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The Boy Who Couldn’t Grow Up

In every society, every century, some time of life seems to embody current cultural ideals and has superior prestige. In ancient China, we are told, the greatest honor was given to old age; America in the 1960s admired teenagers, attributing to them boundless energy, political altruism, and a polymorphously joyous sensuality.

The Victorians, on the other hand, preferred children who had not yet reached puberty. The natural innocents of Blake and Wordsworth reappear in middlebrow versions in hundreds of nineteenth-century stories and poems, always uncannily good and sensitive, with an angelic beauty and charm which often move the angels to carry them off. But the early deaths of these children are not felt as wholly tragic, for if they never become adults they will escape worldly sin and suffering; they will remain forever pure and happy.

This is such a classic Victorian idea that it seems quite right that a man walking in Kensington Gardens near the Albert Memorial, in the final years of Victoria’s reign, should have imagined the last and most famous of these unaging innocents: Peter Pan, the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up.

The current idea of Peter Pan as a shallow, cloyingly cute fantasy is probably based on memories of the Disney film, or some similarly oversimplified and sugared version of the story in print. The original play is more interesting and complicated, just as its author, James Barrie, was a more original and complex man than he is now generally reputed to be.

Current opinion is not absolutely wrong: Barrie was a whimsical romantic with an emotional, occasionally a maudlin, devotion to mothers and children. But he was also a shrewd, cynical, and highly successful journalist and dramatist who had made his way from a weaver’s cottage in a remote Scottish village to a town house in South Kensington. As the seventh of eight surviving children, and the adopted uncle of five more, he knew very well that juvenile charm and innocence are often accompanied by profound egotism and an unconscious capacity for cruelty. Moreover Barrie knew, for the most bitter and private reasons, what a boy who didn’t grow up would really be like. He was that boy.

His strange story echoes through nearly all of Barrie’s writing, but it can be heard most clearly in his memoir of his mother, Margaret Ogilvy (1896) and his two remarkable and now almost unknown autobiographical novels, Sentimental Tommy (1896) and Tommy and Grizel (1900).

For the first six years of his life, Jamie Barrie seems to have been an ordinary little boy, not unusually good or unusually clever. He was an unimportant member of his large impoverished family, especially compared to his brilliant older brother David. David was unmistakably the parents’ favorite, and the center of his mother’s ambition; she was determined that he would win a scholarship to Edinburgh University and become a famous minister—“the highest reward on earth any mother could hope for.”

But the day before his fourteenth birthday David was killed in a skating accident. Upon hearing the news his mother got into bed and stayed there for over a year. At first she refused to eat or speak. Jamie’s oldest sister, upon whom all the work of the household had devolved, found him sitting crying on the stairs one day and told him to go in to his mother “and say to her that she still had another boy.”

The room was dark, and when I heard the door shut and no sound come from the bed I was afraid, and I stood still…. After a time I heard a listless voice…say, “Is that you?”…I thought it was the dead boy she was speaking to, and I said in a little lonely voice, “No, it’s no’ him, it’s just me.”

During the months that followed, Jamie spent most of his waking hours in his mother’s room, sitting in her bed and trying to comfort and cheer her. He conceived “an intense desire” to take the place of his dead brother, “to become so like him that even my mother should not see the difference.” He promised her that he too would be a famous man, and make her as proud as David would have done.

In Margaret Ogilvy, written just after his mother’s death, Barrie relates the story in full, but without any apparent recognition that it is an odd one, or that readers might question statements such as “nothing that happens after we are twelve matters very much.” His mother appears as a woman of unusual originality, imagination, and charm; he seems unaware that he is also describing someone of terrifying ambition and a pathologically jealous possessiveness.

Barrie got his desire, and kept his promise to his mother, but at great cost. He became a famous man, and—in a peculiar, awful way—he became David: David exactly as he had been on the day he died. He became, and remained for the rest of his long life, a brilliant boy just short of puberty whose deepest attachment was to his mother. The resemblance was more than psychological: Barrie never grew to be more than five feet tall, and he was always extremely slight and youthful in appearance, with a thin small voice. In photographs taken during his twenties and early thirties he looks like an adolescent boy wearing a false mustache. And though given to romantic crushes on pretty women, he was apparently incapable of physical love. His marriage at thirty-four to an actress in his first hit play was never consummated.

