His writing is world-renowned, his creations unforgettable. But there are some things about author and playwright J.M. Barrie that are not so well documented, including his brief stint as staff writer at a Nottingham newspaper. We take a deep dive into this strange, implacable man, his time in Nottingham, and the unsavoury rumours that surround him...
Of all the children’s literature that came out of the late Victorian era, few could be as immediately recognisable as Peter Pan. Star of stage, page and screen, “the boy who never grew up” has been captivating the hearts and minds of children and adults for just over a century now.
The story’s creator, James Matthew Barrie, was born in Scotland, in 1860, to a modest, conservative family, and his life was marked by tragedy from a young age when his older brother David perished in an ice-skating accident the day before his fourteenth birthday. David was his mother’s favourite child, and so his death would lead to a fraught and tense family dynamic that shaped the young Barrie into a very odd little boy.
In order to placate his grieving mother, Barrie would often dress up in his brother’s clothes, emulate his behaviour, and whistle like him, but this had little effect to comfort her. Her one consolation was that her favourite boy died a child and would therefore “never have to grow up”: a thought that no doubt lingered with Barrie for the rest of his life.
In 1883, fresh out of university and seeking employment, Barrie found himself in the city of Nottingham, where he worked as staff writer at the Nottingham Journal on the recommendation of his sister Jane-Anne. Barrie only worked at the Journal for a year and a half before leaving Nottingham for London, and much of his work consisted of mundane and unspectacular articles with titles like My Umbrella, The Leafy Month, and Roses. In many of these articles, Barrie would intentionally seek to shock or beguile his readers, usually taking on a guise before dropping a controversial opinion or peculiar witticism.
One important catalyst for his leaving is thought to be an article he wrote anonymously for the Journal entitled Pretty Boys. A piece of satire, the article discussed the nightmare of having to deal with a spoiled child, repressing the deep desire to smack the little turd while simultaneously trying to remain on the good side of the parents. Acerbic, biting, and occasionally quite funny, the piece was nonetheless met poorly by the readers of the Nottingham Journal, and by October 1884 Barrie was out of work and out of luck.
This subject of boys, pretty or otherwise, would go on to be a recurring theme in Barrie’s life. While he himself was childless, Barrie was fascinated and oftentimes obsessed with children. Much of his writing stemmed from a lifelong interest in playing dress-up games with the children of family friends, and his personal journaling contains long stretches discussing the virtues of innocent, prickly, and capricious boys and girls. This has roused a great deal of suspicion over the years, with a Boston Globe article from 2004 even going as far as to suggest Barrie may have been a paedophile.
It is, at this point, impossible to gauge the truth of these allegations, but the insinuation is certainly there. Many of his stories feature children described in loving detail, with a particularly haunting scene appearing in his novel The Little White Bird. The novel concerns a childless writer named Captain W, widely agreed to be a proxy of Barrie, and his daily adventures and interactions around Kensington Gardens. There is a point in this story in which Captain W befriends a boy, David, who captivates his imagination and quickly becomes a dear friend: a friendship that culminates in a lavishly descriptive scene in which, during a sleepover, the captain undresses, bathes, and sleeps beside the now-naked child.
As with many of the figures in Barrie’s writing, the David of The Little White Bird was ostensibly based on a figure in his own life: George Llewelyn Davies, the eldest son of Arthur and Sylvia Llewelyn Davies. Before becoming acquainted with his parents, Barrie befriended George and his four siblings, forming an intensely close relationship with the middle child, Peter. As with most of the people Barrie knew, Peter lived a tragic life. Once Barrie’s writing gained popular acclaim, Peter was hailed as the “real-life Peter Pan”: a reputation that followed him until his suicide in 1960.
For Barrie, the purity and innocence of children was something to be idolised, even embodied, and his consistent inability to attain it caused him a great deal of emotional discomfort
While his contempt for “that terrible masterpiece” was well-documented, it appears that Peter and his brothers’ friendships with Barrie was genuine. According to Andrew Birkin’s J.M. Barrie and the Lost Boys, where much of the research for this article came from, the Llewelyn Davies boys saw “Uncle Jim” as a strange, funny little man who behaved much like they did. Much like his most famed creation, Barrie appeared to those who knew him as a stern figure with a laconic wit and true enjoyment of play and peculiarity, or a “boy who never grew up.” Indeed, allegations of paedophilia were not heard in Barrie’s own lifetime, and the youngest of the Llewelyn Davies boys, Nico, has been quoted as saying that “Uncle Jim [never] experienced what one might call 'a stirring in the undergrowth' for anyone – man, woman, or child.”
This leads us to perhaps the most interesting, and certainly the most tragic, factor in Barrie’s life: his inability to grow up. Barrie was, by his own admission, a puer aeternis, or an “eternal child”: an adult “so fond of boyhood that he could not with years become a man.” This seemed to be a state of constant distress for Barrie, who would often look upon fellow adults with scorn and disgust. It’s likely, as Nico said, that Barrie was in some way asexual, and much of his personal writing details the anguish he felt in place of sexual desire.
Two days before his wedding to Mary Ansell, who would remain his wife until the day he died, he outlines his anxieties around sex with a simple note to himself: “Boy all nerves. You are very ignorant. […] Must we instruct you in the mysteries of love-making?”
In many ways, it seems like Barrie’s immaturity was the driving force behind most of his actions. His writing, which borrowed heavily from the games he played with children, came from a rich and childish imagination. His friendship with the Llewelyn Davies boys, while certainly unconventional, is not dissimilar to a lonely child forcing himself into a family unit in lieu of friends. Even his most famous creation, Peter Pan, was born of his desire to be like his brother, someone who never grew up.
For Barrie, the purity and innocence of children was something to be idolised, even embodied, and his consistent inability to attain it caused him a great deal of emotional discomfort. In fact, it’s almost impossible not to draw parallels between Barrie and one of the most modern examples of the puer aeternis in popular culture, Michael Jackson.
Controversial, inexplicable, and oftentimes creepy, J.M. Barrie is one of the most peculiar individuals to have lived in Nottingham. While his time here was short-lived, his stint at the Nottingham Journal proved to be a blueprint for the rest of his adult life: strange, cynical, contentious, and nuanced. Now, so far removed from his death and burdened with the weight of history, it’s impossible to state conclusively whether or not Barrie was a good man, but in him we find ourselves confronted with a man who, for better or for worse, found a way to never grow up.