The Real Peter Pan: J. M. Barrie and the Boy Who Inspired Him

The Real Peter Pan: J. M. Barrie and the Boy Who Inspired Him

by Piers Dudgeon


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250087799
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 07/12/2016
Pages: 416
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

PIERS DUDGEON is a writer, editor, and photographer. He is the author of bestselling biographies of Catherine Cookson, Edward de Bono, the composer Sir John Tavener, and the novelists Barbara Taylor Bradford, Josephine Cox, J. M. Barrie, and Daphne du Maurier. He is the author of Maeve Binchy, a biography of the Irish writer.

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The Real Peter Pan

The Tragic Life of Michael Llewelyn Davies

By Piers Dudgeon

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2015 Piers Dudgeon
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-08780-5


1905: An Awfully Big Adventure

Looking at the photographs taken in the summer of 1905 of James M. Barrie and Michael Llewelyn Davies in the garden of his country retreat, Black Lake Cottage in Surrey, one cannot help but be reminded that Edwardian England (1901–10) was an era distinct in time for reasons other than that it spanned the reign of Edward VII.

It isn't only the straw hats of the men and the long, waisted skirts and floppy hats of the women that speak so eloquently of our graceful, peaceful past, nor the boyish, snake-linked belt holding up Barrie's cricketing whites. It is something to do with the laziness of the scene, which echoes in our minds with the sound of leather against willow and the hum of bees, that tells us that this was an age unperturbed by time – held in stasis like the clock that stands at ten to three in Rupert Brooke's nostalgic evocation of it in 'The Old Vicarage, Grantchester'.

The era portrayed itself as one of innocence, in contrast to the worldliness of the Victorians and before the carnage of the First World War. The Edwardian age was the last gasp of old rural England. After 1918, nothing here would be quite the same again. Small wonder, then, that it took the eternal image of Peter Pan, the archetypal innocent who would never grow up, to its heart.

The play, written on the back of Barrie's games with four of the five sons of Arthur and Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, met in London's Kensington Gardens, was always a work of improvisation and underwent constant revision from the moment of its first rehearsal, so that it was not published between book covers for twenty-four years.

In the summer of 1905 Barrie was still reeling from the success of its first London showing. It had premiered at the Duke of York's Theatre on 27 December 1904, run for 145 performances, and would return annually to similar success for decades afterwards.

But already he had it in mind to write a whole new act, making more of 'the Neverland'. It was with this in mind that, in July 1905, he sent for Michael Llewelyn Davies.

He wanted the boy to revisit the scenes in Black Lake forest from which 'the chief forces' of the play – the lost boys, Captain Hook, the crocodile and so on – had emerged. He wanted to remind Michael of the real haunts that inspired the play, to return him to the roots of the Neverland, and use him once more as the creative catalyst for a new Act III.

Michael had taken to Barrie's world of make-believe and imagination into which he, alone of his brothers, was actually born, as if it were second nature. It was no coincidence that Michael is the first to 'let go' in the play, when Peter Pan teaches the children to fly.

And now that his elder brother George, at age twelve, no longer believed in fairies, Michael, at five, was coming into his own. Of course, Michael knew the play intimately. It had been re-enacted time and again in the boys' nursery at home. He had visited the theatre back-stage, been introduced to the cast as one of the creators of it. He had even flown in the harnesses that transported Peter, Wendy, John and Michael to the Neverland and, like the other Llewelyn Davies boys, he knew the difference between Tinkerbell, the fairy, and Tinkerbell the light that danced on stage, which was really shone by one of the stage staff. But he didn't yet consciously question the difference, and that was why Uncle Jim, as Barrie was known within the family, needed him.

Barrie needed to become a boy again, to re-enter that unconscious, unreflective, mysteriously self-contained mind-set of boyhood, insulated against the real world and so soon mislaid, but from which the naturally curious, inquisitive, imaginative and in every sense beautiful Michael never strayed.

The playwright had decided that the Neverland, which had only twice been mentioned in the original script, was to be made more the focus of the play as a magical environment of heavenly moments and with a very special element of danger.

