His Greatest Pretend

Dinah Birch

  • Hide-and-Seek with Angels: A Life of J.M. Barrie by Lisa Chaney
    Hutchinson, 402 pp, £20.00, June 2005, ISBN 0 09 179539 7

The notorious refusal of J.M Barrie to leave boyhood behind was perverse and, in the end, destructive. Yet it became the foundation of his success, as a widely celebrated playwright, a wealthy baronet, and a leading figure in literary London. The stories and plays that led to these grown-up dignities were, as he understood them, grounded in a child’s make-believe. What makes him the most sophisticated and most troubling of those who constructed the early 20th-century cult of childhood is that the illusions he could never escape did not deceive him. Peter Pan’s appeal to the audience to save Tinker Bell’s life is irresistible: ‘Do you believe in fairies? Say quick that you believe! If you believe, clap your hands!’ Brave little Tink is saved every time. Some really did have faith in fairies. Barrie’s friend Arthur Conan Doyle, champion of fictional rationality, was perfectly convinced of their existence. Barrie knew them for what they were. And he knew that Peter couldn’t fly from the grown-ups for ever. A stage direction added to a 1928 edition of Peter Pan is unusually explicit about the fissure that runs through his work: ‘No one is going to catch me, lady, and make me a man. I want always to be a little boy and to have fun. (So perhaps he thinks, but it is only his greatest pretend.)’

One reason for his reluctance to identify with adults was that he could hardly look them in the eye. He never grew much beyond five feet, and it is painful to note the easy contempt with which many dismissed him as ‘little Barrie’. Whatever their native disposition, exceptionally small men have to be assertive and ambitious if they are to be taken seriously, and Barrie rose to the challenge with fanatical energy. Idleness was not part of the attraction of youth for him. He never stopped working, and he saw through that side of his nature too: ‘There are few more impressive sights in the world than a Scotsman on the make,’ as a Scotsman remarks in What Every Woman Knows (1908). He had something to prove, and there was someone he needed to convince. The character of the controlling mother is for Barrie as powerful as that of the unruly boy. He was slow to accept that girls could be children: they were, like Wendy, really mothers in waiting. An anxious idealisation of his own forceful mother shaped his personality from the first. The story of his life seems almost too transparent in the clues it offers to his distinctive mind. Born in 1860 to a handloom weaver, Barrie was brought up in Kirriemuir, a small town north of Dundee where education and piety were seen as the way to advancement for capable boys. He was the ninth of Margaret Ogilvy’s ten children, and two sturdy older brothers were already established as the focus of family ambition. James was a puny child, distinguished by neither athletic nor academic prowess. His brother David was his mother’s favourite. Tall, handsome, destined for university and eventually the ministry, he was killed in a skating accident shortly before his 14th birthday. He was not the only child that Margaret had lost. But this time she was inconsolable, and fell into a depression from which it seemed nothing could rouse her. In his adoring memoir of his mother, Barrie recalls that he was overcome with the desire

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