Kirriemuir and JM Barrie, FifePerceived wisdom insists that your first novel is an autobiography. Of sorts, that is. Not in the explicit, tell-all celebrity age tome, knocked out with gusto before your perishable star sinks into the sea. No. More in that your first novel embraces many of the themes that have shaped your life. Well, Sir James Matthew Barrie took a bit more time to betray his own character in verse. But when he did it would leave child-sized footprints over British culture; book, stage and screen.
Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up, was JM Barrie’s most triumphant work. Not that Barrie spent most of his childhood in Kirriemuir fighting a pirate with a hook for a hand, a guardian angel with the same dimensions as a jewellry box ballerina keeping him company. But Barrie was a small man. Just five foot in height, he would not be the first person to help you reach the tinned peaches in the supermarket. Like the influential and similarly raised Robert Louis Stevenson , Barrie sought deliverance and gratification in the derring-do of his imagination’s brave, virtuous protagonists.
Barrie’s first began writing for local newspapers when he was a student at Edinburgh University. Journalism secured his services in Nottingham before the call of Kirriemuir, Angus , proved too strong. It was back home with his mother that fiction and drama became his metier of choice. Auld Licht Idylls, A Window in
Thrums and The Little Minister were all written within three years of each other, and transformed parochial lore into something that could be digested all over the country. London was listening. Or rather, it was printing. Barrie’s first works may have been twee efforts, but any exposure is favourable.
His childhood could not have been too happy. Strictly Calvinist, there is an impression that in these post-Reformation/pre-War Scottish households that rules were as rigid as the bricks and mortar that held the house together. Barrie was always battling for his mother’s affections; it was an eternal struggle for him, the second youngest of ten children. Being small only exacerbated the situation when his older brother and mother’s favourite died.
Competing for a parent’s affection is an enervating pursuit, and Barrie’s frustration must have been considerable. Perhaps it is this that expanded his imaginary locale in which Neverland existed. Where Peter Pan, the orphan, the abandoned child would subvert adult authority and stand as a conquistador on behalf of children everywhere.
Peter Pan hit stage in the panto season of 1904. It is still performed to this day. Barrie was a champion of the theatre. But more so children, betrothing the royalties to Great Ormond Street Hospital . Barrie’s life was fraught with difficulties. From his early fight for his mother’s attention to his divorce to wife Mary Ansell, nothing was as perfectly aligned for him as the success for Peter Pan. In many senses Peter Pan was doomed. So too Barrie.
Barrie died in Kirriemuir at the age of 77. Quite an irony that for a man who sired an ageless child should die such an old man.
If you like this, Share it
More Cultural Britain?