Michael was to be 'the golden ladder into the dream', as Barrie had long ago imagined introducing his own son to 'the old lair' of his boyhood exploits. In Michael's company, the Black Lake would be more than 'this tiny hollow where muddy water gathered'. The pine forest environs of Barrie's cottage would become once again 'an impregnable fortress full of pirates and redskins, their war-like voices breaking the air as they came and went'.

Many a time in the two years that had passed since the last Black Lake holiday, Barrie himself had lost his way to the golden ladder, 'though all the time he knew that the spot lay somewhere over there. When he stood still and listened he could hear the boys at play, and they seemed to be calling: "Are you coming, Captain?" ... but he never could see them, and when he pressed forward their voices died away.'

When Michael arrived, Barrie wanted him to say: 'Take my hand, father, and I will lead you there; I found the way long ago for myself.'

Even at five years of age, Michael had something unique. His older brother Peter, who became a fine scholar and publisher, remembered his having 'the true stuff of the poet in him from birth'. Michael's famous cousin, Daphne du Maurier, at fourteen wrote of him in her first story as 'a boy who is searching for happiness, at least not exactly happiness, but that something that is somewhere, you know. You feel it and you miss it and it beckons and you can't reach it ... I don't think anyone can find it on this earth.'

In a few years, people would be talking of Michael as gifted, sensitive, charming, impressionable and with an aura around him not of this world. Barrie realised that he was a chip off the du Maurier block more than any of the other boys. It was this 'something' in Michael that he was after, whether less for his own salvation than for his work we will never know.

But there was a price to pay. While a new Act III of Peter Pan did come out of their liaison at Black Lake Cottage in July 1905, embedded in it was something disastrously formative for Michael personally. It was, as we shall see, from this time that the boy's nightmares began.

Flying was of course a metaphor for finding your way into the Neverland. In a letter to a friend, Michael's cousin Daphne described how, when she was brought low during the Second War, she lay in bed, 'looking at the world through the wrong end of a telescope, the world itself and the people on it being very small and ant-like, and all their activities a little futile' and then 'centred her mind on an island, the island of her dreams ... an island just surfacing from the sea'. And it was this same technique that Barrie played with the Davies boys, whom he dubbed 'the boy castaways of Black Lake Island'. Never mind that there was no island in the Black Lake in fact: there was in their mind's eye. Bit by bit, as the island emerged from the water, their focus on it increased, and eventually 'the little people' of the island also emerged and soon you had the rudiments of a story.

'They do seem to be emerging out of our island, don't they, the little people of the play,' wrote Barrie, 'all except that sly one [referring to himself, the model for the pirate captain, Hook], the chief figure, who draws farther and farther into the wood as we advance upon him? He so dislikes being tracked, as if there were something odd about him, that when he dies he means to get up and blow away the particle that will be his ashes.'

The island game was the perfect, light-hypnotic environment for the creative process. But this time, after Michael and Barrie were left to themselves, the focus was switched from islands to the Black Lake itself:

If you shut your eyes and are a lucky one, you may see at times a shapeless pool of lovely pale colours suspended in the darkness; then if you squeeze your eyes tighter, the pool begins to take shape, and the colours become so vivid that with another squeeze they must go on fire. But just before they go on fire you see the lagoon. This is the nearest you ever get to it on the mainland, just one heavenly moment; if there could be two moments you might see the surf and hear the mermaids singing.

With the Black Lake a mermaids' lagoon and the surrounding fir trees a tropical forest, together Uncle Jim and the boy began telling a story. This was his way, always had been since he was a child, when one of his friends would tell half of a story he had read, and someone else had to work out the end.

'First I tell it to him,' said Barrie, 'then he tells it to me, the understanding being that it is quite a different story; and then I retell it with his additions, and so we go on until no one could say whether it is more his story or mine. A story had to be told together.'

