Hide-and-Seek with Angels: A Life of J. M. Barrie

Hide-and-Seek with Angels: A Life of J. M. Barrie

by Lisa Chaney

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What kind of man creates a boy who never grows up? More than 100 years after Peter Pan first appeared on the London stage, author J. M. Barrie remains one of the most complex and enigmatic figures in modern literature. A few facts, of course, are widely known: Peter Pan made Barrie the richest author of his time, and he bequeathed the royalties to the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children. He was married, but later divorced, and he was devoted to the orphaned sons of Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, one of whom was named Peter. And then the rumors begin—about the nature of his marriage; about his precise relationship with the Davies boys, whose guardian he became; about the fantasies and demons that determined his achievements.

In this brilliant biography, Lisa Chaney goes beyond the myths to discover the fascinating, frequently misunderstood man behind the famous boy. James Matthew Barrie was born in a village in Scotland in 1860, the ninth of 10 children of a linen-weaver and his wife. When James was six years old, his older brother died in a skating accident, and his mother began her withdrawal into grief. It is not an exaggeration to say that Barrie's entire life—both his professional triumphs as a writer and his personal tragedies—led up to the creation of Peter Pan, the play where "all children except one grow up." As Lisa Chaney explores Barrie's own struggles to grow up, she deepens our understanding both of his most famous character and of the complex relationship between life and art.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781466861404
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 12/31/2013
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 432
File size: 682 KB

About the Author

LISA CHANEY has lectured and tutored in the history of art and literature, and has written for journals and newspapers, including the Sunday Times, The Spectator and the Guardian.

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Hide-and-Seek with Angels

A Life of J. M. Barrie

By Lisa Chaney

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2005 Lisa Chaney
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-6140-4


'It's no' him, it's just me...'

Cemetery Hill is long, rising almost three hundred feet above Kirriemuir's clutch of narrow closes, twisting wynds and steep braes. The grassy upland is crisp under last night's hard frost. A cricket ground on the summit looks out to the rugged grandeur of the Angus glens, a terrain renowned for its rivers, forests and remote lochs. Here, the first snows often leave the single-track roads impassable. Further on up the glens the hills grow craggier and wilder, while the streams narrow and become more precipitous, eventually leading back to the looming heights of the Grampians. In the early morning sun Glen Prosen and Glen Clova's snow-bound slopes look closer than their four miles' distance. This is a harsh terrain, beautiful but not kindly. It is a landscape marked with the past; one from which sprang myths, ghosts and the seductive, heartless fairies.

A few miles southwest the tiny settlement of Meigle was once a gathering place for the ancient Picts, one of the few peoples whom the Romans never managed to subdue. Nearby Forfar was their capital. At Meigle a collection of monumental stones is inscribed with those enigmatic Pictish characters, mythological beasts, and men. Other stones nearby are etched with the symbols of early Christianity. Under a slab beneath a great seven-foot-high cross, King Arthur's Queen, Guinevere, is said to lie.

With its back against the wildness of the glens Cemetery Hill looks out over quite another landscape; a landscape suggestive of the more disciplined and practical men and women who created it. To left and right as far as the eye can see lies a narrow band of fertile land, Strathmore, separated from the old port of Dundee and the Firth of Tay by the low-lying Sidlaw Hills. Punctuating the length of Strathmore's rolling farmland is a string of small market towns, whose staple forms of employment were the manufacture of jute and the weaving of linen cloth. During the nineteenth century the city of Dundee was so successful it became known as Juteopolis. In Kirriemuir, meanwhile, they wove linen.

If 'the Child is father of the Man', so, too, a place becomes location and milieu, making it both physical setting and social surround of people and artefacts. In this way the two starkly contrasting landscapes, each with its corresponding implicit vision, would infuse and inform everything that the man James Matthew Barrie was one day to write down.

