Biography

James Matthew Barrie was born at Kirriemuir in Forfarshire, the seventh child to David Barrie, a hand-loom weaver, and Margaret Ogilvie, the daughter of a stone-mason. Surviving on the income provided by declining weaving industry, the Barries were never wealthy and it is from his early childhood experiences as a dweller in the tenements that Barrie drew his sympathetic portraits of the rural poor.

The death of Barrie’s elder brother David, when Barrie was just six years old, was to have a marked effect of his life and work. His mother never recovered from the loss of her son, whom Barrie perceived to be the favourite and whose place in his mother’s affections he strove to replace. The psychological significance of Barrie’s relationship with his mother and his need for maternal approval are apparent in the uncritical, almost doting biography of her life which he published in 1896. The exploration of feminine identity was to become a marked feature of Barrie’s writing. The experience of death in childhood would also influence Barrie’s work, which is constantly pre-occupied with the themes of exile, immortality and the otherworldly.

Barrie’s was an itinerant youth. In 1868 he went to study for three years at Glasgow Academy before returning to Forfarshire where he attended the local school. Then, from 1873 he spent his teenage years at Dumfries Academy before moving to Edinburgh to attend University at the age of 22. Barrie was unmoved by his University experience and he derived his intellectual inspiration largely from the theatre. Upon graduating he was already writing theatrical reviews, a career which eventually led him to London in 1885 where he would produce his first plays.

During the years 1888 – 1891 Barrie penned his first novels, the so-called ‘Thrums fiction’, the fictional setting being based on his own native Kirriemuir and depicting the lives of the rural populations of west Scotland. In 1894 Barrie married the actress Mary Ansell, but the marriage was not to last. It was during these years too that Barrie’s friendship with the Llewellyn Davies family inspired his invention of the Peter Pan tales with which he delighted the Davies children.

The period 1902 – 1921 were to be Barrie’s most successful. During these years he produced no less than ten commercially successful plays. It was in 1904 that Barrie first staged Peter Pan, probably the best known of all his works, in London and New York. In his later life, Barrie was a wealthy man, popular in London society. He was bestowed with several honours including a baronet in 1913 and the Order of Merit in 1922. However, after 1920 Barrie claimed to have lost his imaginative inspiration and all but gave up writing except for his one final prose masterpiece, Farewell Miss Julie Logan (1931). He went on to explore some of his most intimate themes in his final, biblical drama The Boy David, which he believed to be his finest work. The play, however, did not attain the critical or commercial success of his earlier dramas and was abandoned after just fifty-five performances in London. In increasingly ill health and in a state of dejection that belied the critical success of his life, Barrie, in 1937, aged 77, died.

Works

Barrie’s most famous and best loved work is undoubtedly his play Peter Pan, performed since 1904 and most recently immortalised in film in 2003. The story is the classic tale of the child that does not want to grow up and Barrie clearly felt that it was, in part, the condition of humanity to feel always in exile from the innocence and freedoms of childhood. The societal constraints of middle-class domestic reality are enacted in the Bloomsbury scenes while the Never-Land is a world free of these Victorian social constraints, a world in which sexuality and morality are crucially ambivalent.

From this point of view, the familial nucleus represented by the Darling Children acts as a metaphor for social order and stability while Peter and the Lost Boys exist out with parental (and by implication societal) control. The brutish pirate scenes, in which the Darling Boys indulge with relish (although Peter himself also indulges, and is both infantile and devilish) are the embodiment of anarchic disorder and in this way represent the innate, but repressed, desire for social deviance. Similarly, Wendy can be regarded as the epitome of ‘the good wife and mother’, a role which is playfully challenged by the more flirtatious and untamed Tinker Bell in the parallel dimension of Never Land. George Bernard Shaw’s description of the play as ‘ostensibly a holiday entertainment for children but really a play for grown-up people’, suggests his understanding of the deeper social allegories at work in Peter Pan.

