AM a man of sentiment only," says Tommy in "Tommy and Grizel," speaking
for his creator, Sir James Barrie. He would be different if he could, we
feel, and yet, what man is more noble than the man of sentiment? This
particular "man of sentiment" came from
that land of conquerors, Scotland, as long ago
as 1883, eager to subjugate literary England. As journalist, as essayist,
as novelist, as playwright, he has caught us completely in the web of his
phantasy, and made us all willing
partners in his dreams. Last of
all, he has entrapped that most concrete and matter-of-fact institution,
the cinema, and has voyaged to America, there to watch over the adventures
of Peter Pan
in film form.
Sir James Matthew Barrie was born at
Kirriemuir, in Perthshire (the
"Thrums" of so many of his books), on
the 9th May, 1860. His boyhood was passed at Kirriemuir and at Dumfries,
where his elder brother was inspector of schools. In "‘Margaret Ogilvy,’
by her son J. M. Barrie," most of the secrets of that son’s childhood are
laid bare. First and foremost Barrie was certainly not born with a silver
spoon in his mouth, for he writes: "On the day I was born we bought six
hair-bottomed chairs, and in our little house it was an event
. . .
they had been laboured for."
Barrie must have passed a joyful
childhood, since no child could have had a more delightful mother than
"Margaret Ogilvy," who brought him up. A rich imaginative atmosphere
helped to eke out their slender financial resources. By schemes and plans
and economies, all entered upon in a spirit of laughing adventure, the
means were found for Barrie to be put to school at Dumfries Academy. From
there he proceeded to Edinburgh University—a
which involved the most thrilling adventures of all in domestic economy.
Mother and son played a game together of pretending that "it would be
impossible to give me a college education." But, continues Barrie, "was I
so easily taken in, or did I know already what ambitions burned behind
that dear face?"
Nevertheless, her son’s true
education took place neither at Dumfries nor at Edinburgh, but by
"Margaret Ogilvy’s" own fireside. "We read many books together when I was
a boy, ‘Robinson Crusoe’ being the first (and the second)." When he was
eleven, James and his mother had fully embarked on a career of literary
phantasy together. "Margaret Ogilvy" suggested that her son should write
tales for himself. "I did write them, but they by no means helped her to
get on with her work, for when I finished a chapter I bounded downstairs
to read it to her, and so short were the chapters, so ready was the pen,
that I was back with new MS. before another clout had been added to the
rug" (which Margaret was making).
Thus mother and son shared a life in
which the imagination surpassed all else in importance. Through the attic
window of their cottage, Barrie "could see nearly all Thrums." Looking out
from this window, Barrie, imbued with that intimate blending of keen
perception and whimsical fancy which his mother and he had so much
developed in their daily life, unconsciously, and without premeditation,
wove in his mind the materials which were later to be incorporated in his
"Auld Licht Idylls," "Margaret Ogilvy," and "A Window in Thrums." His
mother shaped his mind in these happy days at Kirriemuir. All his fancy,
all his sentiment, all his whimsical charm, originated in the years he
spent with the delightful, tender-hearted "Margaret Ogilvy."
In 1882, Barrie graduated from
Edinburgh University as M.A. In his earliest days at Edinburgh Barrie had
revived his childish dreams of authorship, and had written a three-volume
novel. Mother and son packed up the MS. with the greatest care and sent it
off to a publisher. "The publisher replied that the sum for which he would
print it was a hundred and—however, that was not the important point (I
had sixpence); where he stabbed us both was in writing that he considered
me a ‘clever lady.’ I replied stiffly that I was a gentleman, and since
then I have kept that MS. concealed. I looked through it lately, and, oh!
but it is dull. I defy anyone to read it."
