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Who is J. M. Barrie?

Niki Acker
Updated May 23, 2024
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J. M. Barrie was a children's author, novelist, and dramatist best remembered for his book Peter Pan (1911). The title character, with whom Barrie experimented in other works before writing his novel, was inspired by the Llewelyn-Davies boys, five brothers of the author's acquaintance who became the author's wards after their father died.

Barrie was born on 9 May 1860 in Kirriemuir, Angus, Scotland, the son of a weaver. He was the ninth of ten children. His childhood was difficult, as his father David was distant to the point of neglect and his mother Margaret, though loving, became severely depressed after the death of her son David in 1867. Barrie craved his mother's attention, but had difficulty breaking through her grief. He wrote a glowing biography of Margaret after her death in 1896, and his relationship with her would remain an influence throughout his life. Conversely, the author rarely mentioned his father in his writings.

At the age of 13, Barrie left home to attend school. He became interested in theatre and literature early on and was a diligent student, earning his Master's degree from Dumfries Academy at the University of Edinburgh in 1882. He worked briefly as a journalist before moving to London, where he wrote freelance, in 1885. Three years later, he published his first novel, a humorous work entitled Better Dead. Many novels and plays followed, some using Barrie's Scottish background as inspiration. His first play, The Little Minister, began as a book in 1891 and was dramatized to great success in 1897.

Barrie's friends and acquaintances read as a Who's Who of Victorian literature, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Robert Lewis Stevenson, Jerome K. Jerome, P. G. Wodehouse, and A. A. Milne. The author married actress Mary Ansell in 1894, but their marriage was childless and allegedly unconsummated and ended in divorce in 1909 following Mary's infidelity. He first met the Llewelyn-Davies, who would become his surrogate family, in Kensington Gardens in 1897.

The relationship with the Llewelyn-Davies and the stories he made up for the boys inspired the first literary incarnation of Peter Pan, in the 1901 adult novel The Little White Bird. The character was named after Peter Llewelyn-Davies and the Greek god Pan. Later, the story evolved into a stage play premiering in December 1904 and finally emerged as the 1911 novel. The book's heroine, Wendy, takes her name from a nickname of Barrie's, and the novel was responsible for popularizing the name for girls, as it was a quite a rare name before. J. M. Barrie became the Llewelyn-Davies boys' guardian and trustee after their father's death in 1907 and unofficially adopted them when their mother died in 1910.

Peter Pan made the author a beloved celebrity in England and beyond. He became a baronet in 1913 and received the Order of Merit in 1922. Later, he became the lord rector of St. Andrew's University and the chancellor of Edinburgh University. He died on 3 June 1937.

Though his children's books brought joy to many, Barrie was in many ways a tortured figure whose tragic childhood never left him. Some biographers have speculated that Peter Pan, the boy who wouldn't grow up, was a veiled expression of Barrie's own predicament, as he never grew past 5 feet (1.5 meters). Others believe that Peter Pan may refer to his brother David, who died as a child. J. M. Barrie also suffered the death of two of the Llewelyn-Davies boys, George at the age of 22 on the World War I front, and Michael in a swimming accident and possible suicide just a month before his 21st birthday. However, he remained close to the other Llewelyn-Davies and had continued success as a playwright and author.

J. M. Barrie's life was the subject of a 1978 BBC mini-series starring Ian Holm, entitled Lost Boys. The 2004 film Finding Neverland, starring Johnny Depp, offered a fictionalized account of his life.

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Niki Acker
By Niki Acker
"In addition to her role as a PublicPeople editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide range of interesting and unusual topics to gather ideas for her own articles. A graduate of UCLA with a double major in Linguistics and Anthropology, Niki's diverse academic background and curiosity make her well-suited to create engaging content for WiseGeekreaders. "
Discussion Comments
By discographer — On Oct 03, 2014

One thing that wasn't mentioned here is that Peter, the boy after whom the character in Peter Pan was named, also died early. He committed suicide.

The five boys really had a huge impact on J.M. Barrie. He didn't have children of his own but these children were like his and he cared for them and helped raised them. The death of three of the boys must have been devastating for him. And without these boys, Peter Pan wouldn't have existed. When Barrie wrote the story, Peter was still a baby.

By stoneMason — On Oct 03, 2014

@literally45-- Wow, that's cool. Although J.M. Barrie had a tough childhood, I hope he is resting in peace now knowing that he brought a smile to millions of children's faces. Perhaps there are children who are similarly going through a difficult time now and find comfort in the story of Peter Pan.

By literally45 — On Oct 02, 2014

I grew up in the Balkans and Peter Pan was my first book. It was gifted to me at the age of 5 by the kindergarten I attended while my parents worked. I have a very special connection with this story for this reason. For several years after that, I refused to fall asleep at night until my mother read me Peter Pan.

So it's absolutely true that this work of J.M. Barrie has made him infamous worldwide. How many people have works that are so widely known and cherished?

By irontoenail — On Sep 30, 2014

@bythewell - I believe at one point the government in Britain actually awarded a special dispensation to the hospital in order for them to keep the copyright after it would normally have expired. And they still hold it on some aspects of the story, but not on Peter Pan himself, I think. If someone were planning to write a homage or different take on Peter, I would definitely check to see what rights were actually available without permission.

I also think it's important to keep in mind the original intention of the author for his work.

Don't forget that some aspects of the story were created by Disney as well and I'm sure they have a very tight hold on their creations. Copyright can be a tangled web, but when you think about some of the amazing derivative works we've already had from Mr. Barrie's original story, it might be worth the struggle.

By lluviaporos — On Sep 29, 2014

One of the things that I will always admire Barrie for was that he arranged for the royalties from Peter Pan to go towards a children's hospital after he passed away.

I believe that even now, when his novel has passed into public domain, that it's considered traditional for people using it in creative endeavors to donate money towards the same hospital, where they do research into childhood diseases.

His creative legacy is amazing, but I think that his legacy as a humanitarian is even more wonderful.

Niki Acker
Niki Acker
"In addition to her role as a PublicPeople editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide range of...
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