James Matthew Barrie was born in Kirriemuir, Scotland in 1860. The town had an unusually high standard of education for being small in population and reliant on trade skills. Though Barrie’s father had been put to weaving at a young age and did not receive much education, he had taught himself to read and kept the house full of books on theology and philosophy. He worked extra hours to support his family so that the children could attend school, while his wife maintained the household.
James was the ninth child born child out of ten (two died in infancy), and the third son in the his family. His two older brothers were lauded for their educational achievements: Alexander, the first child and son, went through college and opened up a private school in another town where he and the eldest daughter, Mary, taught. David, the second son, excelled in school and was his mother’s favorite child as he showed promise of surpassing Alexander in achievements. However, James Barrie showed no sign of being exceptional in his studies. While he was good at reading, he preferred playing games and acting out stories with a friend who owned a toy theatre. His life changed after David died in an ice skating accident just before David’s fourteenth birthday.
James’ mother never overcame her grief at the loss of her favorite and most promising son. An older sister took over caring for the children, house, and mother. James, being only six years old, tried to replace David’s person for his mother. Outside of the home, James was still James, a secret admirer of theatre (his family believed that theatre was sinful) and a normal boy. At home, he was better behaved and always trying to please his mother. A strong bond between he and his mother and, though of course James could never replace David. His mother would tell him stories about her life as a little girl, they would read to each other, and at some point someone had an idea for James to write a story. He obliged, creating stories in the attic and reading them to his mother and sister. This pattern continued until James was nearly thirteen, when Alexander invited him to attend a prestigious school after Alexander had been promoted again within the school system. James left to live with Alexander and Mary to further his education. He made friends with a small group of boys who invited him into their pirate band. They acted out pirate adventures at night as their school allowed free time after classes. James continued to excel at English, a subject that his family enjoyed but found no value in as a productive career.
James never won any prestigious awards at school, secured a spot at a top college, or even showed interest in attending college. His family pressured him to go to Edinburgh University for, if nothing else, he could continue studying his favorite subject: English. James kept to himself for the majority of his college education. Much of his shyness is attributed to his height of just over five feet, and perhaps the inability to attract girls which had become a popular subject amongst colleagues over the later teenage years. However, James did become a free-lance dramatic critic, and later book reviewer, for the university newspaper, Courant. Once James graduated from college, he could no longer conceal his career plan from his family. Unlike the rest of the children who had focused on teaching and theology, James would be a writer, and everyone had to accept this. His ultimate goal was to earn steady wages and reside in London.
James began writing articles from home, but they were continually rejected. He returned to Edinburgh in order to utilize the library and available space to research a book while continuing to make a living by writing articles. Aside from rejection, James experienced writer’s block. He was able to get a steady job as a journalist but was unhappy with regular hours and little time for his own creative work. He returned home at twenty-four much to his family’s concern over him. His mother and he fell back into old habits where she would tell him stories of her childhood and the surrounding neighborhood. An idea hit James to write an article on his own hometown based on these stories. He sent his first article on the subject off for publication, and the editor loved it. Much to James’ surprise, he was asked for more stories on Scotland. James listened to his mother’s memories, transformed them into articles, and eventually had a comfortable amount of money to move to London with. In London he was able to write articles and earn enough to save up in case of hardship. James moved on to writing novels and then plays. His success was slow and uphill, but steady. While he made acquaintances with many well known artists, he was an overall reclusive man who did not enjoy being in unfamiliar spaces with unknown people. He was often seen as lighthearted and cheerful, while other times he was described as melancholy and distant.
James Barrie continued to live in London where he married an actress and took in a St. Bernard named Porthos. He would take Porthos for a walk in Kensington Gardens and entertain children with Porthos’ abilities paired with James’ small stature. These daily walks and interactions with children were how he met the Llewelyn Davies boys who were with their nanny on a walk through the gardens. George and John were the two oldest sons, and Peter had just been born. James would create stories with the boys in Kensington Gardens, such as the ideas behind Peter Pan. There are debates on how James met the boy’s mother, Silvia, but regardless of where he met her, he and his wife became very close to the family thereafter. Barrie often corresponded with Silvia through personal letters, and would see the boys daily. Once, both families vacationed together once where the Llewelyn Davies boys played out an adventure about survival on an island. Barrie took photos of them and captioned the images to make a visual short story, The Boy Castaways. Some of the ideas within this story contributed to characters and plot in Peter Pan, such as pirates. Two more boys, Michael and Nicolas, were born throughout time and joined in on the adventures and playing out stories. The boys’ father was not keen on Barrie’s presence for the first several years, perhaps because James took the attention of the boys and was uncomfortably close to Silvia. However, Mr. Llewelyn Davies’ feelings toward Barrie changed when he succumbed to cancer and Barrie cared for him and his family until death. Silvia eventually developed cancer too, and passed away while the five boys were still young.
With both parents deceased, Barrie became the legal guardian of the five Llewelyn Davies boys, though there are debates that he may have forged some of Silvia’s will. Barrie was alone at this point, having divorced his wife (a rare and scandalous event at that time) when he found out she was having an affair. The boys grew up under Barrie’s care, and while Barrie loved them all, he was described as over possessive and controlling at times. George went to fight in World War I. He wrote positive and hopeful letters to Barrie, and his last letter was not delivered until after he was killed at war. Shortly after, Barrie’ favorite boy, Michael, was drowned with a friend while at college just before his twenty first birthday.
Barrie continued to write throughout his life, though as he aged he seemed to lose some fluency in being able to alternate between writing novels and plays, and complained that he had no good ideas. He hired a secretary, Lady Cynthia Asquith, who assisted him initially by sorting out and answering letters–mostly from what we would consider today as fan mail– and later taking care of little projects such as cleaning out bills, running to the post office, or just sitting around and talking. Cynthia was able to create her own hours and drop in at her own time. Barrie had encouraged her to do this, as he did not believe in efficiency and enjoyed going at his own pace in life as opposed to the world’s expectations. Cynthia spent many years with Barrie and saw his health deteriorate from chest problems, particularly coughing. She, her husband, and their two sons became close to Barrie, though not nearly as close as the Llewelyn Davies family.
Some select other notes in Barries life are that he declined Knighthood in 1907, stating that he just wanted to be Mister Barrie. In 1929, Barrie surprised the world by donating the rights of Peter Pan to the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children in London. He became more reclusive and emotionally difficult as the years passed on, but was still capable of good moods and cheer from time to time. Barrie died from pneumonia in 1937 and is buried at his childhood hometown of Kirriemuir, Scotland.
Tatar, Maria. The Annotated Peter Pan. U.S.A.: W.W. Norton & Company, 2011.
Chaney, Lisa. Hide-and-Seek with Angels. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2005.
Dunbar, Janet. J.M. Barrie: The Man Behind the Image. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970.