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

to become so like him that even my mother should not see the difference . . . He had such a cheery way of whistling, she had told me, it had always brightened her at her work to hear him whistling, and when he whistled he stood with his legs apart, and his hands in the pockets of his knickerbockers . . . ‘Listen!’ I cried in a glow of triumph, and I stretched my legs wide apart and plunged my hands into the pockets of my knickerbockers, and began to whistle.

At six years old, pretending to be the boy who would not grow up, Barrie had found the stratagem that would drive his writing. He constantly locates himself within his mother’s dream of restoration:

Many a time she fell asleep speaking to him, and even while she slept her lips would move and she smiled as if he had come back to her, and when she woke he might vanish so suddenly that she started up bewildered and looked about her, and then said slowly, ‘My David’s dead!’ or perhaps he remained long enough to whisper why he must leave her now, and then she lay silent with filmy eyes. When I became a man . . . he was still a boy of 13.

Lisa Chaney’s thoughtful new biography rightly identifies the loss of David as the formative experience of Barrie’s life, its influence evident in his earliest stories of Kirriemuir – or ‘Thrums’, as he called it – in the late 1880s, and in his final play, The Boy David, first performed in 1936. But she is also right to point out that the pattern of need that motivated Barrie’s career is likely to have preceded this catastrophe. Barrie had not been chosen as the child who counted. He had been invisible, and his repeated impersonation of someone who mattered more was a way of winning the attention that could give an imagined substance to his life. The spirit of David grew into something more than a family memory. That cocky whistle and aggressively masculine straddled stance became emblematic of the irresponsibility of Peter Pan, the immortal boy. George Frampton’s familiar statue in Kensington Gardens fixed the image, with the addition of pan pipes turning David’s whistle into something that fused the glamour of those Housman called the ‘lads that will die in their glory and never be old’ with the lawless paganism that was so peculiarly seductive to the more respectable of the moustached literary Edwardians.

Peter Pan might seem timeless, but he is the expression of a particular moment. The bitter legacies of the Great War made his jaunty defiance still more poignant. In A Well-Remembered Voice, a one-act play of 1918 about parents finding a way to recall their dead soldier son, Barrie speaks for a generation:

In the silence something happens. A well-remembered voice says: ‘Father.’ Mr Don looks into the greyness from which this voice comes, and he sees his son. We see no one, but we are to understand that, to Mr Don, Dick is standing there in his habit as he lived. He goes to his boy.

‘Dick!’

‘I have come to sit with you for a bit, father.’

(It is the gay, young, careless voice.)

Dick turns out to be a sensible and good-humoured phantom, recommending brisk activity as a remedy for grief. He advises his father to take up painting again – ‘your picture of those three Graces’ – and not give up his dumb-bells. Absurd, but humane and sharply observed, the play has worn well. Though such ghosts, like winningly adolescent nature gods, were of their period, Barrie resisted the sentimentality that so tempted him. ‘Why is my heart not broken?’ another bereaved father wonders in the eerie Mary Rose (1920), where the lost child is both a girl and a mother. His wife consoles him. ‘What better encouragement to the young than to be able to tell them that happiness keeps breaking through?’

Barrie had a weakness for pretty actresses, and a glamorous wife was a mark of the social success that his growing prominence seemed to require. And he wanted someone to look after him. Alarmed by a serious illness just as he was making his name as a playwright, in 1894 he married Mary Ansell, one of the many attractive women he had met in the theatre. They were unhappy, and there were no children. Whether or not the marriage was consummated, Barrie found that he could not commit himself to a husband’s role. Guilt and dismay vibrate through his compelling novel Sentimental Tommy, published in 1896, and its uncompromisingly sad sequel, Tommy and Grizel, which came out in 1900. Tommy Sandys, the largely autobiographical hero of these books, is sentimental in the sense that he immediately enters into the feelings of all those around him: ‘There never was a more sympathetic nature than Tommy. At every time of his life his pity was easily roused for persons in distress, and he sought to comfort them by shutting their eyes to the truth for as long as possible.’ He lives within the stories he fabricates for himself, and draws others into fantasies which he scarcely distinguishes from reality. ‘It was always said of Tommy by those who knew him that if he leaped back into boyhood they had to jump with him.’ This ingenious capacity leads to a flourishing career as a writer. But Tommy shrinks from responsibility, and the only affection he can sustain is his possessive love for his needy sister, Elspeth. His childhood friend Grizel, who patiently loves him and becomes his wife, is an early version of Wendy. ‘She could not help liking to be a mother to men; she wanted them to be the most noble characters, but completely dependent on her.’ Tommy’s reckless pursuit of other women destroys her life, and eventually his own. ‘He was a boy only. She knew that, in spite of all he had gone through, he was still a boy. And boys cannot love. Oh, who would be so cruel as to ask a boy to love?’ In a grotesquely melodramatic conclusion, he is strangled by his own overcoat, caught on an iron spike as he climbs over a wall in pursuit of a woman. ‘Serves me right’ is his last conscious thought.

