Sir James Matthew Barrie, author of Peter Pan
I am pleased to introduce you to JM Barrie, or Sir James Matthew Barrie. Living May 9, 1860 and passing on June 19, 1937. Barrie was a world renowned novelist and playwright best known for his play A Lady’s Shoe….Just kidding, he wrote frickin Peter Pan. One of the most magical and beloved children’s stories, Peter Pan brought Barrie world wide love and acclaim. Before his death, Barrie made sure the story would positively affect children for decades to come by donating the rights to Peter Pan to the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children in London.
Joining me in getting to know JM Barrie just a little bit better.
James Matthew Barrie Childhood
James Matthew Barrie was born on May 9th, 1860 in the Scottish county of Angus. Yes, thats right, when you live in Scotland you grow up in places called Angus. JM came up in a conservative Calvinist family, which means he was one of those kids who wasn’t allowed to play violent video games, curse, or drink soda growing up. Barrie's father was a strict Scott by the name of David Barrie, a weaver by trade. Barrie's mother was a dutiful woman named Margaret Ogilvy. JM was the ninth of ten children and grew to only be about 5 foot 3 inches. I’m not suggesting those two facts are related, but just maybe not enough haggis got to his end of the table growing up. He could fit into Peter Pan’s tights at his frickin wedding.
Tragically, when Barrie was six years old, his older brother David passed in a terrible ice skating accident. The death of her favorite child left Margaret Ogilvy absolutely devastated. In an attempt to help her cope, JM tried to fill his brother’s void, even going so far as to wear his clothes and whisper the same tunes. Mother and son grew quite close following the horrible accident, with Margaret Ogilvy sharing childhood stories that inspired JM to read and write more frequently.
Barrie grew up attending Glasgow Academy, Forfar Academy, and then Dumfried Academy, following the teaching locations of his elder siblings. Throughout his education, Barrie was an avid reader, drawing inspiration from Ballantyne and JF Cooper. His readings inspired a deep imagination, playing pirates in the garden and writing plays for the drama club.
Although marked by family tragedy, James Matthew had a solid upbringing, a decent education, and a relatively normal childhood.
The adult life and early literary career of JM Barrie
As Barrie grew older, he became more and more enamored with writing. A career as an author became his obvious path forward, however, David Barrie and Margaret Ogilvy were intent on JM taking a path into religious studies and the ministry. When I told my parents I wanted to major in English, I woke the next morning to find my bedroom door had been barricaded with books on how to get into law school, so I feel JM’s pain. As a compromise, JM agreed he would go to university to get a degree, but he was allowed to study literature as well. With the agreement in place, Barrie attended the University of Edinburgh where he graduated in April of 1882.
The degree seemed to alleviate some of the parent’s worries, and JM was afforded the space to pursue a writing career. His first job following graduation was as a staff journalist on the Nottingham Journal. Following that stint, JM submitted a writing to the St. James’s Gazette in London. Those writing submissions were directly inspired by the stories JM’s mother shared all those years ago. In a stroke of good fortune, the editor was a fan and the stories became the foundation for Barrie’s first novels Auld Licht Idylls, A Window in Thrums, and The Little Minister. While the stories were widely panned by critics who found the material too sentimental, that wistful tone during the darkness of the end of the industrial 19th century seemed to please the general public. The stories soon vaulted JM into the writing career he had long dreamed of as a child.
Living fully off his writing, JM’s early writing days were not defined by success. Early novels like Better Dead, Sentimental Tommy and Tommy and Grizel weren’t commercial or critical successes. Barrie then shifted his attention to the stage, where he wrote a parody of Henrick Ibsen’s Ghost. His humorous take on the timeless play gained some steam and gave JM the confidence to focus on play writing.
Barrie's marriage to the
actress Mary Ansell
In 1891, an actress was needed for a play Barrie scripted called Walker, London. Barrie asked his friend, another successful writer Jerome K Jerome for a recommendation and in came Mary Ansell. We all need a wingman like Jerome. Barrie and Mary Ansell hit it off, with Mary taking care of Barrie when he fell ill in 1893. When he came to strength, the two married in July of 1894. Unfortunately, the marriage did not last. Mary Ansell had an affair with a much younger man, an associate of Barrie’s named Gilbert Cannan. In 1909, the two were divorced with Barrie still supporting Mary with an annual allowance even as she was married to Gilbert Cannan.
