There has been a lot of talk during the last couple of weeks about how dangerous it is for boys (and men) these days, because if they are accused of being predatory they are guilty until proven innocent, which is next to impossible. Although I agree with the #Me Too movement, I am reminded that this issue is certainly not new. Peter Pan comes to mind.
Peter Pan was domesticated the night of December 27, 1904 when the curtain opened at the Duke of York’s Theater, London on the first night of “Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up.” The character of Captain Hook on stage was so commanding that when Peter was victorious he was a hero. This is not what J.M. Barrie had in mind when he wrote the play. To Barrie, Peter was a shadowy character, reflecting Barrie’s own ambiguous relationships with adults and peers. Peter had a vivid fantasy life which blocked his ability to come back home from one of his flights of fancy (that and his mother’s fickle affections which she transferred to a new sibling). From then on Peter was locked out of his home and stranded in Neverland where he was chief of a gang of boys whom he had enraptured, captured, bullied, sometimes killed, and constantly controlled through mind-games.
Neverland, as Barrie conceived it, was no idyllic playground, but was a prison island where the inmates battled for their survival simply because war-games were what they knew. Barrie’s conception was that the boys handled their survival struggles by treating them as childhood play, rather than face the grim reality that it was actually about life and death, as all life is. In Neverland it is the trickster, the conjurer of fantasy, who is in control and who is fulfilled by consigning his prey to perpetual childhood.
That, and only that, is the central fact about Neverland, although a century of gossip mongers have persisted in projecting their comparatively pale, pedophiliac phobias onto the lords of Neverland, the asylum for boys who wouldn’t grow up.
It might be a stretch for us, after decades of indoctrination and consciousness-raising about the latent debilitating effects of sexual child abuse, to agree that there are worse things than can happen to a boy.
The court of public opinion has been swayed by testimony from his boys who wouldn’t grow up and his biographers, that Barrie was probably sexually impotent, that he never made sexual advances, and that his guilt was different than suspected.
It now seems clear that James Matthew Barrie “did a ‘Peter Pan’” and engineered a complex scheme to abscond with a couple’s boys, capturing them for himself, and in the process gestated the story of “Peter Pan and Wendy”, as he entitled his book finally written in 1911. The boys in question were the five sons of Arthur and Sylvia Llewellyn Davies. In 1897 Barrie loved to walk through Kensington Gardens, where nursemaids aired their charges in prams and children cavorted. Barrie loved to play with them, games of imaginary pirates and Indians which he acted out energetically and embellished with magic tricks, accompanied by his shaggy St. Bernard. That is how he became acquainted with the Llewellyn Davies family, at length managing an invitation to a social event with them. Over time Barrie became a close friend and then a virtual relative affectionately called “Uncle Jim”. When the boy’s parents died of cancer Barrie adopted them with the concurrence of the other relatives and on the strength of a handwritten letter in which Sylvia appeared, as Barrie had altered the document, to transfer her sons to Barrie rather than to her sister. Barrie was close to the clan; it was Sylvia’s own brother, Gerald duMaurier, who played Captain Hook and Mr. Darling in the performance that launched Peter Pan into mythic status and made J.M. Barrie rich and famous.
What was sinister about that was that Barrie’s love of the boys was possibly predatory. If Piers Dudgeon is right, as his exhaustive study concludes, Barrie had been scripted by the death of his brother, David, his mother’s favorite. Only when David died of a skating accident was the way open for little Jimmy into his mother’s arms. Anthony Lane says this taught Barrie that “…a perfect child who dies on the eve of his fourteenth birthday will be spared the degradation of growing up, and…the boy will seem scarcely to have passed away at all.”
So Sir J.M. Barrie came to power. He had sons he wanted and he was a widely acclaimed playwright on his way to wealth and glory as a baronet and OM.
Dudgeon is convinced and convincing that Barrie filled his own sexual vacuum with these little boys he had stolen from their family. Tony Rennell refines that estimation, “…his thrills came from the power dynamics of relationships and playing mind games with people, at which he proved a master. That was what made Barrie a dangerous man to know, particularly for children.” The strongest evidence that this was pernicious is culled from surviving letters and corroborated by the tragic deaths of the Llewellyn Davies lost boys, one of whom died in World War I, a second in a drowning (double suicide?) wrapped in the arms of his boyfriend, and a third finally succumbing to the relentless pressures of life identified as a “lost boy in Neverland” by committing suicide, throwing himself under the wheels of a subway train when he was 60. Dudgeon configured that as evidence that the Llewelly Davies boys were undermined by Barrie’s own emotional issues by which they were entombed in eternal, inescapable childhood where Barrie needed them to be.
J.M. Barrie is doing better as time goes by. A 2004 bio-pic about Barrie, starring Johnnie Depp, is kind. And now, serious scholars are daring to depart from the curious idea that Barrie caused the suffering and deaths of the Llewelly Davies boys he loved by life-casting them as little lost boys who can never grow up.
It is not politically correct and it is professionally dangerous to come to the defense of an accused pedophile these days. “They should just be ‘put down’ like a mad dog,” one Internet posting suggested. But Justine Picardie re-examined the evidence about Barrie and concluded, “I remain…uncertain about J.M. Barrie who seemed not to be out to corrupt boys with adult desire, but for himself to rejoin them, in the innocence of eternal boyhood, in a Neverland where children fly away from their mothers and no one need grow old.”
Picardie, J. “How Bad Was J.M. Barrie?” The Telegraph 13 July 2008
Lane, A. “Lost Boys” New Yorker Nov. 22, 2004
Rennel, T. a book review of P. Dudgeon, CAPTIVATED: J.M. Barrie, the duMauriers and the Dark Side of Neverland. Chatto & Windus, 2008
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.