It is possible that Barrie’s inability to mature was physical rather than—or as well as—psychological. Dr. James Purdom-Martin, a London physician who has made a lifelong study of such cases, believes that Barrie may have suffered from delayed or incomplete puberty, perhaps related to a glandular deficiency. Milder forms of this condition, according to Dr. Purdom-Martin, are fairly common; today they are often corrected by hormone shots. In extreme instances, the voice does not deepen, facial and body hair does not develop, and the sexual parts fail to mature; the adult man remains physiologically a boy of twelve or thirteen. (The causes are not fully understood, but it is conceivable, such is the complex interconnection of mind and body, that some people may be able to choose not to grow up, like Peter Pan, though perhaps not so consciously.)

Tommy Sandys, the hero of Barrie’s unexpectedly serious and psychologically subtle autobiographical novels, is one of these unfortunate boys. As a child he is charming, gifted, inventive, and affectionate; he brings happiness and interest into everyone’s life. As a man he lies to his friends and drives the woman who loves him temporarily insane, though in the end (unlike Barrie’s wife, who finally left him for a young lawyer) she forgives and accepts him:

He did not love her. “Not as I love him,” she said to herself. “Not as married people ought to love, but in the other way he loves me dearly….” He was a boy who could not grow up.

Tommy is not only like Barrie in being a perpetual boy; he is also a Scotsman and a successful writer. The books in which he appears, especially Tommy and Grizel, give a devastating portrait of the artist as unconscious phony. The narrative tone throughout has nothing of the soapy whimsy associated with Barrie’s name—it is that of his other self, the coolly ironic London journalist.

From an early age Tommy has the writer’s trick of turning the people and events around him into material for his fantasies. That Barrie was well aware of this habit in himself a passage from his notebook shows:

Scene: Husband taking notes of wife’s quaintness, &c., for novel. Her indignation—a quarrel—till he promises never to do it again. (Then he takes a note of this!)

Tommy is also an inspired liar and fantast, for whom the world of his imagination is realer than the drab untidy one he lives in. He romanticizes everyone, including himself, and every situation; before he is ten he talks his way into a charity banquet by pretending to be a reformed juvenile delinquent, and even convinces himself:

When he described the eerie darkness of the butler’s pantry, he shivered involuntarily, and he shut his eyes once—ugh!—that was because he saw the blood spouting out of the butler.

As an adult Tommy is unchanged. Out on a walk one day, he begins to limp painfully when he thinks of a story about a man with a wooden leg. His friends notice, and ask solicitously if he is hurt. Tommy is so taken by their sympathy and the possibilities of the part of Stoical Wounded Hero that he ends up with a real sprained ankle.

More fatally, when he sees that Grizel is in love with him, Tommy at once begins to imagine and then to play out a series of heavy romantic scenes with her.

For instance, if she would only let him love her hopelessly …how finely he would behave. It would bring out all that was best in him. “Is there no hope for me?” He heard himself begging for hope, and he heard also her firm answer, “None.”…(How charmingly it was all working out.)

Unfortunately Grizel is happy to give Tommy hope, and he plays along, gradually getting carried away by his own rhetoric.

He so loved the thing he had created that in his exaltation he mistook it for her. He believed all he was saying. He looked at her long and adoringly, not, as he thought, because he adored her, but because it was thus that look should answer look;…he was the artist trying in a mad moment to be as well as to do.

Presently Tommy comes to his senses, realizes he has talked himself into an engagement he cannot fulfill, and rejects Grizel cruelly. He then runs away to London, where he writes a very sentimental, touching—and very successful—book about unrequited love.

Not many of us get into as serious trouble as this; but who reading this article can swear they never improved an anecdote, or spoke a line because it went well with the scenery? Tommy Sandys is only an exaggerated version of something we all do; though maybe only a writer could so rapidly turn his own experience inside out and use it as material.

Four years later Barrie told his story again, but this time, like Tommy Sandys, he turned it inside out. The boy who could not with years become a man was transformed into the boy who refuses to become a man—Peter Pan. The emphasis is no longer on loss and pain and deception, but on pleasure and discovery.

This new perspective was the result of a profound change in Barrie’s life. The Tommy novels were written from within a failed and unreal marriage; Peter Pan out of what was probably the happiest relationship of Barrie’s adulthood, his friendship with the Davies family, and especially with the five Davies children.

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