It is intriguing to read the story of what became the new Act III of Peter Pan and wonder who contributed which parts. Peter and Wendy are marooned on a rock in the mermaid's lagoon and must surely drown. We may see Michael's contributions among the prettier parts, including Wendy's rescue by means of a kite, which he had made only a few days before. Barrie, on the other hand, was always the provocateur in the games with the boys, responsible for the story's more menacing aspects, and plainly there is his trademark, mock-heroic whimsy here too.

As for the very last line of the story about death being an adventure, which in an extraordinary way predicts Michael's own last act on this earth fifteen years later, it is anybody's guess who put the idea in Peter's mind. It had been tossed to and fro since its first utterance. While walking one day in Kensington Gardens one of Michael's brothers had pointed to two headstones with 'W St M' and '13a PP 1841' inscribed on them – they can still be seen on the west side of the Broad Walk in the Gardens today. Uncle Jim said they were gravestones for two children (Walter Stephen Matthews and Phoebe Phelps) who had fallen out of their prams and died. Peter Pan had his work cut out burying dead children, apparently, after 6 p.m. lockout in the Gardens, and would dance on their graves, playing on his pipes to make them laugh as they began their journey in the afterlife.

Barrie had a fascination with the afterlife, and where better to explore it than in the company of the beautiful mermaids of the Black Lake lagoon in such an innocent spirit of adventure as this?

It is the end of a long playful day on the mermaids' lagoon. The sun's rays have persuaded him to give them another five minutes, for one more race over the waters before he gathers them up and lets in the moon. There are many mermaids here ... and one might attempt to count the tails did they not flash and disappear so quickly. At times a lovely girl leaps in the air seeking to get rid of her excess of scales, which fall in a silver shower as she shakes them off. From the coral grottoes beneath the lagoon, where are the mermaids' bed-chambers, comes fitful music. One of the most bewitching of these blue-eyed creatures is lying lazily on Marooners' Rock ...

Here the mermaids love to bask, combing out their hair in a lazy way. Peter often chats with them and sits on their tails when they get cheeky. He has already given Wendy one of their combs. The most haunting time at which to see them is at the turn of the moon, when they utter strange wailing cries; but the lagoon is dangerous for mortals then.

'Mermaids are such cruel creatures, Wendy, that they try to pull boys and girls like you into the water and drown them.'

Wendy is uneasy as she surveys the rock, which is the only one in the lagoon and no larger than a table. Since she last looked around a threatening change has come over the scene. The sun has gone, but the moon has not come. What has come is a cold shiver across the waters which has sent all the wiser mermaids to their coral recesses. They know that evil is creeping over the lagoon.

Peter of course is the first to scent it ... The pirates are coming. (This is the moment for Hook and Peter.)

HOOK 'Pan! Into the water, Smee. Starkey, mind the boat. Take him dead or alive!'

The fight is short and sharp ... Hook's iron claw makes a circle of black water round him from which opponents flee like fishes. There is only one prepared to enter that dreadful circle. His name is Pan. Strangely, it is not in the water that they meet. Hook has risen to the rock to breathe, and at the same moment Peter scales it on the opposite side. The rock is now wet and as slippery as a ball, and they have to crawl rather than climb. Suddenly they are face to face. Peter gnashes his pretty teeth with joy, and is gathering himself for the spring when he sees he is higher up the rock than his foe. Courteously he waits; Hook sees his intention, and taking advantage of it claws twice. Peter is untouched, but unfairness is what he never can get used to, and in his bewilderment he rolls off the rock. The crocodile, whose tick has been drowned in the strife, rears its jaws, and Hook, who has almost stepped into them, is pursued by it to land. All is quiet on the lagoon now, not a sound save little waves nibbling at the rock, which is smaller than when we last looked at it. Two boys appear with the dinghy, and the others despite their wounds climb into it. They send the cry 'Peter – Wendy'.

When their voices die away there comes cold silence over the lagoon, and then a feeble cry.

'Help, help!'

Two small figures are beating against the rock; the girl has fainted and lies on the boy's arm. With a last effort Peter pulls her up the rock and then lies down beside her. Even as he also faints he sees that the water is rising. He knows that they will soon be drowned, but he can do no more.

