Wednesday, July 10, 2013

J.M. Barrie's Curse

“May God blast anyone who writes a biography of me.”
– J. M. Barrie

Whatever celestial space James Barrie (1860-1937) currently occupies, the sprite likely would look kindly on Marc Forster’s 2004 film Finding Neverland, a gauzy semi-biopic of himself that is based on the play The Man Who Was Peter Pan by Allan Knee. After all, it is a celebratory idyll of innocent play that began in Kensington Park in 1898 when Barrie first captivated the sons of Arthur and Sylvia Llewelyn Davies with his gift for adventurous story telling. As a short, hyperactive man with a thick mustache, sad eyes and a pipe-smoker’s cough, Barrie certainly would have been pleased with the handsome, clean-shaven and boyish Johnny Depp who portrays him as a charming defender of the (four not five) boys and a gallant protector of their mother. Time is telescoped in the film.  Set circa 1904 when his imaginative games with the boys inspired him to stage his most famous production, Peter Pan, Barrie would have endorsed the film’s sweet, sentimental tone as it skims across a bright Edwardian surface while ignoring the darker undercurrents and psychological perplexities that pervaded his relationship with the Llewelyn Davies family.

Those complexities are compellingly and more accurately explored in the leisurely-paced BBC award-winning The Lost Boys (1978). Ian Holm, looking and sounding like the Scottish author, gives a powerful and moving performance that earned the highest accolades from the youngest and only surviving Llewelyn Davies son, Nicholas (Nico), as Holm became the real “Uncle Jim.” The miniseries was written by Andrew Birkin who followed up the television script with his excellent biography J. M. Barrie and the Lost Boys (1979, reissued by the Yale University Press in 2003).

Marc Forster's Finding Neverland
Had Finding Neverland addressed the omissions and simplifications, the film could have had depth and nuance but would have been less fun for audiences (and might then have incurred Barrie’s displeasure). One convenient obstacle removed from the film was the boys’ disapproving father, Arthur, who was alive but ill during the first productions of Peter Pan. He understandably resented Barrie for his intrusions, the gifts and the holidays he bestowed upon the boys, and his role as an interloper in the family. Arthur, along with his friends, found that Barrie’s generosity and undue preoccupation with his family when he already had a wife was unhealthy even though he, like most Edwardians, did not suspect pedophilia. By contrast, in our times, a persistent suspicion has surrounded Barrie in this regard. Birkin argues that the allegation does not bear up under scrutiny since a pedophile would lose interest in the boys as they grew older but Barrie’s relationship with the Llewelyn Davies brothers only intensified. On this issue, he gives the final word to Nico: “Of all the men I have ever known, Barrie was the wittiest and the best company. He was also the least interested in sex. He was a darling man. He was innocent; which is why he could write Peter Pan.”

With Arthur airbrushed from Finding Neverland, audiences did not have to witness his slow, agonizing death from cancer of the jaw that disfigured his face. Instead, we are left with Barrie and Sylvia as an innocent romantic couple and with Sylvia’s grim-faced mother the only member of the family to register disapproval at the new family arrangement. When Sylvia, whose only symptom is a discrete cough, dies a tragic death, Forster cranks up the sentimentality. The boys’ devastation at losing both parents to cancer within a four-year period is barely touched upon and limited to Peter, the only brother who is given an individualized identity in the film. Freddie Highmore plays the wary, troubled Peter, who in reality, along with Jack, was ambivalent about Barrie, and he is outstanding the scenes in which he tells the eternal boy, “You’re not my father,” and says pointedly when referred to as Pan at the opening night of the play: “I’m not Peter Pan. He [Barrie] is.”

Neither would any casual observer know from Finding Neverland that Mary Ansell, Barrie’s wife, was a distinguished actress, and that the time Barrie was spending all his time at rehearsals and with the Davies family was not the only reason their relationship foundered. He neglected her even when he was home; she wanted a sexual relationship he denied her. Eventually, while Peter Pan was in production, she pursued another man and Barrie reluctantly granted her a divorce. It was widely believed that Barrie was impotent and did not consummate his marriage. In the first edition of J.M. Barrie and the Lost Boys, Birkin wrote that talk of Barrie of being impotent is speculative. But by the 2003 edition, he had uncovered a letter Ansell wrote to Peter Llewelyn Davies in which she wrote of her husband, “he knew that as a man he was a failure and that love in its fullest sense could not be experienced by him." Apart from the subtle hint that Barrie is cool to her sexual advances, none of this is explored in the film.

