The man who wrote Peter Pan

After I’ve gotten to know an author through his writings, I like to find out whether his life matches up with my notions. So the publication of Lisa Chaney’s A Life of James Barrie a year or so ago was especially timely for me; I’d been working through Barrie’s novels and plays over the last couple of years. I wish it hadn’t taken me so long to know them.

Barrie wrote much more than Peter Pan, and wrote awfully well. Chaney gives due attention to other stages of his life and to his many other literary and dramatic successes. She falls occasionally into amateur psychoanalysis, but Barrie was so eccentric that I can hardly blame her. She writes well, though her book contains a surprising number of spelling errors, mostly the sort of thing that spellcheck programs don’t pick up, like “it’s” versus “its”.

(I have fond and vivid memories of a dark, very adult-focused production of Peter Pan at the Shaw Festival a few years ago, far different from the sentimental, kid-oriented version that high schools put on. In London a couple of years ago, we were delighted to find a statute of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, where Barrie often strolled from his nearby home.)

I was pleased to learn from Chaney about Barrie’s friendships with Thomas Hardy and other luminaries like Arthur Conan Doyle, R. L. Stevenson, H. G. Wells, and George Meredith. But Chaney makes little effort to relate Barrie’s work to that of his contemporaries, other than to contrast Peter Pan with other significant works of children’s literature.

There was surely more to be said. Personally, I could not help linking Barrie’s early A Window in Thrums, a book of tender episodes in the lives of rustic Scots, to Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree, an episodic early novel containing affectionate portrayals of English rustics. And given their friendship, was it coincidence that Hardy abandoned novel-writing for poetry about the same time that Barrie abandoned novel-writing for drama? I would have liked to know what Chaney thought.

By the time of his last novel, The Little White Bird, Barrie had achieved a degree of control over language and tone that, in my view, would be surpassed only by E. M. Forster and P. G. Wodehouse in the twentieth century. He had an ear for dialect to rival Hardy’s. The half-dozen best of his ingenious and felicitous plays, gems like The Admirable Crichton, Mary Rose, and What Every Woman Knows, not to mention Peter Pan, ought to last as long as Shaw’s.

And how do the facts of Barrie’s life relate to his writings? Pretty well, I think. I had gathered from his novels and plays that Barrie had an emotional connection to pre-industrial Scotland and England and its language and traditions; that he half-believed that the British Isles were still subject to pagan forces and beings; that he was essentially asexual and perhaps stunted in his emotional and social development; and that he had a highly romantic view of childhood and children. All this is confirmed, more or less, in Chaney’s book. I never believed, as suggested by the recent Neverland movie, that Barrie tended toward pedophilia, and neither does Chaney. Barrie’s novels, some of which have writers as main characters, suggest that he honored the writer’s craft, and his biography bears that out.

We were very glad to see that the Stratford Festival (Stratford, Ontario) will be mounting J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan as part of its 2010 season).

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