James Barrie
James Barrie; drawing by David Levine

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.

Barrie first saw the two eldest sons of Arthur and Sylvia Davies early in 1898, when they were three and four and a half years old, walking with their nanny and baby brother in Kensington Gardens. They made friends with his St. Bernard, Porthos (one of the originals of Nana in Peter Pan), and then with Porthos’s master, who turned out to have met their mother at a dinner party. Soon they were seeing Barrie every day, playing with him and the dog, and listening to wonderful stories. Some of these stories were about what happens in Kensington Gardens after they close for the night, and one of the characters was Peter Pan. He was a baby who had flown away from his nursery because he didn’t want to grow up, and lived with the birds on an island in the Serpentine, where he was visited by a little girl named Maimie. Eventually these stories were published—first as part of Barrie’s novel The Little White Bird (1902) and later separately as Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (1906).

From the start the reactions of the Davies family to Barrie differed. The boys were enchanted by him, and their mother Sylvia was at least tolerant, though she regarded Barrie’s growing romantic crush on her with amused indifference. But Arthur Davies, a serious young barrister, did not care for the odd little man with the plebeian Scottish accent who soon seemed to be spending most of his waking hours in Arthur’s house, paying extravagant compliments to Arthur’s wife and playing with Arthur’s children.

But apparently he couldn’t do much about it. The constant visits and stories and games and presents continued, breaking off only in the summers; and in 1901 the Davies rented a country cottage on Black Lake in Surrey for the holidays almost next door to the Barries’ country cottage. For six weeks they saw each other almost every day. Barrie was forty-one that summer, but he still looked more like an adolescent boy than a grown man; and he was apparently accepted as such by the Davies boys (there were four now, one still a baby). To them he seemed like a wonderfully clever older brother, the inventor and leader of a long series of exciting games in the woods and on the shores of the lake—games involving pirates, Indians, shipwrecks, and desert islands.

Barrie recorded these adventures with a camera, and after the holidays were over he made his photographs into an album titled The Boy Castaways of Black Lake Island. The book had imaginary chapter headings and serio-comic captions (“We prepared for the pirates by making spears and other trusty weapons”). There were two copies, but only one survives; Arthur Davies, the boys’ father, almost immediately left the other one in a train.

The play Peter Pan which Barrie wrote two years later is on its simplest level a combination of the stories he told the Davies children in Kensington Gardens and the games he invented for them in Surrey. The Never Land (later, and with sadder finality, the Never-Never Land) is the place where all these stories and games can come true at once. But the play is much more than this. To start with, it is a classic English Christmas pantomime, which appropriately had its first performance in London on December 27, 1904.

Like Mother Goose, Dick Whittington, or Aladdin, Peter Pan presents a medley of incongruous fantasy settings—the mermaids’ lagoon, the forest full of wolves and Indians, the pirate ship. There are music, songs, dancing, and a transformation scene; a chorus of children (the Lost Boys) appears. The original production of Peter Pan even ended with the then traditional harlequinade.

The conventional pantomime characters are all included. Peter Pan of course is the Principal Boy (like Peter, always played by a young woman in tights)—youthful, imaginative, courageous, somewhat boastful. Wendy is the Principal Girl, full of gentle innocent feminine charm. Captain Hook plays the Demon King and Tinker Bell the Good Fairy; Nana, the dog-nurse, is the Dame (like her, traditionally a male comic part). Peter Pan even observes the pantomime tradition, inherited from the old mystery and morality plays, that the villains enter from stage left and the good characters from stage right.

Beyond this, Peter Pan is an allegory of Barrie’s relations with the Davies family. The lost boy who flies into the Darling nursery to lead Wendy, John, and Michael away to an enchanted island where fantasies come true is Barrie himself. The charming Mrs. Darling, whose given name is Mary, is partly pretty Sylvia Davies; in another, sadder way she is Barrie’s wife Mary, to whom he now gives in imagination the children she had longed to have.

Mrs. Darling is “the loveliest lady in Bloomsbury.” Mr. Darling, on the other hand, is a coward and a bully and a hypocrite. (It is worth noting that in production the same actor customarily doubles his part and that of Captain Hook.) He cons his son Michael into taking nasty medicine by pretending to take some even nastier medicine of his own, and then instead pours it into Nana’s bowl. When his family does not appreciate this, Mr. Darling rapidly becomes hysterical:

Mr. Darling. It was only a joke. Much good my wearing myself to the bone trying to be funny in this house.

Wendy (on her knees by the kennel). Father, Nana is crying.