Let's talk about Peter Pan
The 1890’s were good to Barrie, as he grew in stature (at least as a writer, he indeed remained 5’3 tall). In 1901 and 1902, Barrie wrote Quality Street and The Admiral Crichton which both received critical acclaim. Then, in 1902, JM put pen to paper birthing the character who would be the driving force of his literary career. The precocious Peter Pan first came to life in The Little White Bird, a novel published in 1902 by Hodder & Stoughton and serialized in Scribner’s Magazine. From that work Barrie scripted the play Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, first performed on stage in the winter of 1904 at the West End’s Duke of York’s Theatre.
Peter Pan, Captain Hook, Wendy, Tinker Bell and the lost boys was, of course, a children’s story. But at its heart was a social critique, juxtaposing the prim and proper society of the Edwardian era middle class with the wild, free and untethered world of Neverland. In its pages and on the stage Peter Pan provides some of the most magical, imaginative and hopeful quotes of any book. A stark contrast from the “stay in your lane” atmosphere of the time. The equally acclaimed author George Bernard Shaw reviewed the play as similar to a modern day Pixar movie saying, “ostensibly a holiday entertainment for children but really a play for grown-up people.”
Barrie later developed the play into a novel, Peter and Wendy in 1911. Such was the success of Peter Pan in its many forms, the name Wendy became one of the more popular children's names in Europe. Following the tremendous success, and inspired by Peter Pan's connection to children, Barrie gave the copyright of the novel and play Peter Pan to the Great Ormond Street Hospital (a leading children's hospital) for whom the royalties still generate revenue.
The Llewelyn Davies family
It is hard to discuss Barrie’s life without bringing up the Llewelyn Davies family. Barrie first met the family in 1897. Barrie loved nothing more than walking his dog, a Saint Bernard named Porthos, through London’s Kensington Gardens, and happened to meet the Davies boys George and Jack and their nanny Mary Hodgson. Barrie enjoyed sharing stories with the Davies boys and became close with their mother Sylvia Llewelyn Davies. In fact, it was from those little stories that Barrie shared with the young boys that Peter Pan and the world of Neverland was born. In fact, the youngest boy, Peter, was the inspiration for many of the title character’s quirks.
The patriarch of the family, Arthur Llewelyn Davies died in 1907, and Barrie became an even more present figure for the young family. He used proceeds from Peter Pan to fund the children’s education and help with expenses. When Sylvia passed in 1910, Barrie and the nanny Hodgson helped raising the children into adulthood.
Barrie's later writing career
Peter Pan was a boon for Barrie’s career. But not to be stuck as a one hit wonder, Barrie continued writing with a focus on social concerns with continued success. The Twelve Pound Look (1910) follows a wife as she tries to gain the financial independence to leave her husband. Mary Rose (1920) and Dear Brutus (1917) returned to the world of children who never grow up. Barrie’s final play was The Boy David (1936) which drew inspiration from Barrie’s religious upbringing and the biblical story of King Saul and David.
author and writer friends
One of the benefits of writing Peter Pan is that you get to hang out with really frickin cool people. And Barrie took every advantage of his fame, ingratiating himself to royalty and authors and socialites of the day. He was buddy buddy with fellow Scot Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Treasure Island and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Author George Bernard Shaw was his neighbor and once acted in one of Barrie’s plays. H.G. Wells and Thomas Hardy were close friends, as was the Nobel prize winner John Galsworthy.
Barrie also had a passion for cricket, going so far as to create an amateur cricket team for friends similarly limited in skill (and height). At any given time the team was stacked with some of the most famous authors of the day, including H.G. Wells, Rudyard Kipling, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, P.G. Wodehouse, Jerome K. Jerome, G.K. Chesterton, Walter Raleigh and many more. They couldn’t hit for shit but the announcer was incredibly articulate.
The passing of James Matthew Barrie
In June of 1937, Barrie fell ill with pneumonia and passed away in Marylebone. He is buried at his family home at 9 Brechin Road in Kirriemuir Scotland, now maintained as a museum by the National Trust for Scotland.
Barrie's honors and accomplishments
Barrie’s life and long career earned him several recognitions. He was named a baronet by King George V, made a member of the Order of Merit, elected Rector of Andrews University, and served as Chancellor of Edinburgh University during the 1930’s.
Another honor is the staying power of the story of Peter Pan and the lost boys. Countless adaptations have been created for the stage, television and movie theatre starring some of the biggest names in Hollywood from Johnny Depp to Robin Williams.