Tragedy of the little Darlings

The relationship between J.M. Barrie and the real life Peter Pan was fatherly, friendly and perhaps something else

Books Features

This article is taken from the April 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

A “catching of happiness” is how Philip Larkin, in a tender moment, referred to one of his godchildren. The phrase might also describe the relationship between another literary darkling, J.M. Barrie and a whole family of children: the Llewelyn Davieses. Their relationship is captured not just in Peter Pan and other works Barrie wrote around them, but in a haunting book by Andrew Birkin first published in 1979, J.M. Barrie and the Lost Boys.

Birkin had spent years researching the real-life inspirations for Peter Pan while preparing a landmark television series on Barrie. But the book that followed a year later is an unsurpassable account of this disturbing corner of popular literature.

The youngest of the boys, Nico, was still alive when Birkin was writing and helped him unknot the family relations Barrie immortalised in Peter Pan. The resulting, beautifully-produced book is like a family album, full of generous quotations from Barrie’s work, private letters, accounts from the family as well as photographs and other memorabilia.

Barrie poured himself into his strange, increasingly popular works and into a family he encountered one day in Kensington Gardens

Birkin relates Barrie’s own Scots Calvinist upbringing, the loss of his elder brother in an accident when Barrie was just six and the way in which boyhood, death and return were all mixed together in his imagination from the earliest age. In childhood Barrie dressed as his brother to console his mother. Later, when she was dying and mistook her son for her late father he pretended to be him. Sickly himself, he married in his early twenties after an illness he wasn’t expected to survive. The marriage was probably never even consummated. Instead, Barrie poured himself into his strange, increasingly popular works and into a family he encountered one day in Kensington Gardens.

In 1897, while walking with his Saint Bernard dog, Barrie met three children (George, Jack and the baby Peter), accompanied by their nurse. George was wearing a red tam-o-shanter hat and Barrie began to amuse the boys by wiggling his ears and telling them stories. A short while later, at a dinner in London Barrie found himself seated beside Sylvia Llewelyn Davies. Describing her afterwards as “the most beautiful creature he had ever seen”, he realises that she is the mother of the boys from the gardens. She realises that he is the funny little man her sons have told her about after returning home.

From this point on Barrie inserts himself into the household of Sylvia and her husband Arthur with results that are pitiful, magical and sinister. An early detractor said: “You never know where you are with Barrie. For all his reputation for the understanding of women and children, we have to deal here with what seems to be a case of refined sadism.”

In his first work about the family, The Little White Bird, Barrie turns George into “David” (the name of Barrie’s dead brother), whom he hero-worships. “When he tumbles, which is often, he comes to the ground like a Greek God … One day I had been over-friendly to another boy, and, after enduring it for some time David up and struck him … I knew its meaning at once; it was David’s first public intimation that he knew I belonged to him.”

Sylvia’s husband, Arthur, seems to have quietly resented the intruder. But it had only just begun. In The Little White Bird Barrie describes what pleasure it gives him when people mistake “David” [George] as his own son. “I work very hard to retain that little boy’s love; but I shall lose him soon … in a year or two at longest he will grow out of me.”

Two other Davies brothers come along, Michael and Nicholas. Sylvia produced five boys in total, all doted on by Barrie in turn. Their nurse is suspicious (“obtuse to my sinister design”, writes Barrie), but the magic he weaves enraptures the children. One day Barrie tells George that all children were birds once and “the reason there are bars on nursery windows is because children sometimes forget that they have no longer wings, and try to fly away through the window.” Barrie explains that the youngest of the brothers “was still able to fly because his mother had forgotten to weigh him at birth. He therefore escaped through the unbarred window and flew back to Kensington Gardens.” Over time Peter Pan emerges.

The author has to provide another play in surety alongside Peter Pan, on the presumption that his creation may flop

Nico later denies any impropriety: “Of all the men I have ever known Barrie was the least interested in sex. He was a darling man. He was an innocent; which is why he could write Peter Pan.” But there are passages in Barrie’s writing which make a modern reader wince. He describes the “tremendous adventure” of spending the night with his favourite. He describes running the bath, undressing the boy (“This was a delightful experience, but I think I remained wonderfully calm until I came somewhat too suddenly to his little braces, which agitated me profoundly”). Later the boy asks to come into his bed, asking if he minds: “Mother said I wasn’t to want it unless you wanted it first.” The reply: “It is what I have been wanting all the time.”

Birkin’s book sides with Nico’s interpretation but does not attempt to close the case. Perhaps Barrie didn’t know exactly what he wanted, other than to live in that period of childhood in which fears are phantom and adults always return.