* * *

During the course of the later eighteenth century, and the whole of the nineteenth, Scotland, like the rest of Britain, was subject to great waves of change. The population rose sharply and this rise was especially concentrated in the towns. In parallel and closely connected to these events, two revolutions were taking place: an agricultural revolution and an industrial one. Indeed, without the great advances in agricultural practice the industrial revolution could not have happened. A steady increase in food production — due mainly to 'enclosure', and a multitude of agricultural improvements — encouraged the growth in population. This in turn brought about the creation of a huge industrial labour force.

What had begun in the eighteenth century was set to continue and expand, so that throughout the nineteenth century Britain's population grew unceasingly. The nation gradually redefined itself, replacing its agrarian foundation, and was eventually transformed into the world's first industrial society. In 1801, when the first census was taken, four fifths of the population lived in the countryside and only one fifth in the towns. By 1901 these proportions had entirely reversed: four fifths of the nation lived in towns. Scotland's largest city, Glasgow, perfectly reflects this transformation. In 1801 its population numbered 77,000. A century later it had risen to almost 800,000 and was changed beyond recognition.

Already, before the middle of the eighteenth century, landlord farmers had begun responding to an increased demand for food. Thanks to the radical new ideas in farming, the progressive farmer was usually successful in his attempts to increase production. After 1750, when food prices also began to rise and it became more attractive to such farmers to put down land to crops and livestock, more and more people were forced off this land as greater areas of it were enclosed.

Enclosure was not a new phenomenon. The enterprising farmer had long since understood the advantage of hedging the old intermixed open fields and common meadows. What changed around the middle of the eighteenth century, and made enclosing such a deeply resented practice, was that it took on such a feverish pace, driving before it multitudes of beasts and men. Over the years countless despairing appeals were lodged. The pitiful wording of many of these petitions reveals how successfully many simple country people were manipulated by lawyers in the pay of landowners, who were quite heedless of the ancient customary rights of the poor.

The labourers were forbidden to grow crops on the old strip system of open fields. Equally importantly, they suffered the loss of traditional rights to graze their animals and to collect wood from the now shrinking acreage of open common land. With these new practices the economic simplicity of rural life was swept away, as many Scottish tenants were evicted from the land and the tied cottar's house that went with it. Without income and shelter, if they were not to starve or end in the poor house these people must collect up their belongings and children and make for the towns to find work. In one way or another there was almost no part of Scotland left untouched by these developments. Nor was the little town of Kirriemuir immune from their effects.

* * *

From the discovery of pre-Christian Pictish and Celtic burial stones in Kirriemuir we can be sure that for many centuries there has been some kind of habitation on this site. By 1201 the hamlet of Kirktoun is recorded, having grown up around the church of Kerimore. In 1660 the Kirktoun of Kerimore's population had still reached no more than 167. In 1748 this number had risen dramatically to 670, and by 1792 Kirriemuir, as it was now known, numbered 1,587 souls.

Spinning and weaving were traditionally the means by which Scotland's country people clothed their families, and whenever possible they earnt extra income by weaving surplus cloth to sell. As numbers of these people were forced off the land throughout the eighteenth century, Kirriemuir saw its population steadily rise, and weaving was the employment these incomers were most likely to take up.

* * *

In 1787 a son, Alexander, was born to the Kirriemuir linen weaver William Barrie and his wife Euphemia Bissett. While a young man Alexander was recorded as practising his father's craft of linen weaving. In due course he married a Kirriemuir girl, Marjorie Mitchell, and between 1808 and 1821 they had six children. One of these, born in 1814, they named David, and like so many of his forebears David, too, would become a linen weaver. It was this David who would one day become the father of the writer J. M. Barrie.

Hand-loom weavers were extremely skilled, kept long hours and, like all artisans of the period, were poorly paid. Many weavers, such as David Barrie, had been put to the loom while still children to help supplement the family income. From dawn till dusk, and sometimes beyond, the clatter and thump of the looms could be heard all along Kirriemuir's narrow streets. Most houses worked at least one loom, while other weavers came together in small workshops. In 1833 it was estimated that between 1,500 and 1,800 looms were at work in the town. A few years before this it was the town's proud boast that, with the exception of Forfar and Dundee, the quantity of cloth made here was more than in any other town in the county.

