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Issue 38 - JM Barrie

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 38
April 2008


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JM Barrie

Scottish journalist, playwright and children's book writer, JM Barrie became world famous with his story about a little boy who never grew up.

James Matthew Barrie was born on 9th May 1860 in the Lowland village of Kirriemuir, in Forfarshire (now Angus).

His father, David Barrie was a handloom weaver, and mother, Margaret Ogilvy, the daughter of a stonemason.

James was the ninth of 10 children and his imagination was nutured as a youngster by his mother, who read her children adventure stories in the evenings.

When James was six, his 13-year-old brother David died in an ice-skating accident. His mother was devastated, and so James tried to fill David’s place in her affections, even by wearing his clothes.

James’ mother found comfort in the fact that her dead son would remain a boy forever, never to grow up and leave her, a theme that would profoundly affect the young author.

At the age of 13, James left Kirriemuir. At school he was interested in theatre and devoured works by such authors as Jules Verne, Mayne Reid and James Fenimore Cooper. He was a small, shy child (he would grow to only five feet tall as an adult) and these feelings of being a physical and social failure would affect him for much of his adult life.

Later he studied at the University of Edinburgh, moving to London in 1885 to work as a freelance writer for fashionable magazines such as The Pall Mall Gazette. During this period James knocked about with other eminent literary figures including Arthur Conan Doyle, PG Wodehouse, HG Wells and GB Shaw.

James’ first successful book was Auld Licht Idylls, first published in 1888. It showed sketches of traditional Scottish life and was praised for its originality. His melodramatic novel, The Little Minster (1891), also became a success, and was filmed three times. After its dramatisation Barrie wrote mostly for the theatre and in 1894 married Mary Ansell who acted in one his plays. But the marriage was reportedly a sexless one, and childless.

They divorced in 1909.

Peter Pan, the immortal play that would make Barrie himself immortal, evolved from the stories he would tell to the five young sons of a friend, Sylvia Llewelyn Davies.

Barrie became acquainted with the boys in 1897, meeting Jack, George, Michael, Nicholas and baby Peter out with their nurse in London’s Kensington Gardens. He lived nearby and often walked his Landseer Newfoundland dog Porthos in the park, and entertained the boys regularly with his fantastic stories.

He did not meet Sylvia until a chance encounter at a dinner party, and the two became firm friends despite the fact that he and she were both married.

The lives of the Davies family was dogged by tragedy. The boys’ father Arthur Llewelyn Davies died in 1907, and Sylvia not long after in 1910. Her will stipulated that ‘Uncle Jim’ would become guardian of her orphaned sons. J M Barrie was extremely close to the children and was heartbroken when George was killed in action in 1915 and Michael drowned in 1921.

JM Barrie had a long string of successes on the stage after Peter Pan. In 1913 he became a baronet and in 1922 received the Order of Merit.

He died of pneumonia on 19 June 1937, aged 77, and was buried at Kirriemuir next to his parents and two of his siblings. Before he died, he bequeathed the royalties from Peter Pan to the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children in London, a testament to his philanthopic nature.

His passing was described by King George VI in a message of sympathy to Peter Davies: “His loss will be universally mourned, for his writing has brought joy and inspiration to young and old alike.” His tale about an impish boy in Neverland who could fly, battle pirates and refused to grow up, continues to capture the imaginations of children everywhere.

Places to visit
His birthplace at 9 Brechin Road, Kirriemuir is maintained as a museum by the National Trust for Scotland. There is a museum dedicated to Barrie’s life which also houses important theatrical memorabilia