Ian Holm and his son Barnaby Holm in The Lost Boys (1978)

The most important decision that the dramatist and director made was to end the film with Sylvia’s death before Barrie became the indulgent surrogate father of their children. His possessive instincts, however, did create tensions as the boys grew into young adults desiring to live their own lives, a conflict that The Lost Boys and Birkin’s biography chronicles with insight and sensitivity. George, with whom Barrie was close, enlisted four days after the declaration of war and was killed in March 1915. The mounting casualties disabused Barrie of any illusions he had harbored about the glory of war. In his last letter to George before his death, he movingly conveyed to him that he could not care an “iota of desire for you to get military glory.” His “one passionate desire [was] that we may all be together again.” Peter likewise volunteered and was invalidated home with shell shock and eczema. When he was demobilized in 1919, he was little more than a ghost. With his parents and his brother George dead, and with no real communication with Barrie – he loathed “that terrible masterpiece” and hated the moniker Peter Pan by which he was called at school – the psychological effects of the war remained with him for life. In 1960 he committed suicide. Three years after the armistice, the death by drowning of his beloved Michael, the most gifted of the family, shattered Barrie, who looked “like a man in a nightmare.” Although it has never been proven, family members did suspect that he and a companion may have entered into a suicide pact. Perhaps he was as much a victim of the cult of the glorious youth as George had been a casualty of the war. Birkin wisely allows the evidence to speak for itself. He was fortunate to be the beneficiary of a huge trove of letters from Nico Llewelyn Davies, who worked closely with the author until his death in 1980. The letters are liberally incorporated into his biography. But in an eerie coincidence, Birkin reveals in his updated preface to the most recent edition of J. M. Barrie and the Lost Boys, that his son had been killed in a car crash, one month before his twenty-first birthday, the same age that Barrie's adopted son, Michael, had drowned. Birkin wrote, “I feel somewhat felled by Barrie's curse.”

Barrie's spirit might have a much stronger case for hurling thunderbolts at Piers Dudgeon for his book Captivated: J. M. Barrie, the du Mauriers & the Dark Side of Neverland (Chatto & Windus, 2008). His is a jeremiad that is entirely at odds with the tear-jerking, idealized Hollywood version or with Birkin's scrupulously fair-minded approach. Dudgeon concocts a polemic that feels more like a prosecutor’s brief than a biography. His Barrie is a malevolent figure who cast a Svengalian spell over the Llewelyn Davies and their cousins the du Mauriers by manipulating the lives and psyches of children to the extent that he ultimately destroyed their lives, a provocative thesis that would have been interesting if he had substantiated it. But he cannot. Like any biographer or historian he asks questions, but the problem is that he already knows his answer regardless of the evidence or lack thereof. When he cannot find what he is looking for, he resorts to breathless speculation. Consider: when Barrie was six, his older brother David, their mother’s favourite, was killed in a skating accident, an event that traumatized James when his mother told him that he could never replace his brother because David would never grow up, whereas James would grow into a man. (This episode was to be the prologue of the BBC television production but was never dramatized.) Birkin and other biographers have noted the importance of this tragedy in Barrie’s life, but Dudgeon goes much further. He asks whether the young James contributed to his brother’s death: was it really an accident? Even though he has no evidence, he maintains his theory that Barrie was complicit in his brother’s demise. How else can one explain the lack of affection that Barrie’s mother shows toward her younger son? Another example: Sylvia’s father was George du Maurier who wrote the Edwardian bestseller Trilby and created the mesmerizing figure of Svengali. Dudgeon asserts that du Maurier was himself a gifted hypnotist who could penetrate and master other peoples’ souls. Dudgeon argues that the grip that Barrie exercised over the Llewelyn Davies family can be attributed to his connection with du Maurier and that Barrie learned the art of mind control from du Maurier even though he can find no evidence that they ever met, content to assert that he cannot believe that they did not meet.

There is no letup in Dudgeon’s highly prejudicial account. Even when he quotes passages that other biographers have cited, he puts a perverse interpretation on them. Consider the last letter that Barrie wrote to George before he was killed. He can only deride Barrie’s letter: “It could have been written by George’s mother – or by his lover.” And he offers a pompous pronouncement about Michael’s tragic end: “There is a programmed inevitability about Michael’s death, and the programmer is Uncle Jim.” Barrie was totally responsible for what happened to Michael. (By contrast, Birkin focuses on how Barrie was affected and quotes Nico’s sensitive assessment: “When Michael died the light of his [Barrie’s] life went out.”) To bolster his overheated argument that Barrie was a satanic figure, Dudgeon relies on the author’s stories and those of Daphne du Maurier, indirect evidence, which at best is dubious. Given this relentless denigration of Barrie, it is worth quoting Andrew Birkin: “Piers Dudgeon is of course entitled to his own opinion, but his book is so full of errors, distortions, half-truths, and his own opinion passed off as fact, that I personally regard it as worthless.” It is a harsh but not unfounded judgment. Is Dudgeon worried about Barrie’s curse?

(photo by Keith Penner)
Bob Douglas is a teacher and author. His second volume to That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2011), titled That Line of Darkness: Vol. II The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden, is available now. For more information, please visit

1 comment:

  1. I appreciate your take on all this. Just having read an article in the Mail I can see how it's author was influenced by Dudgeons book. There is usually two sides to every human, but I doubt Barrie was that dark.