Unlike the city of Dundee and several other neighbouring towns, weaving in Kirriemuir remained a cottage industry for the greater part of the nineteenth century. The weavers were still out-workers, more often than not in their own cottages. As a result of the great industry and enterprise characteristic of weaving communities, in 1850 Kirriemuir was still managing to withstand the powerful national drive towards mechanisation of the trade. In many other towns the cottage industry of spinning and hand-loom weaving had already been overtaken and replaced by the steam-powered spinning machines and looms operated by workers in 'manufactories'. As an indication of the Kirriemuir weavers' particular enterprise, during a difficult period in the early nineteenth century, when the French wars prevented the export of cloth, the weavers discovered that they could sell their own wares at any market town in the country. Soon they were making a wider variety of linens, from shirting to sheeting to lining, and about eighty weavers regularly travelled far afield in search of new markets for their cloth.

In company with many artisans the weavers were a keenly political social group. Many belonged to the popular and temporarily powerful Chartist movement. Objecting to their exclusion from the franchise, for lack of the necessary property qualifications, the weavers were often vociferous exponents of their rights.

When a weaver had completed one or more 'webs', these were wheeled in barrows along the winding lanes to the Kirriemuir Town House. A web was a piece of cloth measuring 146 feet in length; the old word for a weaver was 'wobster'. At the Town House the cloth was weighed up, measured, and minutely checked for quality by the government inspector. Woe betide any weaver whose cloth fell below standard, particularly if he had tried to hide any blemish or fault. It had for long been the custom that webs of bad cloth were publicly burned on market days in Kirriemuir and neighbouring weaving towns. If, however, the cloth passed the test of quality it was stamped, the duty levied and the weaver paid forthwith.

* * *

In 1841 the linen weaver David Barrie, by now aged twenty-seven, married young Margaret Ogilvy, the twenty-one-year-old daughter of Alexander Ogilvy, a stonemason in the local sandstone quarry. (The Barries, and the families with whom they intermarried, were as thrifty with first names as they were with material goods. The resulting genealogies are often confusing.) In her childhood, when Margaret Ogilvy was only eight and her brother David was five, their mother had died. The children's father didn't remarry. It is unclear how much domestic support was forthcoming from the extended family, but, whatever the case, Alexander Ogilvy raised the two children himself. At the same time he had no choice but to continue working at the quarry beyond Cemetery Hill; there was no other financial support. As a consequence the eight-year-old Margaret became surrogate housewife and mother.

During this period, when child labour was widespread for the less well off, many worked in appalling conditions for the same hours each day as grown men and women. With childhood thus wrested from them they were prematurely charged with responsibilities far beyond their years. In this climate, Margaret Ogilvy's position in the Kirriemuir of 1827 probably gave no special cause for alarm. Her father was a kind, hard-working man and the community would no doubt have regarded his daughter as unfortunate in the loss of her mother, rather than exploited in her labours.

The extent to which Margaret managed the house on her own for her father and brother may have been exaggerated. Our only source here is the account of her childhood given many years later by her son, Jamie Barrie, a storyteller rather than a meticulous chronicler of facts. It appears that his mother was possessed of the same cast of mind, and in the telling either mother or son may have dramatised to heighten the story's appeal. As we shall see, many times over, for Margaret's son any fact that impeded the flow or that mitigated the efficacy of a good story was firmly and cheerfully ignored. It seems unlikely, though, that in a small, close community such as Kirriemuir there would have been no offers of help for Margaret, either from neighbours or female relations. Bearing these cautions in mind, the little girl nonetheless shouldered a large part of the domestic burden, which at times must have felt an onerous one.

After her marriage to David Barrie, Margaret lived with him in the little end house of a row of cottages on the Brechin Road. The Barrie cottage had four very small rooms: two up and two down, with a steep wooden staircase through the middle. There followed many years of child rearing and hard work for the couple. Pregnancy followed pregnancy in fairly rapid succession, so that by the time she was thirty-one Margaret had five children under the age of eight. Although only about five foot tall and of a slight build, Margaret was a determined young woman. After her successive pregnancies, however, the physical strain was beginning to tell and the birth of the fifth child initiated a period of great trial for the entire family.

