The Big Read Blog (Archive)

The Book That Never Ages

“All children, except one, grow up.” So begins one of the world’s great works of children’s literature, Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie. I first read the novel as an adult for a college course, and was immediately enchanted by the adventure, fantasy, and wry observations about that terrifying realm known as adulthood. It’s become one of my favorite books, and I re-read it whenever I’m feeling in need of a little magic in my life. (According to George Bernard Shaw, Peter Pan, which first appeared on stage, was “ostensibly a holiday entertainment for children but really a play for grown-up people.”) Since Barrie’s birthday would be this Thursday, I thought it would be a fitting time to dig up some trivia about the author and his most famous work.

The character Peter Pan first appeared in Barrie’s novel The Little White Bird, published in 1902. However, it was his 1904 production of Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up that fully introduced the story we now consider to be a classic. Barrie adapted the play into the novel Peter and Wendy, which appeared in 1911.

A major cricket enthusiast, Barrie founded the cricket team the Allahakbarries. Players consisted of some of the leading literary figures of the day, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, A.A. Milne, H.G. Wells, and P.G. Wodehouse.

In addition to their cricketing camaraderie, Barrie also collaborated with Conan Doyle on the opera Jane Annie, the Good Conduct Award. Barrie had started the libretto, but after becoming ill, asked Conan Doyle to complete it. Despite the genius of the two men, the opera was a flop.

Although Barrie had a self-admitted passion for all things English (Peter Pan is famously set in London), the author was actually Scottish.

Peter Pan was created for and inspired by Barrie’s relationship with the Llewelyn Davies boys: George, John, Peter, Michael, and Nicholas. Barrie met the elder boys one day in 1897 while they were playing in Kensington Gardens with their nurse. He became a permanent fixture in their family, and was known as “Uncle Jim.” After the boys’ parents died---both of cancer at an early age---Barrie was named as the children’s trustee and guardian. This relationship has come under a good deal of scrutiny in recent years, but before his death, Nicholas publicly stated that it was entirely innocent---which at least some of Barrie's biographers support.

Unfortunately, the Davies boys’ fates held more tragedy than fairy-tale. George was killed in action during World War I; Michael drowned in 1921; and Peter, who gave his name to the world’s most famous imp, committed suicide in 1960 by jumping in front of a London tube train.

Peter Pan popularized the name "Wendy," which until then, had been relatively uncommon. Barrie chose the name for his girl heroine in honor of Margaret Henley, the daughter of poet W.E. Henley, who was an acquaintance of Barrie's. Margaret, who died at the age of six, called Barrie "my friendy," which thanks to the typical childhood difficulty with pronouncing r's, came out as "fwiendy."

In 1929, Barrie gave the rights of Peter Pan to the Great Ormond Street Hospital in London, a children's hospital. The hospital continues to receive royalties from productions and publications of the work, though in accordance with Barrie's wishes, the sum of these royalties has never been disclosed.

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