J.M. Barrie overcame tragedy and a modest start in life to become a Baronet whose works were read, heard and watched by millions. Patron of the most famous of all children's hospitals, Barrie went from Dumfries Academy to the world stage...
The life of J.M.Barrie
James Matthew Barrie was born in the small weaving town of Kirriemuir, near Forfar in Angus, on 9 May 1860. He was the ninth of ten children of a handloom weaver, David Ogilvy, and his wife, Margaret.
Tragedy touched Barrie’s life early, when his adored elder brother David died after a skating accident. David was his mother’s favourite and his death, at 14, caused her to transfer her affections onto the young James, who retained a special bond with his mother Margaret all his life.
Margaret believed that through his premature death David would always remain a boy - an idea which formed the basis of one of the most famous stories in the world.
James tried very hard to replace his brother in his mother’s affections, so much so that some people say he almost tried to become David. By a strange co-incidence, at 14 (the same age that David died) James stopped growing – and remained at a height of five feet for the rest of his life. There is much debate about parallels of stunted growth and stunted emotional development (most ably dealt with in Andrew Birkin’s biography, J M Barrie and the Lost Boys: The Love Story that Gave Birth to Peter Pan).
Dumfries – the happiest days in his life
In his early teens James moved to Dumfries, where an older brother was a schools inspector. He attended Dumfries Academy, where he became involved in the newly formed Academy Dramatic Club. It was in the wings of the Theatre Royal that he developed his love of theatre. His first play, written when he was 15, was called Bandelero the Bandit. The original manuscript is in the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University Library http://brbl-dl.library.yale.edu/vufind/Record/3447231?image_id=1401638.
The Dumfries Museum collection of Barrie artefacts can be viewed here.
According to Julia Muir Watt in Dumfries and Galloway: A Literary Guide, Barrie often described his teenage years in Dumfries as the happiest of his life. He lived on Victoria Terrace (the house he stayed in has been decorated with a memorial plaque) and his closest friends were the Gordon brothers, who lived in the large house called Moat Brae on George Street.
Following school, Barrie went to Edinburgh University,where he received his M.A. in 1882. He then went to London to pursue a career as a journalist and writer. In the late-1880s, Barrie published several novels and short stories. His first bestseller was 1891’s The Little Minister. In the same year Barrie began writing plays and playlets, beginning with a one-act burlesque entitled Ibsen’s Ghost, or, Toole up to Date.
My friendy, Wendy
In 1894 Barrie married Mary Ansell, an actress. They had no children of their own - but some of the children Barrie knew became immortalised through his fictional characters. The original ‘Wendy’ was Margaret Henley, who died at the age of six, the daughter of a friend of Barrie’s. She called Barrie 'my friendy', which she lisped as 'fwendy' or 'wendy'. Barrie immortalised her in 'Peter Pan' by inventing the new name for his heroine, ‘Wendy’.
After successfully turning The Little Minister into a play in 1897, Barrie focused almost exclusively on the theatre. From 1901 until 1920, he wrote one play per year. One of Barrie’s most famous plays during this period was 1902’s The Admirable Crichton, a combination of fantasy and social commentary. These same elements were employed in Barrie’s best–known work—and his only play intended explicitly for a young audience— Peter Pan, first produced in 1904.
The play had its roots in a novel Barrie published in 1902, The Little White Bird, written for some young friends, the Llewelyn Davies. Barrie met the Llewelyn Davies family in Kensington Gardens in 1897, while walking with his dog, and he became firm friends with George, Jack and Peter, Michael and Nico. Later, Barrie described the origins of Peter Pan:
“By rubbing the five of you violently together, as savages with two sticks to produce a flame, I made the spark of you that is Peter Pan …”
When first Arthur (their father) and then Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (their mother) died of cancer while the boys were still young, Barrie became their guardian. By now divorced from Mary, he adopted the boys and brought them up as his own.
After Peter Pan and several novelisations of the story, Barrie continued writing notable plays. Most were adult dramas and comedies that frequently played with fantasy, including Dear Brutus (1917). Barrie’s success as a playwright allowed him to be generous with funds, and he gave often to individuals as well as important causes. After the First World War, Barrie stopped writing plays until a year before his death, when he suddenly produced two Biblical dramas.
Barrie returned to Dumfries for the last time in 1924 when he received the freedom of the burgh. Scenes from the day were captured by British Pathe and can be viewed using the link below.
Barrie died on 19 June 1937 in London, and is buried in Kirriemuir in the family plot.
It is a curious that while Peter Pan is known the world over, his creator is far less well remembered. Much of his work is out of print, but he is a far more substantial writer than he is generally given credit for, as a journey into his fiction and plays attests.