Read an Excerpt
From Amy Billone’s Introduction to Peter Pan
Unlike characters in most other children’s literature, Peter Pan has achieved mythological status. Even though many people have not read Barrie’s novel or play, Peter Pan is now as well known as Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty. Why is Peter Pan such a memorable drama? The story may be so compelling partly because of its attentiveness to reversibility. Childhood and adulthood, birth and death, boys and girls, dreams and waking life all persistently change places in the story. But they change places in such a way that they reinforce rather than dismantle the oppositions that confuse and distress us. Children do become adults; birth leads to death; boys and girls cannot effortlessly change roles; dreams remain distinct from waking life. Time moves ferociously forward. Even though Peter Pan is the story of a boy who never grows older, the narrative proves that everyone else must age. The first sentence of the novel tells us so: “All children, except one, grow up.” While the legend tempts us with achingly desirable unions, it is about the difficulty (if not the impossibility) of fusing disparate worlds: life and death, dreams and reality, masculinity and femininity, childhood and adulthood. Through lively comedy, Peter Pan brilliantly masks the underlying sadness that threatens to pull the story apart.
The heartbreaking undercurrents in Peter Pan become evident when we consider the mirroring between fantasy and reality that took place in J. M. Barrie’s life. Like Peter Pan, Barrie remained a ghostly outsider. He wanted children of his own but instead found himself staring in at the Llewelyn Davies family, with whom he shared no blood relationship. Peter Pan convinces the Darling children to fly away with him in an attempt to take them from their parents and make them his; Barrie inadvertently achieved the same result with the Davies boys. In 1907 Arthur Llewelyn Davies, their father, died of cancer of the jaw. In 1909 James and Mary Barrie were divorced because of her affair with Gilbert Cannan. And in 1910 Sylvia Llewelyn Davies died of cancer. Barrie was left with five boys—age seven to seventeen—all of whom were now orphans left to his care.
What was J. M. Barrie’s relationship with the Davies brothers? There are certainly passages in some of Barrie’s novels that read, a century after their publication, as suspiciously attentive to the attractiveness of little boys. Barrie’s involvement with the Davies boys was unusually close—more intense, perhaps, than typical relationships between parents and their natural offspring. However, Nicholas Llewelyn Davies swore to Barrie’s biographer Andrew Birkin that Barrie never showed one hint of homosexuality or pedophilia toward him or his brothers. Critics have for the most part concluded that Barrie was entirely sexless. Nevertheless, he loved the Davies brothers obsessively. We might even go so far as to say that he was in love with at least two of them, George and Michael. As Barrie himself wrote in Margaret Ogilvy, “The fierce joy of loving too much, it is a terrible thing” (p. 206). Years later, Barrie wrote to George Llewelyn Davies, then twenty-one years old and fighting in World War I:
I do seem to be sadder today than ever, and more and more wishing you were a girl of 21 instead of a boy, so that I could say the things to you that are now always in my heart. For four years I have been waiting for you to become 21 & a little more, so that we could get closer & closer to each other, without any words needed (quoted in Birkin, p. 228).
Shortly after receiving Barrie’s letter, George was killed in Flanders. This event was probably the most traumatic experience Barrie had endured since his brotherrrrrrrrrrrrrr’s death. But the worst was still to come. On May 19, 1921, Michael Llewelyn Davies, the fourth of the boys, was drowned while swimming in Oxford with his best friend, Rupert Buxton, who also drowned. Like George, Michael died when he was twenty-one. Rumors circulated that the deaths of Michael and his friend Rupert were intentional, the result of a mutual suicide pact.
Barrie never recovered from Michael’s death. His secretary, Lady Cynthia Asquith, wrote that he looked like a man in a nightmare. He became suicidal and grew quite ill with grief. “All the world is different to me now. Michael was pretty much my world” (letter to Elizabeth Lucas, December 1921; quoted in Birkin, p. 295). He explained in his notebook that he dreamed Michael came back to him, not knowing he had drowned, and that Barrie kept this knowledge from him. The two lived together for another year quite ordinarily though strangely close to each other. Little by little Michael realized what was going to happen to him. Even though Barrie tried to prevent him from swimming, both knew what was sure to happen. Barrie accompanied Michael to the dangerous pool, holding his hand, and when they reached the deadly place, Michael said “good-bye” to Barrie and went into the water and sank. Barrie interrupts his account of the dream with new insight into the import of Peter Pan: “It is as if, long after writing P. Pan, its true meaning came back to me, desperate attempt to grow up but can’t.” Although Barrie lived for another sixteen years, he was never able to write successfully after Michael died. The author passed away before the final scene of this tragedy, for Peter Llewelyn Davies, too, eventually took his own life; in 1960 he jumped beneath an underground train in London.