Mr. Darling. Coddle her; nobody coddles me. Oh dear no. I am only the bread-winner, why should I be coddled? Why, why, why?

That is what you get for leaving people’s photograph albums in trains.

Wendy, the “little mother,” may also be an idealized version of Sylvia Davies. But the child-mother character goes back much further, to Barrie’s own mother’s childhood as he described it in Margaret Ogilvy: “She was eight when her mother’s death made her mistress of the house and mother to her little brother, and from that time she scrubbed and mended and baked and sewed.” (Grizel in Sentimental Tommy is also a little mother, who keeps house for orphaned Tommy and his sister.) When Wendy reattaches Peter’s shadow, what is symbolized, according to Harry M. Geduld, is the wish for Margaret Ogilvy to fuse her dead and her living son.1

In Peter Pan every wish comes true, from early fantasies of flying to the resurrection of the dead: the Lost Boys, missing children who live underground in the Never Land in a sort of cozy tomb, finally return to London where they are adopted by the Darlings. The whole play is an elaborate dream-fulfillment of intense but contradictory childhood wishes: to be grown-up at once and never to be grown-up; to have exciting adventures and be perfectly safe; to escape from your mother and have her always at hand.

No wonder that Peter Pan was received with overwhelming enthusiasm, and that it has become the most famous children’s play ever written, as well as the greatest success in recent British stage history: performed over ten thousand times in England alone between 1904 and 1954, according to Roger Lancelyn Green’s entertaining record of this success, Fifty Years of Peter Pan (Peter Davies, London, 1954). Admiration for the play has reached odd heights at times. Its first producer, the American showman Charles Frohman, who was killed in the sinking of the Lusitania, is reported to have cried as the ship went down, “To die will be an awfully big adventure!”—Peter’s curtain line in act 3.

But there is a private, darker side to the play. The crocodile who follows Captain Hook, relentlessly ticking (it has swallowed a clock as well as Hook’s right hand), stands for the threat of death and time that hangs over all the characters except Peter. And there is a hidden identification of James Barrie not only with the Darling children’s innocent playfellow Peter Pan but with their kidnaper, Captain James Hook, who shares the author’s name and his fondness for cigars. The plot of acts 3 through 5 turns on the rivalry between Peter and Hook for possession of Wendy. Not possession in the physical sense, of course: in spite of our associations (or the Edwardians’2 ) to his name, Peter Pan is completely asexual. “You mustn’t touch me,” he cries in the final published version of the script. “No one must ever touch me.” Hook, too, only wants Wendy so that the pirates may have a mother.

In fact Peter Pan and Captain Hook are not so much opposites as two sides of the same coin. After Peter has defeated Hook in their final duel there is a tableau; Barrie writes in the stage directions:

The curtain rises to show Peter a very Napoleon on his ship. It must not rise again lest we see him on the poop in Hook’s hat and cigars, and with a small iron claw.

According to Peter Davies, whenever Barrie “was strongly attracted by people, he wanted at once to own them … whichever their sex.” Assuming that what Barrie wanted in 1904 was to own Sylvia Davies and her sons, it is possible to see Peter Pan as the innocent embodiment of this desire, and Captain Hook as the guilty one. In the play, of course, neither of them succeeds, and we are not sorry.

But in real life the outcome was different. Again, just as in childhood, Barrie got his wish, and again in an awful way. In 1906 Arthur Davies was suddenly found to have cancer, and within a year he was dead. He left five sons aged two to fourteen, and very little money. James Barrie, who was now a rich man, stepped into the breach. He became the main—and very generous—support of the family and their constant companion.

A happy ending, for him at least? Briefly, perhaps. But the crocodile was still there offstage, slowly but fatally moving closer. The Davies boys were effectively Barrie’s now; but they would not remain boys. One by one, as they grew older, they began to find his games and jokes embarrassing, and to resent his presence in the household—an embarrassment and resentment complicated by the knowledge that this odd little man who looked like an aged child was paying the tradesmen’s bills and their fees at Eton and Oxford.

Barrie was well aware of these feelings. He wrote during a later holiday with some of the boys and their school friends: “We are a very Etonian household and there is endless shop talked, during which I am expected to be merely a ladler out of food. If I speak to one he shudders politely then edges away.”

Worse still was to come. In 1910 Sylvia Davies herself died, and the grief-stricken Barrie found himself responsible for five lost boys, three of whom were now definitely too old to play pirates. During World War I, a few years later, George, the eldest Davies boy, was killed in France, and Peter invalided home with severe shell shock.