Perhaps the best known, though by no means the finest, of Barrie’s fictional output are his early Thrums stories, Auld Licht Idylls (1888), A Window in Thrums (1889) and The Little Minister (1891). Literary criticism of these works has been unfavourable, tending to disparage these early writings as sentimental and nostalgic depictions of a parochial Scotland far from the realities of the industrialised nineteenth century. Criticism has perhaps judged these early works too harshly. For one thing, regionalism was in fashion at the turn of the century, as exemplified in the fiction of Thomas Hardy and George Elliot. Moreover, Barrie’s descriptions of humble life are acutely observed and the painstaking detail he devotes to describing the conditions in which the rural poor lived offsets some of the more idealised and romantic characterisations and plots. The Thrums tales do not ignore the problems of alcoholism and temptations of adultery in lives characterised by boredom, monotony and poverty.

Many of J. M. Barrie’s stories were drawn from his mother and his own memories of Kirriemuir life, and Barrie is unusually faithful to the dialect patterns of his native community at a time when the commercial demand for easily digestible and ‘polite’ English prose was particularly strong. A re-assessment of the value of his early fiction should note that one of the pervasive themes of the Thrums tales is that of change and, in particular, the movement from cottage industries to large scale industrial cities. If Barrie’s Thrums fiction does tends towards the nostalgic and the idealised, it is, in part, because his books sought to represent the values of a community life that Barrie perceived to be fast fading from view.

Barrie wrote many other works of value besides those for which he is best known. In drama, The Admirable Crichton (1902) is a bold analysis of the class structure and prejudices of Edwardian society. The play enacts a modern fable whereby the values of an aristocratic family are literally isolated (the family being stranded on a desert island) and deconstructed in a play which debates the conventional ideals of class and gender. Gender roles and restrictions are also skilfully satirised in Barrie’s excellent and neglected play What Every Woman Knows (1908).

In fiction Sentimental Tommy (1896) and its sequel Tommy and Grizel (1900) give the lie to the idea that Barrie is a facile, sentimental writer. These novels offer a complex psychological study of the impulse of sentimentalism itself, characterized by Barrie as the inability to sustain strong emotional feeling oneself whilst being able to instinctively merge into the feelings of others. It is this trait, Barrie suggests, like Joyce in his Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man, that is both the gift and the curse of the writer, and is the romantic allure as well as the impenetrability of Tommy himself.

A summary of Barrie’s writing should not neglect his final prose masterpiece Farewell Miss Julie Logan (1932), a haunting short novel drawing on the folkloric and ballad traditions passed on to Barrie by his mother. The story describes a young minister’s enchantment under the spell of the amorphous Julie Logan, thought to be the ghost of a Jacobite heroine believed to have sheltered the Young Pretender. The novel maintains a powerful ambivalence, common to Scottish writing, between the spectral evocation of the haunted Scottish landscape and the powerful rendering of a fractured psyche torn by repressed desire and human isolation. This novel epitomises the best of Barrie’s work in which the condition of exile and the predicament of human isolation is the basis for the best of his fantasy and the most profound of his considerable psychological perception.

Reading Lists

Primary

Auld Licht Idylls (1888)

The Little Minister (1891)

Jane Annie (1893) (with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)

Sentimental Tommy (1896)

Margaret Ogilvy (1897)

A Window in Thrums (1899)

Tommy and Grizel (1900)

Peter Pan (1904) aka Peter and Wendy

The Little White Bird (1912)

Quality Street (1913)

The Admirable Crichton (1914)

Half Hours (1917)

Kiss for Cinderella (1920)

Dear Brutus (1922)

The Old Lady Shows Her Medals (1923)

My Lady Nicotine (1926)

When a Man's Single: A Tale of Literary Life (1927)

What Every Woman Knows? (1928)

Shall We Joint The Ladies? (1929)

Farewell Miss Julie Logan: A Wintry Tale (1932)

The Greenwood Hat: Being a Memoir of James Anon 1885-1887 (1937)

The Boy David - A Play In Three Acts (1938)

Collections

Echoes of the War (1918)

An Auld Licht Manse: And Other Sketches (1970)

Non fiction

Courage (1922)

M'Connachie and JMB: Speeches (1938)

Anthologies containing stories by J M Barrie

The Black Cap (1927)

A Century of Creepy Stories (1934)

Secondary

Birkin, Andrew J M Barrie and the Lost Boys  (2003)

Jack, R.D.S. The Peter Pan Chronicles: The Nearly 100 Year History of the "Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up" (1993)

Bruce K. Hanson The Road to the Never Land: A Reassessment of J.M. Barrie’s Dramatic Art (1991)

Related Links

Writing Scotland themes