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James Matthew Barrie (1860 - 1937)

Barrie, James Matthew

James Matthew Barrie was born in the Lowland village of Kirriemuir, in Forfashire. His father, David Barrie, was a handloom weaver, and mother, Margaret Ogilvy, was the daughter of a stonemason. The two had ten children; Barrie was the ninth. Jamie, as he was called, heard tales of pirates from his mother, who read her children R.L. Stevenson's adventure stories in the evenings. When Barrie was seven, his brother David died in a skating accident. David had been the mother's favorite child, and she fell into depression. Barrie tried to gain her affection by dressing up in the dead boy's clothes. The obsessive relationship that grew between mother and son was to mark the whole of his life. After her death Barrie published in 1896 an adoring biography of his mother.

At the age of thirteen, Barrie left his home village. At school he became interested in theatre and devoured works by such authors as Jules Verne, Mayne Reid, and James Fenimore Cooper. Barrie observed his classmates like an outsider; they were tall and interested in girls, while he remained small and apparently he never had a girl friend. Barrie studied at Dumfries Academy at the University of Edinburgh, receiving his M.A. in 1882. After working as a journalist for the Nottingham Journal, he moved in 1885 with empty pockets to London to work as a freelance writer. He sold his writings, mostly humorous, to fashionable magazine, such as The Pall Mall Gazette. In his mystery novel, Better Dead (1888), Barrie made jokes of well-known people. Barrie knew such great figures of literature as G.B. Shaw, who did not like his pipe smoking, and H.G. Wells, and could surprise them both with his remarks. Once he said to Wells: "It is all very well to be able to write books, but can you waggle your ears?" When a friend noticed that he ordered Brussels sprouts every day, he explained: "I cannot resists ordering them. The words are so lovely to say." With his friends Jerome K. Jerome, Arthur Conan Doyle, P.G. Wodehouse and others, Barrie founded a cricket club, called Allahakbarries. Doyle was the only member who could actually play cricket. During World War I, Barrie made a western film with his literary friends, starring Shaw, William Archer, G.K. Chesterton, etc.

In 1888 Barrie gained his first fame with Auld Licht Idylls, sketches of Scottish life. Critics praised its originality. His melodramatic novel, The Little Minister (1891), became a huge success. After its dramatization, Barrie wrote mostly for the theater. In 1894 he married Mary Ansell, who had appeared in his play Walker, London. According to Janet Dunbar's biography (1970), Barrie was impotent. "Boys can't love," was Barrie's explanation to her.

"It's sort of bloom on a woman. If you have it, you don't need to have anything else, and if you don't have it, it doesn't much matter what else you have. Some woman, the few, have charm for all; and most have charm for one. But some have charm for none." (from What Every Woman Knows, 1908)

The Little Minister was a popular stage production in 1897 both in England and in the Unites States, where Barrie began his collaboration with the impresario Charles Frohman and his star, Maude Adams. 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 later filmed. In the same year, the character of Peter Pan appeared by name in Barrie's adult novel The Little White Bird. It was a first-person narrative about a wealthy bachelor clubman's attachment to a little boy, David. Taking this boy for walks in Kensington Gardens, the narrator tells him of Peter Pan, who can be found in the Gardens at night. Peter Pan was produced for the stage 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 book was titled Peter and Wendy. In the novel's epilogue, Peter visits a grown-up Wendy.

"Every time a child says 'I don't believe in fairies' there is a little fairy somewhere that falls down dead." (from Peter Pan)

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. Arthur, her husband, was not happy about Barrie's invasion of the family. In 1909 Mary Barrie began an affair with the writer Gilbert Cannan, and Barrie's marriage ended. When Sylvia Llwelyn Davies and her husband died, Barrie was the unofficial guardian of their sons, but in reality he was perhaps more a sixth child than an adoptive father. George, one of the sons, died in World War I. Michael drowned himself with his boy friend in Oxford. Michael's death was a deep blow to Barrie. Peter, who became a publisher, committed suicide in 1960.

Peter Pan was first performed at the Duke of York's Theatre, London, in 1904. "All children, except one, grow up. They soon know that they will grow up, and the way Wendy knew this." The story begins in the Bloomsbury flat of the Darlings, which is visited by Peter Pan. He is a boy who has run away from his home to avoid growing up. Like his attendant fairy, Tinker Bell, he can fly and teaches the skill to the three Darling children. Wendy Darling, along with her brothers, accompanies Peter Pan to Never Land where he lives with the Lost Boys, protected by a tribe of Red Indians. Wendy becomes mother to the boys. When Peter is away, she is captured with all her 'family' by the pirate, Captain Hook. They are saved from the walk on the plank by Peter's bravery. Hook is eaten by his nemesis, the crocodile that had swallowed a ticking clock. Peter takes Wendy and her brothers back home but he declines an offer of adoption from Mrs. Darling. Wendy promises visit him every year to do the spring cleaning.

Barrie himself was considered by Freudians a suitable target for analysis. Peter Pan has also been seen as an Oedipal tale. Barrie himself had stopped growing when he reached five feet in height. He suffered from migraines and rarely smiled. Wendy, Peter's girl friend, borrowed her name from Barrie - it was his nickname. W.E. Henley's daughter Margaret called Barrie 'Friendly-Wendy.' The portrait of Wendy owes much to Barrie's mother, an orphaned "little mother" who had to raise her younger brother.

Barrie wrote two more fantasy plays. Dear Brutus (1917) described a group of people who enter a magic wood where they are transformed into the people they might have become had they made different choices. Mary Rose (1920) was a story of a mother who is searching for her lost child. Eventually she becomes a ghost. What Every Woman Knows (1908) portrayed a determined woman, Maggie, whose husband eventually realizes that he owes his success to her.

In 1913 Barrie became a baronet. In 1922 he received the Order of Merit. Barrie's penthouse at Adelphi Terrace was visited by ministers, duchesses, movie stars, and a number of admirers, whom he occasionally helped with money or advice. Even at his old age, Barrie could enthusiastically play Captain Hook and Peter Pan with the son of his secretary, Lady Cynthia Asquith. Barrie was elected lord rector of St. Andrew's University and in 1930 chancellor of Edinburgh University. Barrie died on June 3, 1937.

Suggested sites for James Matthew Barrie:

Encyclopedia article about James Matthew Barrie
Texts by Barrie
The Adventures of Peter Pan
Classic children's tale of Peter Pan and the Darling children, and their adventures in Neverland, including their battle with the fierce Captain Hook.
The Little White Bird
An exploration of the story of Peter Pan.
Margaret Ogilvy
The story of Barrie's mother told in story style.
Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens
The first appearance of Peter Pan.

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