seems, was nature; it is no accident that he gave the name of the great nature-god, Pan, to his most famous little hero. He saw the ruthlessness of nature as it uses up each generation of glorious boys and girls, driving them on into a cycle of adulthood, parenthood and death for which Barrie could feel only fear and revulsion. He saw imagination as our sole weapon against that cruel process of change and loss; but, as the chilling bleakness of his bereavement play Mary Rose makes clear, he also knew that we over-use our imaginative power to visit other worlds at our peril, and perhaps at the risk of our very souls.
Barrie only rarely found the courage to place that bleakness of knowledge in front of his public in all its rawness. If his gift as a writer was formed in the need to entertain, distract and reassure his grief-stricken mother, it was developed in the hard school of freelance journalism and commercial playwriting; and his knowledge of what the late Victorian and Edwardian public would bear was stamped through his style with an indelible force. He must also, as a man from a strong Scots-speaking background making his fortune as a writer in London, have had an acute sense of the ways in which his Scots voice and sensibility had to modify and sometimes emasculate itself, in order to become acceptable to Britain’s high-Victorian metropolitan culture; but of that, Chaney has nothing to say at all.
Towards the end of Barrie’s life, his young friend, the poet Walter De La Mare, would write about the rare charm of meeting Barrie in person, and of the tremendous sophistication and wit he would show in conversation; and would describe his own feeling, in the light of that experience, that Barrie “has never yet quite written his own book”. He was right. All his life Barrie had written for others and for the world, to amuse, to comfort, to entertain, to earn his living, to be seen, to be known; and now, seventy years after his death, he perhaps pays the price of our psychological distance from the society he sought so diligently to please.
But behind the veils of conventional language, form and sentiment that now stand between us and some of Barrie’s work, the core of greatness to which Chaney is drawn – the skill, the wit, the Herculean energy, the courage in the face of bleakness, and the unique and soaring imagination – remains present. And since Barrie wrote, above all, for the magic arena of theatre, maybe one day he will find a new generation of producers with the courage to rip that veil; and to show us once again the heart of J.M. Barrie’s writing, in all its strange, hidden modernism, and its elemental power.
HIDE-AND-SEEK WITH ANGELS: A LIFE OF J.M. BARRIE
by Lisa Chaney
pp.402 ISBN: 0091795397