Determined to be an Author
About the time he left the
university, two maiden ladies asked Barrie what he was to be. "When I
replied brazenly, ‘An author,’
they flung up their hands, and one exclaimed reproachfully, ‘And you an
M.A. !‘" For in Scotland then all
M.A.’s aspired to the ministry. But Barrie’s mind was made up; an author
he would be, so he cast about for the best avenue of approach to the
Owing to his sister seeing an
advertisement in a paper for a leader writer on the Nottingham Journal,
Barrie obtained his first journalistic appointment—for he had decided,
on "Margaret Ogilvy’s" advice, to approach literature through journalism.
He went to Nottingham in February, 1883, and for eighteen months and more
he wrote often as much as four columns a day of political leaders and
miscellaneous articles signed "Hippomenes," and "A Modern Peripatetic."
For those who would learn more of his Nottingham experiences, Barrie has
published a full record of them in his "When a Man’s Single."
"An Auld Licht Community"
The Journal’s leaders,
however, did not absorb all his Scottish energy, and Barrie was busy
"trying journalism of another kind and sending it to London, but nearly
eighteen months elapsed before there came to me, as unexpected as a
telegram, the thought that there was something quaint about my native
place." Acting on this thought he wrote an article entitled "An Auld Licht
Community," and sent it off to the St.
The article was accepted. Barrie was
over-joyed with his good fortune, and also with the St.James’s
Gazette. "To this day," he wrote (before the paper was incorporated
with another), "I never pass its placards in the street without shaking it
by the hand." Moreover, the editor of the
wrote asking for more; and so, early in 1885, Barrie bade farewell to
Nottingham, and moved to London, where he contributed regularly to the
St. James’s Gazette, the Anti-Jacobin, and the
Edinburgh Evening Dispatch.
Shortly after his arrival in London,
Barrie collected together his "Auld Licht" sketches and, with their
publication in the form of a book in 1888, he may be said to have
graduated formally from journalism to literature. He was lucky in being
able to leave journalism while he still enjoyed the fun of it all—before
he had grown oppressed by the dreary task of daily grinding out the
maximum number of words upon nothing in particular in the minimum number
A New Vein of Humour
Quick on the heels of "Auld Licht
Idylls," which is a group of sketches portraying the
adherents of a particular community in
Kirriemuir, came "A Window in Thrums" (1889),
and "The Little Minister" (1891). In these books Barrie worked a new and
rich vein of Scottish humour. He appeared as something entirely new in
English letters, a whimsical and sentimental humorist, who was yet as
racy, as full of local colour and idiomatic phrase as Dickens or Sterne.
He again, in his own inimitable way, did what Dr. Johnson claimed for
Samuel Richardson—"enlarged the knowledge of human nature and taught the
passions to move at the command of virtue."
First Successful Novel
Hitherto, he had mainly been content
to appear as a droll, but "The Little Minister," his first successful
novel, made him ambitious for a novelist’s laurels. In consequence,
"Sentimental Tommy" (1896), and "Tommy and Grizel "(1900) made their
appearance. In these two works Barrie touches the sentimental chord almost
exclusively—one might almost say he exploits his own sentiment a trifle
His genius is not entirely fitted to
analyse, to construct, to theorize over his puppets; he had not the manner
to follow up the then recent triumphs of George Meredith and Thomas Hardy.
Of course, his novels have their ardent devotees; but, without
exaggeration, one might say that their place, in comparison with his
plays, is no more important than the place George Bernard Shaw’s "Novels
of My Nonage" take in relation to his great creations for the theatre.
Before the plays, however, we must
consider Barrie’s children’s books, for in "The Little White Bird" and
"Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens" Barrie has scored a success as personal
and as positive as Lewis Carroll’s. Sentiment for its own sake was the pit
which yawned beneath Barrie’s feet in his novels, the pit into which he
sometimes vanished. In "The Little White Bird," however, he blends
delicate pathos with fairy laughter in exactly the right proportions with
an indescribable deftness of artistic touch. It is a children’s book— but
one for children of all ages, the older the better, perhaps.
"Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens,"
of course, is one of childhood’s most supreme joys. How many thousands of
small hearts have thrilled when someone has started to read (possibly for
the fiftieth time) that entrancing narrative which begins to unfold with
the magic words: "Kensington Gardens are in London where the king lives."
It is, very possibly, the quintessence of Barrie, an idyll into which he
has managed to distil more fairy essence into anything else he has done.
Barrie first attacked the theatre
with a play called Walker, London, a play which has now been
largely and justly forgotten. It met nevertheless, with some success, and
he follow it up quickly enough with The Professor's Love Story
(1895), which Mr. Granville Barker has called "about as cynically bad a
play any man of its author’s calibre could expect to write, tried he never
so hard." So far Barrie had been trying his hand, had been experimenting
to see if his fancies and ideas were suited to the glamour of the
Production of Quality
However, these experiments bore
ample fruit in Quality Street, that charming echo of Napoleonic
Wars, which was produced with immense success during 1903. Quality
Street first showed us, on the stage, the Barrie with whom we are now
all so familiar—the dramatist, all taste and sensibility, whose dialogue
can paint a picture more surely and delicately than all the art of
scene-painters and the resources of wardrobe mistresses.
The Admirable Crichton
quickly followed Quality Street (both plays, in
fact, being produced in the same year), and Barrie took another step
forward. As daringly as ever he balanced his romance on the edge of the
impossible yet he added a spice of satire to his humorous sentiment.
The remarkable idea of the complete
Butler Crichton changing places with his master, Lord Loam, on a desert
island, and doing so naturally and quietly, is one of Barrie’s most elfin
inspirations of genius. The play scored an instant and immense success. It
has been equally successfully revived since. With The Admirable
Crichton, moreover, Barrie stepped into the foremost rank of
The Spell of Imagination
There is not space here to mention
all his subsequent plays. He has written a play about politics in What
Every Woman Knows. At less you think it is going to be a play about
politics; but Barrie (as usual) takes you in completely, and really the
echoes of politics only resound in the background, for Barrie could never
flatter politics with his serious attention—the things of the imagination
held him too completely in happy thraldom.
In 1904, Peter Pan was first
played in theatre. It has remained an annual fixture ever since, and is
the stage counterpart of Barrie’s children’s books, which have already
been mentioned. Completely at liberty to cast possibility to the winds, to
follow his fancies unrestrained, Barrie is here absolutely at his ease,
treating the theatre as a gigantic toy. Mr. Darling, who will not take his
medicine, the children’s Newfoundland dog nurse, John’s top-hat turned
into a chimney-pot, the pirates, the ticking crocodile, the Indians, the
great appeal, "Do you believe in fairies?" (made to the audience that the
dying fairy may be restored to life)—all these, and many more, crowd into
Courage of Their Faith
The very unreality of the play is
its main strength, especially with children. Maeterlinck and Barrie,
almost alone among modern playwrights, have been bold enough to put
creatures quite divorced from life on to the stage, without ostentatiously
labelling their pieces "Fable," or" Allegory," or some such name. They
have been brave enough to put into practice their faith that the
imagination, beyond all else, is what counts.
The reader may complain, having read
thus far, that while something has been said of Barrie’s works, little or
no mention has been made as to what manner of man he is himself. To which
objection only one answer can be given, namely that, apart from his works
and what autobiographical details he himself has chosen to reveal, we do
not know. We do know, however, that unlike most literary men, Barrie does
not indulge in many recreations. In his younger days he could wield a good
bat at cricket, but beyond this sport, and the great solace which he
derives from his much loved pipe, he has very few hobbies indeed.
Fondness for Tobacco
The fact must not be neglected—how
evident it is—that Barrie enjoys tobacco as much as any other man might
enjoy billiards or collecting rare pieces of china. He is a devoted
servant to the "fragrant weed." He has even gone to the extent of proving
his devotion in a little book which he called "My Lady Nicotine."