As they lay side by side a mermaid who had dared to come back in the stillness stretches up her arms and begins slowly pulling Wendy into the water to drown her. Peter, feeling her slip from him, wakes with a start, and is just in time to draw her back.

Wendy rouses herself and looks around her. 'Peter! Where are we, Peter?

'We are on the rock, Wendy, but it is growing smaller. Soon the water will be over it. Listen!' They can hear the wash of the relentless little waves.

'I can't help you, Wendy. Hook wounded me. I can neither fly nor swim.'

'Do you mean we shall both be drowned?'

'Look how the water is rising.'

They put their hands over their eyes to shut out the sight. They think they will soon be no more. As they sit there something brushes against Peter as light as a kiss, and stays there, as if saying timidly, 'Can I be of any use?' It is the tail of a kite, which Michael had made some days before. It had torn itself out of his hand and floated away.

'Michael's kite,' Peter says without interest, but next moment he has seized the tail, and is pulling the kite toward him.

'It lifted Michael off the ground,' he cries. 'Why should it not carry you?'

'Both of us!'

'It can't lift two; Michael and Curly tried.'

Wendy knows that if it can lift her it can also lift Peter too, for she has the secret from the boys – Peter is no weight at all. But it is a deadly secret ...

'Let us draw lots,' Wendy says bravely.

'And you a lady; never.'

Already he had tied the tail round her. She clings to him; she refuses to go without him; but with a 'Good-bye, Wendy,' he pushes her from the rock; and in a few minutes she is borne out of sight.

Peter is alone on the lagoon, but with something much more exciting in mind than flying to safety on a kite string.

The waters are lapping over the rock now, and Peter is aware that it will soon be submerged. Pale rays of light mingle with the moving clouds, and from the coral grottoes is to be heard a sound, at once the most musical and the most melancholy in the Neverland, the mermaids calling to the moon to rise.


Excerpted from The Real Peter Pan by Piers Dudgeon. Copyright © 2015 Piers Dudgeon. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Copyright Notice,
Chapter One 1905: An Awfully Big Adventure,
Chapter Two 1860–1900: A Rich Harvest of Possibility,
Chapter Three 1895: A Key to Kensington Gardens,
Chapter Four 1897: Spellbound,
Chapter Five 1897: Barrie Comes Out,
Chapter Six 1897–99: Lost Boy,
Chapter Seven 1900: Peter and Michael Break Through,
Chapter Eight 1901–03: Island Games,
Chapter Nine 1901–03: Unrest Within the Family,
Chapter Ten 1903–04: The Real Play,
Chapter Eleven 1904–05: Arthur's Retreat,
Chapter Twelve 1905–07: Death Takes a Hand,
Chapter Thirteen 1906: Barrie's Scotland,
Chapter Fourteen 1907: The Widow Sylvia,
Chapter Fifteen 1908: Dependence and Uncertainty,
Chapter Sixteen 1909: Mind Games and Manoeuvres,
Chapter Seventeen 1910: No Idle Steer,
Chapter Eighteen 1910–11: Scourie: Learning to Fly,
Chapter Nineteen 1912: The Outer Hebrides: Catching Mary Rose,
Chapter Twenty 1913–14: Broken to Eton,
Chapter Twenty-One 1914–15: Loving, J. M. B.,
Chapter Twenty-Two 1915: The Blue Bird of Happiness,
Chapter Twenty-Three 1916–17: Home Fires Burning,
Chapter Twenty-Four 1917–18: Michael Turns Away,
Chapter Twenty-Five 1918: The Real Peter Pan,
Chapter Twenty-Six 1918: Within the Gothic Chamber,
Chapter Twenty-Seven 1919: Oxford,
Chapter Twenty-Eight 1919: Garsington,
Chapter Twenty-Nine 1920: Romance,
Chapter Thirty 1920: Michael Breaks Out,
Chapter Thirty-One 1920: Between Earth and Paradise,
Chapter Thirty-Two 1920–21: Barrie Gets His Way,
Chapter Thirty-Three 1921: Disposal,
About the Author,

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