When Barrie first reads Peter and Wendy to Herbert Beerbohm Tree the great actor-manager warns a colleague, “Barrie has gone out of his mind.” The author has to provide another play in surety alongside Peter Pan, on the presumption that his creation may flop. And yet it doesn’t. From the opening night audiences are enraptured. Barrie seemed to have tapped in to some deep well in the minds of the adults, as much as the children, in his audiences.

The father of Daphne du Maurier plays Captain Hook in the original production. She describes the character as “a dark shadow; a sinister dream; a bogey of fear who lives perpetually in the grey recesses of every small boy’s mind”. Peter meanwhile appeals to a public who know infant mortality and to whom the idea of death being “an awfully big adventure” does not yet ring shallow.

Still, the real and the imaginary are knitted uncomfortably closely. The coat of Barrie’s dog and the Davies boys’ clothes are carefully reproduced on stage. In a 1928 dedication to the work Barrie would write, “I suppose I always knew that I made Peter by rubbing the five of you violently together, as savages with two sticks produce a flame.”

But increasingly the gift of make-believe becomes a curse. Since he was not there at the birth, the young Michael grows up with Peter Pan all around him. At the age of five he would reportedly wake with terrible nightmares, thinking he could see “strange people and things coming in through the window”. Michael was a “favourite” of Barrie’s but only two letters from the author to him survive. Peter destroyed thousands of others in the 1950s describing them as “too much”. What was fatherly, what was friendly, and what was something else becomes impossible to un-weave.

In 1906, Arthur had a devastating operation to remove cancer from his face and died the following year. Barrie’s own marriage ended in divorce and he slowly moved in to fully take over Arthur’s role. When the grieving Sylvia developed cancer and died three years later the boys (then aged between seven and 17) finally belonged — all but uncontested — to Barrie. He doted on them, but if the connection caused pleasure it also fomented a strange grief. Peter began his first term at Eton a few weeks after his mother’s death and was “mercilessly ragged as ‘the real Peter Pan’”. This led to a phobia so intense that in later life he came to loathe his association with the play, referring to it as “that terrible masterpiece”.

What was fatherly, what was friendly, and what was something else becomes impossible to un-weave

“What’s in a name?” he would write. “My God, what isn’t? If that perennially juvenile lead, if that boy so fatally committed to an arrestation of his development, had only been dubbed George, or Jack, or Michael, or Nicholas, what miseries would have been spared me.”

In 1952 Jack would describe the “strange little creature” Barrie as having “brought so much more sorrow than happiness” to the family. Friends of the boys described their guardian at various times as terrifying, sinister and “rather shivery”. One recalled Barrie’s presence: “He never said a word, just sat like a tombstone.” And yet the surviving testimony of Nico, among others, shows how devoted all the boys were to him at least during parts of their lives and most throughout them.

Still the family tragedy rolled on. When the war came George and Peter were waiting for their commissions. “So the world suddenly alters,” wrote Barrie. After Barrie talked to a reporter from America the papers announced, “The real Peter Pan is off to the war.” A year into that war, George was still writing to Barrie in Pan-ish terms: “It is an amazing show.” For his part Barrie likened going back to the trenches as being “uncommonly like ‘putting on your pads’. But in his last letter to George (March 1915) Barrie pleaded with him to be safe: “You would not mean a featherweight more to me tho’ you came back a General. I just want yourself. There may be some moments when a knowledge of all you are to me will make you a little more careful.”

 George was shot through the head shortly after receiving that letter. When the news came through Nico recalls Barrie emitting a wail like a banshee. Barrie had a premonition that the war would swallow up all the boys, one by one. It almost did. When Peter went to the trenches he went straight into the Battle of the Somme. He emerged three years later with an MC, so thoroughly shattered by the furnace that “even Barrie couldn’t help”. 

The connection kept growing darker. In 1921 Michael — by then an undergraduate at Oxford — drowned with a friend in the Thames. The newspapers headlines ran with “The tragedy of Peter Pan.” Close to suicide, Barrie wrote, “He had been the one great thing in my life for many years, and though there are little things to do, they are very trivial.” When Barrie himself died in June 1937 aged 77, Peter and Nico were with him. “He was tired,” said Nico. “He wanted to go.” At least he missed the culminating tragedy when in 1960 Peter threw himself under a train at Sloane Square station in London. Once again, the cursed “real Peter Pan” theme featured in the headlines.

Barrie once wrote that the dedication of Peter Pan to the Llewelyn Davies boys was “no more than giving you back yourselves”. But the price proved appallingly high. In the first of the works the boys inspired in him, The Little White Bird, one of the boys asks: “Did we wreck ourselves? Or was there someone to help us?” The other, younger boy, replies, “I think there was someone to help us, a man with a dog. I think he used to tell me stories in Kensington Gardens.”

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