As a protracted study in self-analysis, self-reproach and self-vindication, the Tommy novels are remarkable productions. ‘Have you discovered,’ Barrie asks his readers, ‘that I was really pitying the boy who was so fond of boyhood that he could not with years become a man?’ It is hard to imagine how this extreme self-exposure affected Mary. Yet the sufferings of Grizel are not wholly intended to represent Mary’s pain, nor is Tommy simply a self-portrait. They are complementary explorations of the problem that was to paralyse Barrie’s development. One a parent and the other a child, neither can become a sexually mature lover, and both die alone. For Barrie, authentic sentiment could come only with sorrow. He could imagine a cheerful life, but his visions could never comprehend happiness. Grizel is tormented by Tommy’s indecisions:

She rocked her arms, crying: ‘It is so easy to make up one’s mind.’

‘It’s easy to you that has just one mind,’ he retorted with spirit, ‘but if you had as many minds as I have –!’

Mary made up her own mind, and left Barrie for a younger man. By then, Barrie’s interests had shifted to another family, where his need to be both uncommitted and watchfully involved could be more easily gratified. Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, the daughter of the rakish artist and novelist George du Maurier, was married to a handsome and respectable lawyer; she was delicately beautiful, vivacious and unavailable. Still more enticingly, she had a batch of boisterous sons: George, Jack and Peter, when Barrie first met them; later there were Michael and Nico. Barrie was besotted. His relations with the family, playful and proprietorial, were ardent from the beginning. Sylvia encouraged Barrie’s insidious generosity. His devotion was flattering, without representing a threat to her reputation. Arthur, her husband, was mildly affronted, but did not choose to banish him. Lovable but stiflingly conventional, he could not rival Barrie’s wit, nor could his modest income allow for the free and stylish life that the semi-bohemian Sylvia hankered for. Games with the boys, with shipwrecks and pirates and Red Indians and hungry wild animals, were as real to Barrie as they were to his young companions. He became still more deeply involved with the family after Arthur’s death from facial cancer in 1907. Three years later, cancer killed Sylvia too, and Barrie became the self-appointed guardian of the orphaned children.

It was not an entirely wholesome arrangement. He never hesitated to share his ample means – there were lavish holidays, a comfortable home, places at Eton. But the blurring of family roles left the bereaved boys uncertain as to their own identity. Barrie was father and mother, brother and lover. Though he was not a sexual predator, he borrowed the boys’ vitality, and occupied too much emotional space in their lives. The unspoken pressures bore most heavily on Michael, who was especially favoured. There were daily letters while he was at school and when George, the eldest, was killed in the trenches, Barrie’s attachment to Michael became still fiercer, and his demands more overwhelming. He wrote to Cynthia Asquith in 1919: ‘The Oxford term ends in about a week and unyokes Michael, but he won’t be here long if he can get off on a contemplated reading party. He will be 19 then (everything seems to be going wrong with me).’ Two years later, Michael mysteriously drowned with his friend Rupert Buxton, while bathing in Sandford Pool. It seems to have been a suicide pact, perhaps triggered by difficulties in coming to terms with homosexual feeling. Barrie was desolate: ‘For ever and ever I am thinking about him.’ Though he went doggedly on, with the stoicism that he had celebrated in his plays, he led a crippled life after the death of his beloved boy had translated an enchanted drama into stony reality. Michael was consumed by the plot Barrie had imposed. The tone of Chaney’s bright and reasonable account falters here – such things are too much for good sense to cope with.

Barrie’s writing is more considerable than its current reputation might imply, but it is limited by what made it unforgettable. His restlessly sceptical intelligence meant that he could never quite believe in anything, including himself. The great narratives of politics, religion and philosophy seemed to him so much empty noise. Scottish enough to see through the aggrandisement of the English, he was never prepared to make a home in Scotland. He was inexhaustibly loyal and often kind, while perceiving the self-interest that can lie hidden in loyalty and kindness. Critics have preferred those of his contemporaries – Yeats, Shaw, Stevenson – whose larger ambitions for literature lend stature to those who study them. Barrie looks whimsical by contrast, or merely part of a commercial world. It is true that the status that came with money and applause meant something to him, though he was not greatly interested in social position. His real need was for the oblivion of Neverland, where morality and affection would count for nothing, and invention could fly free. Yet he knew that to be a wish for death. It is Peter Pan, not Captain Hook, who should frighten children.