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J.M. Barrie lived from 9 May 1860 to 19 June 1937. A native of Kirriemuir, he was a novelist and dramatist best known for inventing the character of Peter Pan. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Sir James Matthew Barrie, 1st Baronet, OM, to give him his full range of titles, was born the ninth of ten children to a weaving family in a house in Kirriemuir now preserved by the National Trust for Scotland as a museum. When James was six, his 13 year old brother David died in a skating accident on the eve of his 14th birthday. David had been their mother's favourite and she never recovered from the loss, repeatedly confusing James with David and effectively denying him a separate identity. Meanwhile, the father refused to have any dealings with the children at all. As a result of what would today be considered psychological abuse, James suffered from psychogenic dwarfism and never grew beyond 4'10" in height.
Barrie went to school in Kirriemuir and Forfar, before moving to Glasgow and then Dumfries with his elder brother Alexander. He went on to study at Edinburgh University. From an early age Barrie had a keen interest in writing, producing material for school magazines and drama groups, and while in Edinburgh he had articles published in local newspapers. He also met Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Robert Louis Stevenson.
After graduating, Barrie worked for a while at the Nottingham Journal, until cutbacks led to his redundancy. Back in Kirriemuir he embarked on a successful series of stories based on tales from the town and surrounding area, but set in a fictional "Thrums". In 1885 Barrie moved to London, making an increasingly good living from newspaper articles, novels, and later from scripts for the theatre. He even co-authored, with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, an opera called Jane Annie, or The Good Conduct Prize. It flopped when first performed at the Savoy Theatre in 1893, and has rarely been seen since.
But it was one work in particular, and one character in particular, that was to ensure J.M. Barrie's lasting fame, though the story of its emergence is a complex one. In 1894, Barrie married an actress, Mary Ansell. It would seem that the most successful product of their marriage was the St Bernard puppy they bought while on honeymoon in Switzerland. It was through walking the dog near his home in London in 1897 or 1898, that Barrie came to meet and know the Llewelyn-Davies family, Arthur and Sylvia and their five sons.
Over time, Barrie grew closer to the family, and more distant from his wife. Out of the stories he invented to entertain the Llewelyn-Davies boys emerged the character of Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up. Peter Pan first appeared in print in 1901 in The Little White Bird. This was followed by the stage play Peter Pan, which had its first performance on 27 December 1904, and which itself was later produced in novel form.
Barrie's fame expanded as his fortune grew. He was knighted in 1913, the year in which he also became Rector of St Andrews University. He received the Order of Merit in 1922; in 1928 he succeeded Thomas Hardy as President of the Society of Authors; and he was Chancellor of the University of Edinburgh from 1930 to 1937, the year in which he died.
But his private life was less successful. Barrie's marriage was dissolved in 1910, the same year in which Sylvia Llewelyn-Davies died (her husband had died three years earlier). Barrie adopted their five sons, the "lost boys", but one was killed during the First World War and another drowned in 1921.
Over the years at least three different theories have developed about who was represented by Peter Pan. Barrie himself said that the character was a composite of the five Llewelyn-Davies boys: and the youngest, Peter Llewelyn-Davies, lent the character part of his name. Peter Llewelyn-Davies never fully came to terms with his association with Peter Pan, nor did he overcome the disappointment at being left out of Barrie's will. On 5 April 1960 he threw himself under a train in London. But many have suggested two other points of origin for the "boy who wouldn't grow up". One, obviously, was J.M. Barrie himself, who literally didn't grow up because of the stress he was subjected to as a child. The other was his brother David, who having died at the age of 13 would forever remain a child. Or perhaps Barrie just drew all these different elements together in creating Peter Pan.
Barrie's memory is kept alive today by a statue of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, London, and another in the centre of his home town, Kirriemuir, where he is also buried: while the house in which he was born has been preserved as a museum by the National Trust for Scotland. Before Barrie died, he gifted the copyright of the stage play to Great Ormond Street Hospital, so every time the play is performed, the hospital benefits.