Not only was the baby, Agnes, very frail, but shortly after her difficult delivery Margaret fell ill. Medically unrecognised at this time, she had probably contracted puerperal fever, the infection that carried off so many childbearing women before the principles of bacterial infection were understood. Margaret's brother commented at the time that there had recently been many cases of 'childbirth fever'.

Too ill to feed her baby, mother and child grew weaker and a wet nurse had to be found. After several weeks with virtually no improvement in Agnes's strength, she died. Her mother was hardly any better. The other children were looked after whenever possible by those neighbours and family who could spare time from their own families to come in and help. There were also three different paid 'helpers' who came to care for the ailing young mother. For David Barrie, the person upon whom the family depended for its financial support, it was a harsh struggle to carry on throughout those months.

At the time of Margaret's illness Alexander, the eldest child, was eight, Mary was seven, Jane Ann three and Elizabeth only one. An unexpected blessing emerging from this troubled period was the formation of a strong mutual bond between the children's maternal grandfather, Alexander Ogilvy, and Elizabeth, a most engaging little girl. As a consequence Alexander took it upon himself to take care of her a good deal of the time. He wrote, 'There is a sad confusion in the house and Margaret is very worried about the expense.'

But fate had not done with the Barrie family yet. Elizabeth fell ill with whooping cough. With no known cure the illness often proved fatal, and she was not to be one of the lucky ones. Her death, coming only three months after that of baby Agnes, cast Margaret and David into even deeper mourning. For Margaret's father the loss of his granddaughter was a great blow. Meanwhile, Margaret was still too unwell to leave her bed, and now refused to eat.

With David's ailing wife in need of nursing, three small children to care for and the wet nurse for the baby who had died, the bills had mounted. In addition, there was the cost of two funerals within three months. David was increasingly concerned he would be unable financially to survive. In spite of his persistently hard work there was little enough money, even before this present accumulation of troubles. Now desperate, he overcame his pride and wrote to Margaret's brother asking for anything he might be able to spare. Then came the final blow: Margaret's father fell ill. His chest was weakened from the years of quarry dust, but more significantly his heart had been broken by the death of his granddaughter Elizabeth. In the end he simply gave up and in a short space of time, at fifty-four, he, too, had died. With Alexander's death, the third sombre family procession in less than six months wound its way to Cemetery Hill, up above the town.

Margaret was now close to despair. The doctor prescribed a 'sea bathing cure'. Instead, she remained at home while David Barrie's brother, John, took the children away to care for them on his farm. Finally Margaret grew better, and eventually made a complete recovery, enabling the young family to throw off the unhappy atmosphere of sickness and death that had lingered for so long over the cottage on Brechin Road.

* * *

Fifteen months after this dreadful winter Margaret was once again pregnant and in 1853 gave birth, this time to a healthy boy. He was named after his father and uncle, David Ogilvy, and soon proved to be a delightful and sympathetic child, who rapidly became his mother's favourite. The family continued to grow. The following year Sarah was born, and four years later another girl, Isabella, arrived.


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Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Family Tree,
1. 'It's no' him, it's just me ...',
2. The Happiest Years of His Life,
3. 'Literature was my game ...',
4. 'To be forever known ...',
5. A Serious Purpose,
6. 'Genius in him ...',
7. Mary,
8. 'You must decide ...',
9. Dreams and Reality,
10. America and Fame,
11. Sylvia,
12. The Boy Castaways,
13. A Second Chance,
14. Origins,
15. Making a Masterpiece,
16. 'I'm youth I'm joy ...',
17. Disquiet,
18. 'The saddest most terrible night ...',
19. The End of a Marriage,
20. A Kind of Family,
21. War,
22. 'Something in ourselves ...',
23. Cynthia and Michael,
24. Beyond the Reach of Time,
25. Release,
Select Bibliography,

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