Lately, I’ve developed a bit of a fascination with J.M. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan. I read Peter Pan aloud to my daughter a few months ago and it sent my mind racing in different directions, sparked by its ideas of motherhood, time, and aging. At the end of the book, when Peter returns to visit Wendy, then Wendy’s daughter, then Wendy’s daughter’s daughter, I found myself sobbing. (It’s not entirely uncommon for me to be moved to tears by children’s books. I have never been able to finish Knuffle Bunny Free without choking up.)
Coincidentally, Peter Pan was in the news recently after a neuropsychologist noticed that the book contains profound insights into the nature of memory and consciousness. In fact, “many of Peter’s adventures point to scientific theories that would only emerge decades after the tales were first written.” In other words, it was curious to find that this little book for children included “discoveries” that would only be made many years later. Barrie, of course, was not a mystic or futurist. He was simply a keen observer of life and human nature. (Updated to add: My mother sent me something my grandmother wrote years ago: “As usual, the poets were there first, probably because they travel on wings and scientists must plod along on foot.” I love this!)
Ever since, I’ve been reading about J.M. Barrie and his life and work. The Peter Pan character made his first appearance in a novel for adults called The Little White Bird. Barrie later used Peter Pan as the basis for a play and then a novel for children. While aimed at children, the work retained some of its more sophisticated elements. George Bernard Shaw described the play as “ostensibly a holiday entertainment for children but really a play for grown-up people.”
Barrie’s personal life intermingled with his creative works. A childhood tragedy led to a fraught relationship with his mother, which is a palpable theme in Peter Pan. In fact, an early working title was the less Disney-friendly, The Boy Who Hated Mothers.
As an adult, Barrie befriended and later became the guardian of the five Llewelyn Davies boys, who served as inspiration for Peter Pan, the Darling Children, and the Lost Boys. All of the Davies boys—George, John, Peter, Michael, and Nico—share their names with characters in Peter Pan except for Nico. If Nico is in there, I haven’t found him. I was wondering how exactly Barrie gained custody of the children when I read an article that suggested that Barrie altered their mother’s will to make it seem as though she wanted him to raise her children after her death when that had not been her intention.
For whatever reason, I find these people and their stories to be exceptionally interesting. I am thinking of writing something and I am trying to decide on the best way to approach it. That’s where you come in. Will you please tell me which angle you think is most interesting? Both of the scenarios below are true.