When the war ended, even the youngest of the remaining Davies boys was too old to play with Barrie. He was still a famous man, but he had written nothing much for several years, and was beginning to fear that he would never do any serious work again. He had an idea for a play; but when he began to make notes for it he developed a severe writer’s cramp and pain in his right hand and arm, in a late and uncanny imitation of Captain Hook. Since Barrie found it nearly impossible to dictate, it seemed possible that this was the end of his career. His uncanny youthfulness of manner and appearance was gone. Lady Cynthia Asquith, who had just become his secretary and was later to write an admiring memoir of him, commented:

As for the legend of his being himself the boy who wouldn’t grow up, I see no evidence whatever of this. On the contrary he strikes me as more than old, in fact I doubt whether he ever was a boy.

But lonely and distressed as he was, Barrie still had remarkable strength of will. With some difficulty, he trained himself to write with his left hand, and went on with the new play, Mary Rose. His affliction, he remarked, had made him into two authors; only the new work, done with the left hand, was more sinister.

And in spite of some passages of sentimentality, Mary Rose is in many ways a sinister play, a final and darker version of Peter Pan. There is an enchanted island, a lost boy, temporarily bereaved parents, and children who never grow up; but the mood of the play is not joyous, but melancholy and weird, even frightening. It was based on old Scottish legends Barrie heard as a child, in which mortals are stolen away to fairyland and return days or years later with no memory of where they have been.

Mary Rose is the only child of a nice but rather timid and silly English couple who love her so much they can’t bear for her to grow up. In a way they have already got their wish when the play opens. When Mary Rose was eleven she vanished on an island in the Hebrides during a vacation trip. Her parents believed her drowned, but instead she reappeared twenty days later in the same spot, unaware that any time had passed. At eighteen she is remarkably immature for her age, and childishly dependent both on her parents and on the young man to whom she has become engaged.

Act 2 takes place four or five years later on the island. Mary Rose is now married and the mother of a son, but still very childish emotionally—the last and saddest of Barrie’s little-girl mothers. She is perfectly happy, but she hates the idea that her baby will grow up, or that she and her husband will grow old. Again, the island grants the wish. Mary Rose disappears while her husband’s back is turned; only this time she is gone for twenty-five years. When she finally reappears, looking not a day older, without any memory of the intervening years and eager to see her baby son again, she is a source of great distress and embarrassment to her middle-aged husband and elderly parents.

In the last act of the play Mary Rose, now dead, appears as a ghost haunting her deserted house. She is pathetically childish, doubly bereaved because she has not only lost her parents and her little boy, but is losing her memories of them and even her own identity. When her son, now a young man, appears, she does not know him and even wants to kill him:

Harry. Where is my knife? Were you standing looking at me with my knife in your hand? (She is sullenly silent.) Give me my knife. (She gives it to him.) What made you take it?

Mary Rose. I thought perhaps you were the one.

Harry. The one?

Mary Rose. The one who stole him from me.

Mary Rose is all the women Barrie has been closest to: his childless wife Mary; Sylvia Davies, now dead; and his own mother who could never forget her lost son, and became similarly childish before her death. And Mary Rose is also Barrie himself, ghostlike and ageless in a changed world—a world in which his parents are dead and the little boys he loved have turned into strange and hateful young men.

To quote Mr. Geduld, who says some of these things and many more, “The ‘message’ in Mary Rose can be expressed … as the conviction that to attempt to hold back the clock, to deny the future for the sake of the past, is the pursuit of a fantasy that ultimately destroys the pursuer.”

Though Mary Rose was a stage success in 1920, it puzzled audiences and critics, and is now practically unknown. Which is too bad, for it has particular application today. It is no longer so popular in America to be adolescent: the fashionable age now seems to be that at which Mary Rose disappeared for the second time. Because of the postwar baby boom, America is now full of people this age—and of somewhat older people pretending to be about the same age.

When youth is so favored, it is natural to want to be young; but the effort to seem so, if too long continued, is exhausting and demoralizing. And when the refusal to grow up, or to grow old, becomes absolute, the effects are terrifying. In extreme cases of Peter Pan syndrome your closest friends and relatives are forgotten, just as Peter forgot Wendy; memory and even identity lapse. What finally remains is one of those attractive, energetic, ageless youngish people we all know, with the same dazed and accusing look in their eyes you can see in some of the late photographs of Barrie; the look he saw at the end in the eyes of Mary Rose.

This Issue

February 6, 1975