Best remembered today as the creator of Peter Pan, The Scottish author and dramatist, Sir James Matthew Barrie, 1st Baronet, OM was born 9 May 1860 in Kirriemuir, he was the child of a family of small-town weavers. At the age of 8, Barrie was sent to The Glasgow Academy, Scotland, in the care of his eldest siblings Alexander and Mary Ann, who taught at the school. When he was 10 he returned home and continued his education at the Forfar Academy. At 14, he left home for Dumfries Academy, again under the watch of Alexander and Mary Ann. He became a voracious reader, and was fond of Penny Dreadfuls, and the works of Robert Michael Ballantyne and James Fenimore Cooper.
At Dumfries he and his friends spent time in the garden of Moat Brae house, playing pirates “in a sort of Odyssey that was long afterwards to become the play of Peter Pan”.They formed a drama club, producing his first play Bandelero the Bandit, which provoked a minor controversy following a scathing moral denunciation from a clergyman on the school’s governing board. Barrie wished to follow a career as an author, but was dissuaded by his family who wanted him to have a profession such as the ministry. With advice from Alec, he was able to work out a compromise: he was to attend a university, but would study literature. He enrolled at the University of Edinburgh, where he wrote drama reviews for the Edinburgh Evening Courant. He graduated and obtained a M.A. on 21 April 1882.
He worked for a year and a half as a staff journalist on the Nottingham Journal following a job advertisement found by his sister in The Scotsman, then returned to Kirriemuir, using his mother’s stories about the town (which he renamed “Thrums”) for a piece submitted to the newspaper St. James’s Gazette in London. The editor ‘liked that Scotch thing’, so Barrie wrote a series of them, which served as the basis for his first novels: Auld Licht Idylls (1888), A Window in Thrums (1890), and The Little Minister, which eventually established Barrie as a successful writer. After the success of the “Auld Lichts”, he printed Better Dead (1888) privately and at his own expense, and it failed to sell. His two “Tommy” novels, Sentimental Tommy (1896) and Tommy and Grizel (1900), were about a boy and young man who clings to childish fantasy, with an unhappy ending.
Barrie began writing for the theatre, beginning with a biography of Richard Savage and written by both Barrie and H.B. Marriott Watson, this was followed by Ibsen’s Ghost (or Toole Up-to-Date) (1891), a parody of Henrik Ibsen’s dramas Hedda Gabler and Ghosts. His third play, Walker, London (1892), helped him be introduced to a young actress named Mary Ansell. He proposed to her and they were married on 9 July 1894. Barrie bought her a Saint Bernard puppy, who would play a part in the novel The Little White Bird (or Adventures in Kensington Gardens). He also gave Ansell’s given name to many characters in his novels. He then wrote Jane Annie, a failed comic opera for Richard D’Oyly Carte (1893), which he begged his friend Arthur Conan Doyle to revise and finish for him. In 1901 and 1902 he had back-to-back successes: Quality Street, about a responsible ‘old maid’ who poses as her own flirtatious niece to win the attention of a former suitor returned from the war; and The Admirable Crichton, a critically acclaimed social commentary with elaborate staging, about an aristocratic household shipwrecked on a desert island, in which the butler naturally rises to leadership over his lord and ladies for the duration of their time away from civilisation.
Peter Pan first appeared in his novel The Little White Bird, in 1902, and later in Barrie’s more famous and enduring work, Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, a “fairy play” about an ageless boy and an ordinary girl named Wendy who have adventures in the fantasy setting of Neverland. This was inspired by the Llewelyn Davis Boys whom he met in London who suggested a baby boy who has magical adventures in Kensington Gardens (included in The Little White Bird). It had its first stage performance on 27 December 1904. It has been performed innumerable times since then, and was developed by Barrie into the 1911 novel Peter and Wendy. It has since been adapted into feature films, musicals, and more. The Bloomsbury scenes show the societal constraints of late Victorian and Edwardian middle-class domestic reality, contrasted with Neverland, a world where morality is ambivalent. George Bernard Shaw’s description of the play as “ostensibly a holiday entertainment for children but really a play for grown-up people”, suggests deeper social metaphors at work in Peter Pan.
Following Peter Pan Barrie had many more successes on the stage including The Twelve Pound Look which concerns a wife divorcing a peer and gaining an independent income. Other plays, such as Mary Rose and a subplot in Dear Brutus, revisit the idea of the ageless child. Later plays included What Every Woman Knows (1908). His final play was The Boy David (1936), which dramatised the Biblical story of King Saul and the young David. Like the role of Peter Pan, that of David was played by a woman, Elisabeth Bergner, for whom Barrie wrote the play.
Barrie had many Friends including Novelist George Meredith, fellow Scot Robert Louis Stevenson, who lived in Samoa at the time, George Bernard Shaw who was his neighbour in London for several years. H. G. Wells was also a friend of many years, and Barrie met Thomas Hardy through Hugh Clifford while he was staying in London. Although Barrie continued to write, Peter Pan quickly overshadowed his previous work and became his best-known work, and is credited with popularising the name Wendy, which was very uncommon previously. Barrie unofficially adopted the Davies boys following the deaths of their parents and was made a baronet by George V in 1913, and a member of the Order of Merit in 1922.
Unfortunately Barrie tragically died of pneumonia on 19 June 1937. He was buried at Kirriemuir next to his parents and two of his siblings and left the bulk of his estate (excluding the Peter Pan works, which he had previously given to Great Ormond Street Hospital in April 1929) to his secretary Cynthia Asquith. His birthplace at 4 Brechin Road is maintained as a museum by the National Trust for Scotland. However, Ormond Street Hospital, continues to benefit from the arrangement involving the Peter Pan novels.