The boy who would not grow up

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 was ever any hint of impropriety involving the older man. It is true that the boys’ father, Arthur Llewelyn Davies, was not enthusiastic about the cuckoo who had insinuated himself into the family, but that may have been no more than a wish for family privacy, and his early death from cancer meant that the matter did not come to a head.

Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, the boys’ mother, played in the film by Kate Winslet, was the daughter of the writer and illustrator George du Maurier. Her brother Gerald was the first actor to play the part of Doctor Hook in Peter Pan, which he did with a realistic nastiness that frightened the children in the audience. Gerald’s daughter Daphne, author of Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel, would become the most famous member of the du Maurier clan.

When Sylvia died, also of cancer, three years after her husband, Barrie took on the guardianship of the five boys; there is a suggestion that this was not Sylvia’s wish and that the diminutive Scotsman altered her will in some way.

Barrie said that the character of Peter Pan was not based on the third of the Llewelyn Davies children but was an amalgam of all five. In dedicating the play to them, he wrote, ‘I always knew that I made Peter by rubbing the five of you violently together, as savages with two sticks produce a flame. That is all he is, the spark I got from you.’

The Llewelyn Davies boys attended Eton, but the family was marked by tragedy. The oldest, George, who was the first one Barrie met and was his favourite, was one of those who ‘died as cattle’ in the trenches in 1915, the same year that theatrical entrepreneur Charles Frohman (Dustin Hoffman in the film) lost his life when the Lusitania was sunk. Michael, the fourth boy and the youngest in the film, was drowned with a friend in Oxford in what was thought to have been a gay suicide pact.

But the most tragic was Peter, who was thought to be the one on whom the eponymous character was based. An easy target for bullying at Eton, he felt he had been exploited by Barrie, and just as Christopher Milne grew to hate any reference to the child who went to watch the ‘changing guard at Buckingham Palace’, so Peter Llewelyn Davies grew to detest Peter Pan and hated any suggestion that the character was based on him.

He became a publisher, but suffered from depression caused mainly by the horrors he had witnessed during his time at the Front, and also by the millstone of being the original for Peter Pan. ‘If that perennially juvenile lead, if that boy so fatally committed to an arrestation of his development, had only been dubbed George or Jack or Michael or Nicholas, what miseries would have been spared me,’ he wrote. He was disappointed when Barrie did not include him or any of his brothers in his will, leaving everything to the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children.

Peter was drunk and destitute when, in the presence of bystanders, he walked under a train at Sloane Square station in 1960. The saddest aspect of the story, is that neither he nor any of the Llewelyn Davies children were really the originals for Peter Pan. The boy who would not—or perhaps could not—grow up was J.M. Barrie himself.

There is a connection with the Irish rebel leader Michael Collins, who met J.M. Barrie on a number of occasions. His biographer, Margery Forster, writes that ‘Collins had always been a lover of Peter Pan; the eternal boy in himself was fascinated, perhaps even a little envious of him’. It is an intriguing suggestion, because it is known that when he worked in the Post Office Savings Bank and later in a stockbrokerage firm in London, Collins was a regular theatregoer.

But there is an even closer connection, and for that we need to go to another branch of the Llewelyn Davies family. Crompton Llewelyn Davies, uncle of the Peter Pan boys, was a lawyer and close confidant of fellow Welshman David Lloyd George, for whom he acted as election agent and early sponsor. He drafted a number of land-law bills for the British government and in 1908 prepared the bill that was to introduce the old-age pension in Britain. For this, he was made a baron and took a seat in the House of Lords; he was also appointed legal adviser to the British Post Office with access to many of the intelligence-gathering activities of the state.

Crompton Llewelyn Davies married Moya O’Connor, daughter of a former Irish MP in the House of Commons. Her family achieved a tragic notoriety when her mother, four siblings and nanny died of shellfish poisoning while on a picnic at the seaside. The event was sufficiently well known in Dublin to merit mention by Joyce in Ulysses.

It is not agreed when Moya first met Collins. She was not initially impressed by the big Irishman, criticising his smoking and describing him—quite accurately—as bombastic.

In time, she became more involved in Irish affairs and was briefly imprisoned for her role, causing her husband to lose his highly paid job with the British Post Office. That was in 1921, but before that, the Llewelyn Davies were centres of a literary and society set in Hans Place in London, as well as in a house they owned on the northside of Dublin that was regularly used by Collins as a hiding hole.

In the years after his death, with the memory of the treatment of Parnell still relatively fresh in people’s minds, any suggestion that Collins might have had a sex life was carefully suppressed. Instead, his routine of daily Mass and Communion was stressed, notwithstanding that if such a habit existed, it would have marked him out easily to police and secret agents who were searching for him.

We now know that he had many lady friends: Kitty Kiernan (Julia Roberts in the Collins biopic), to whom he was engaged; the infelicitously named but highly respectable Dilly Dicker; his second cousin Nancy O’Brien, who later married his brother; his first girlfriend, Susan Killeen; and his faithful secretary, Sinead Mason. There was unlikely to have been anything improper in these relationships.

What has always given cause for whispering was his attractiveness to society women who would have regarded him as a conquest. Hazel Lavery, American-born wife of the portrait painter Sir John Lavery, claimed that Collins was one of her lovers—she was sent home by one of her blue-stocking friends when she turned up at his funeral in widow’s weeds. Lady Londonderry, whose husband was a descendant of Castlereagh, was another with whom his name was associated.

But the most persistent and most likely story concerns Moya Llewelyn Davies. She was quoted as saying that on the night it became clear that Eamon de Valera was going to reject the Treaty brought back from London by Collins, bringing an end to 900 years of occupation of Ireland, ‘[Collins] was so distressed that I gave myself to him.’ But the rumour was that the relationship had begun long before that and there is even a suggestion that he may have been the father of one or both of Moya’s children.

Among diehard Irish republicans, there was a theory that Collins was blackmailed into signing the Treaty by the threat that the British would reveal his paternity of Moya Llewelyn Davies’s son. Any suggestion that he had an affair with a wealthy socialite would have brought embarrassment to deeply Catholic Ireland in the early years of the century, particularly as many of the fighters were priggishly devout in their observance.
If one of his conquests was Moya Llewelyn Davies, the sister-in-law of Kate Winslet’s Sylvia, then he picked a highly intelligent woman. Her translation of the Maurice O’Sullivan book Twenty Years A-Growing, the story of life on the Blasket Islands, is still regarded as a classic. She would have been as worthy a partner for Michael Collins as a heroine for J.M. Barrie.   

Frank O’Shea is a Canberra writer and educator.



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