There is a story told which, if it
be true, well illustrates the author’s intense dislike for all unnecessary
conversation. One day a lady visitor made an unexpected call on Barrie and
found him smoking in a room, in company with one of his male cousins.
For a long time she tried her utmost
to engage the author in conversation, choosing her subject with a tact
which would have done considerable credit to a diplomat. The attempt was a
miserable failure. Apart from giving monosyllabic answers to her
questions, Barrie remained silent, puffing away at his briar.
At last, in desperation, the visitor
left the room, chagrined that success had not rewarded her efforts. About
an hour later she returned. The two men were still in their same
positions, clouds of smoke were still ascending from the two pipes, and
the same silence enshrouded them.
are having a
lively time!" she exclaimed sarcastically.
"Fine," drawled Barrie. "We haven’t
spoken a word since you went away."
Rector of St. Andrews
Sir James Barrie is a member of the
Athentaeum Club. He was created a baronet in 1913, and has been Rector of
St. Andrews University in his native country. But all these external
details, and the many more that could be added of a like nature, do not,
in his case, give us much information. The details of the lives of many
men, of many great men, disclose the secrets of their character and
ambitions, but such a method is useless in dealing with Barrie.
The only ways in which we can learn
anything about such as he, is by reading his books, by going to see his
plays, and by listening to his rare speeches—which are surely delightful
methods. On the rare occasions when Barrie can be persuaded to adopt the
role of public speaker, he sometimes gives interesting revelations of
incidents that happened in his boyhood days, the days that are
ever-present in his memory.
Of his schooldays he has a fund of
whimsical anecdotes. He has told the public how he suffered from the
terrible habit of reading "penny dreadfuls," and the way in which he was
cured. The following is the actual account he gave of his terrifying
In those tender days, I used, when
in funds, to devour secretly penny dreadfuls, containing exclusively
sanguinary matter. They were largely tales about heroic highwaymen and
piracy on the high seas; but what most enamoured me were the stories of
goings-on at English boarding-schools. Those were the schools for me.
The masters were sneaks, and the
boys blew them up with gunpowder. My mind became so set on explosions that
when a Sassenach sent me a box containing mysterious red and blue tubes I
placed them one by one near the fire, and darted back in confidence that
they would go off. I dare say I wept when I discovered that they were only
In "Chatterbox" I read an article on
the dire future in store for those that read. penny dreadfuls. I tried to
stand up to it, but when black night fell I stole off to a distant field,
my pockets stuffed with back numbers, a shovel concealed up my little
waistcoat, and deep in the bowels of the earth I buried the evidence of my
Barrie is the sort of man who makes
his elfin Peter Pan remark "To die would be an awfully big adventure." He
is the sort of man who conceives of a London police constable as the hero
of a play, and then makes him as whimsical, as poetic, and as fanciful as
he is himself. The sort of man who, though he knows literature from the L
to the last E, yet writes always so simply and unpretentiously that
everyone can understand him, even what someone has called "those small
aborigines, whose cave-dwellings and rock-shelters are under piano and
table." In short, Barrie, like Peter Pan, is the sort of boy who never
Tremendously shy, or else we should
know much more about him than we do, Barrie has become a great force in
our English theatre. He has founded no school, because his genius is far
too intensely individual to afford much food for professional disciples.
But, desperately laying his shyness aside, he slips into the theatre
whenever his plays are being produced, and in the most tentative and
hesitating way he makes suggestions. Suggestions, moreover, on which the
most gifted and experienced of actors are only too delighted to seize. In
a word, he has transformed the acting in London.
The Little White Bird In 1902 J.M. Barrie published 'The Little White Bird', a pretty
fantasy, wherein he gave full play to his whimsical invention, and his
tenderness for child life, which is relieved by the genius of sincerity
from a suspicion of mawkishness. This book contained the episode of
"Peter Pan," which afterwards suggested the play of that name.
We are now in the process of serializing this book with
a chapter per week intil complete.
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