A review of J.M. Barrie and the Lost Boys: the Love Story that Gave Birth to Peter Pan by Andrew Birkin (London, 1979)
Note that the illustrations here are from Birkin's book, not those that illustrated the original review.
After reading the valuable literary spadework begun in Morris Fraser’s Death of Narcissus -- and it is that literary-critical work, not Fraser's psychiatric conclusions, which make his a worthwhile book! - one wishes for further, deeper examination of the paedophile themes in the lives and work of each individual author he considers. That need has now been met in part for James M. Barrie, creator of "the boy who wouldn't grow up", with this release. Though intended as a biographical study focusing on Barrie's relationship with the five Llewelyn Davies boys, this book also serves as a useful tool for literary criticism, as Birkin draws freely from Barrie's literary works (as well as journals, notebooks, letters back and forth between Barrie and the boys, and other unpublished material) in allowing the sources to speak for themselves. The volume is also profusely and tastefully illustrated with photographs, many by Barrie himself and previously unknown.
In keeping with his intention of having his sources tell the story themselves, Birkin does not attempt a psychological evaluation of Barrie. In a sense, he does not need to; the sources speak all too painfully. A case could easily be made from them that Barrie himself was the most perfect example of the "Peter Pan Syndrome", which proposes that paedophiles are individuals "blocked" in their normal social and psychological development and thus, like Barrie's creation, remain in some way eternal boys. Even Barrie's contemporaries recognized this quality in him, from the relatively uncritical observations that he "had a way" with children, and could at will enter their fantasy world, through Max Beerbohm's perceptive first-night review of Peter Pan which observed that Barrie was something "rarer than a genius" -- a child who, by chance, could express in mature art the child's spirit in him. The record also gives us plenty of possibilities as to when and how this "blocking" might have taken place for Barrie. Quite probably, as Morris Fraser suggests, it stemmed from Barrie's responses at age six to his mother's grief over the death of her favourite son, David, little James' elder by seven years. Certainly Barrie returned to this event, in one guise or another, again and again throughout his works. But even if we accept all this, we will find that we have not said very much about Barrie and his achievements, any more than we can exhaust Walt Whitman's art by calling him "gay" or James Baldwin's by calling him "black".
For that matter, was Barrie even really a paederast? Although many of the documents he presents are suggestive, Birkin dodges the question as being outside his intentions. He does allow two of his sources to deny it: Nicholas Llewelyn Davies, the youngest of the five brothers to whom Barrie was guardian, and Lord Boothby, a school-mate of Michael Llewelyn Davies. Neither -- particularly the latter, with his involvement with the Bloomsbury group -- was naive about the possibility; I judge that they speak honestly. And despite all the fuel for speculation the documents present -- giving full weight also to the possibility of their having been "edited" by Peter Llewelyn Davies when he collected the family papers -- there is nothing in them to contradict this testimony. In the realm of judgement again, I suspect that the letters from Barrie to Michael Llewelyn Davies that Peter destroyed were more evidence for puerility than prurience.
One's own answer will depend upon how one defines paederasty. If it is to say that Barrie appears to have found the only meaningful and fulfilling relationships of his life with the young Llewelyn Davies boys, then the answer is yes. If it is to say that there was a conscious homoerotic relationship, with or without physical expression, the answer is almost certainly no. The explanation may be that Barrie was almost asexual; during his 1909 divorce trial his impotence was widely rumoured. More likely, it was the result of denial and repression. Barrie himself would certainly have been in horror of any suggestion that his devotion contained "impure" elements, that it was anything more than thwarted parental feelings. Yet passages like this from The Little White Bird betray so much more:
I placed (David) on my knee and removed his blouse. 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 . . .
"Why, David," said I, sitting up, "do you want to come into my bed?"
"Mother said I wasn't to want it unless you wanted it first," he squeaked.
"It is what I have been wanting all the time," said I . . .
These have a frankness that can only be sprung of innocence. It is almost impossible for us, living in the age of analysis, to conceive the absence of self-understanding (particularly sexual) which was possible for Barrie and his society, when even heterosexual love was divorced from sexuality. How much more so for any love outside society's pale! While such ignorance left room for licence among the more knowing, it also resulted in the vapid poems to friendship that comprise so much of the "gay" literature of the time, and Barrie's unintentionally revealing words and chaste behaviour.
In the end, Barrie's was a tragic life. He might cry bravely, as Peter Pan does when asked about the seasons, "There is only spring!" but when the fall came, it came crushingly, and fast. To look upon the portrait of Barrie taken at the funeral of Michael Llewelyn Davies, reproduced on page 294 of Birkin's book, is to know the full burden of sorrow. But what was the greatest tragedy in Barrie's life? The loss of George Llewelyn Davies -- the eldest of the brothers, Barrie's first love among them, "David" of The Little White Bird and the original of Peter Pan -- in the "Great War"? The loss of Michael Llewelyn Davies -- the fourth brother, by the others' admission the brightest and most commanding personality, and the one with whom Barrie had the deepest and most complex relationship -- six years later in a swimming accident, perhaps suicide? Or was it that Barrie never understood his own affections, and thus could never reconcile himself to, or understand, events as they overtook him? Surely the note of sadness was there throughout his works, from Sentimental Tommy to the late notebook entry, "It is as if long after writing P. Pan its true meaning came to me - desperate attempt to grow up but can't."
Michael Davidson, almost the same age as Barrie's boys, remarks of Frederick Rolfe, "Baron Corvo", that for all his cleverness Corvo could never have become a great man, for he lacked self-understanding, the honesty of self-appraisal that is the key to greatness. Barrie and Rolfe were alike in important ways: writers who were at their most brilliant when their subject was really themselves; perceptive observers of others who, the Venice letters and the father-and-son scenes in Barrie's wartime plays notwithstanding, never really understood and admitted their deepest motives. Perhaps both lacked the capacity to know, Rolfe by madness, Barrie by the limits of his blocked personality. Of course, had either of them really gained self-awareness, the works of genius each produced might not have ever existed, at least in the form we have them. What they did not -- maybe could not -- deal with in life, when filtered through their consciousness, emerged as their art. Though they may not have been better off for their failure, perhaps we are.
Peter Pan was the offspring of a love affair -- not the "love that dares not speak its name", but a love that likely didn't even know its name. That was the source of Barrie's tragedy, and his accomplishment.
Reviewed by Donald H. Mader in Pan: a magazine about boy-love, V (Amsterdam, May 1980), pp. 22-24.