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The boy who would not grow up

  • 25 April 2006

When James Barrie was six, his brother David, eight years older and his mother’s favourite, died in a skating accident. In a desperate attempt to gain her attention, James put on his brother’s clothes and became David for her. Like the character in the Eric Bogle song who ‘in some faithful heart [is] forever 19’, he remained frozen at the age David died. He even stopped growing, never reaching more than five feet (152cm) in height; he did not shave until his 20s; it is believed that his marriage to the actress Mary Ansell was never consummated. At this point, no doubt, the dismal fossickers in the human psyche would have little trouble finding explanations for his future writings, and even less difficulty in suggesting reasons for his delight in playing with children. One of his child friends was the four-year-old daughter of the writer W.E. Henley, the man whose beautiful poem Invictus (‘I am the master of my fate / I am the captain of my soul’) was appropriated as the dying words of the Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh. Margaret Henley called Barrie ‘Friendy’, but with the endearing problem that some children have in pronouncing the letter ‘r’, the word came out as ‘Fwendy’. She died at the age of six, but her articulation was immortalised in the name of the heroine in the Peter Pan story. Barrie was a wealthy and established writer by the time he met the Llewelyn Davies children and used them as the basis for the character of Peter Pan. The whimsical story of a boy who would not grow up is a bit passé for today’s taste, although it continues to form the basis for Christmas pantomimes and children’s stories. A more likely cause of its lack of popularity is our modern suspicion that there was something unhealthy about a man in his 40s playing so happily and on an apparently equal level with young boys. No doubt, the fact that a modern American entertainer accused of sexual deviancy would use Barrie’s Neverland as the name of his mansion has helped reinforce that unease. This aspect of the relationship between Barrie and the Llewelyn Davies boys is raised and dismissed, probably rightly, in the recent film Finding Neverland, in which Johnny Depp plays Barrie. In an interview some years ago, the youngest of the boys, Nico—he doesn’t appear in the film—categorically denied that there