J M Barrie - the Author of Peter Pan
James Matthew Barrie, better known as J M Barrie, was once described by a family friend as a complete innocent human being. That friend went on to say that the novelist and playwright’s innocence was how he was able to write his most famous work, Peter Pan.
By all accounts, J M Barrie was also a perfect gentleman, and he was even made a baronet by King George V in 1913. However, his childhood was one filled with boyish adventures, some of which even provided inspiration for elements of the adult and children’s books he wrote later in life. Let’s find out a bit more about him.
The Young Writer
J M Barrie was born on 9 May 1860 in Kirriemuir, Scotland. His parents were David and Margaret (née Ogilvy). His father was a weaver, and his mother was a housewife.
The family was a large one. David and Margaret had nine other children, two of whom died before James, their second-last child, was born. The future author of classical children’s books experienced tragedy when he was six years old. His older brother David was killed in an ice-skating accident the day before he was to turn 14 years old, and his mother was left distraught.
Between the ages of eight and 10 J M Barrie attended the Glasgow Academy, and his brother and sister, Alexander and Mary Ann, who were teachers at the school, looked after him. From ages 10 to 14, he attended the Forfar Academy, and then he was enrolled at Dumfries Academy.
The boy became an avid reader, but that did not stop him from playing with his friends. A favourite game of theirs was to play pirates in the Moat Brae house garden. In later years, Barrie wrote that the game partially inspired his most famous children’s book, Peter Pan. The teenager and his friends even started a drama club, for which he wrote his first play. Whatever the content of Bandelero the Bandit, a church minister on the school’s governing board thought it was objectionable, and he had quite a lot to say about it!
Dreams Of Writing
By the time he completed his schooling, J M Barrie knew he wanted to be a writer. However, his family did not support his dream, and they tried to convince him to study for the ministry. Fortunately, his brother Alexander came to the rescue.
Together, they settled on a compromise. James would study literature at the University of Edinburgh where he obtained a Master of Arts degree in April 1882. Following his graduation, he worked as a journalist on the Nottingham Journal, and later wrote a series of stories for London-based newspaper, St James’ Gazette. It would be some time until he wrote his classical children’s books. The stories provided the foundation for his novels Auld Licht Idylls, a Window in Thrums, and the Little Minister, which were published between 1888 and 1891. He also published Better Dead, Sentimental Tommy, and Tommy and Grizel at the time.
It was also around then that J M Barrie started putting more energy into writing plays. His first attempt was a flop that did not survive beyond its opening night. His next attempt, Ibsen’s Ghost, was well received, which encouraged him to write and stage Walker, London in 1892. That play was how he met the actress Mary Ansell, whom he married on 9 July 1894. His 1901 and 1902 plays, Quality Street and the Admirable Crichton were also successes.
1902 also saw the publication of James’ novel, the Little White Bird, which was also published as a serial in the US-based Scribner’s Magazine. The novel is notable because it was the first time the children’s book character Peter Pan appeared in print.
Peter Pan and Beyond
J M Barrie then started writing the play Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. It premiered on 27 December 1904, and was a huge success.
Peter Pan marked the start of a particularly successful period in James’ life, although it was marred by his divorce in 1909, following his wife’s infidelity. In addition to acclaimed plays such as 1910’s Twelve Pound Look, 1917’s Dear Brutus, and 1920’s Mary Rose, he adapted his Peter Pan play into the classical children’s book, Peter and Wendy, which was published in 1911.
In 1912, a statue of the beloved character was erected overnight in Kensington Gardens, London, near the writer’s former home. James’ last play was the Boy David, which was published and performed in 1936.
J M Barrie died of pneumonia in London nursing home on 19 June 1937. He left the rights to all his works featuring Peter Pan to the Great Ormond Street Hospital. Most of the rest of his estate was left to Cynthia Asquith, who had been his secretary since 1917. Today, children still love reading about Peter Pan, Wendy, Captain Hook and all the other intriguing characters that have long captured our imagination thanks to J M Barrie’s writings.
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