British journalist Chaney offers a spirited life of the creator of Peter Pan.
Barrie, about whom Conan Doyle noted, “There is nothing small except his body,” was born in the Scottish weaving town of Kirriemuir in 1860, the ninth child of educated Protestants. He set out to make his journalistic mark in London and immediately began to publish “Auld Licht Idylls” for the St. James Gazette and others. With friends in George Meredith and Thomas Hardy, Barrie grew into a writer with serious purpose, trying his hand at novels, and “troubled, sometimes frightened, by his constant inclination to become someone else.” Lured to the theater, he wrote successful plays such as Ibsen’s Ghost and Walker, London, and he married the star actress Mary Ansell, a union that would remain childless and end in divorce. An intimate friendship with Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, her husband Arthur and their increasing brood led to his momentous creation of Peter Pan (1904): Barrie’s perceived perfect family became the Darlings. The play made Barrie rich but rather isolated by his transatlantic success, especially after the deaths of Arthur and Sylvia. Chaney does an admirable job of chronicling Barrie’s busy goings-ons, yet does not get at the heart of the man except perhaps to note that he preferred fantasy to reality. His later years were absorbed somberly by cares for the Davies’ sons and a touching friendship with the married Lady Cynthia Asquith. Chaney briefly delves into Barrie’s significance within the golden age of British children’s literature, although unlike other great writers for children, such as Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, he refused to acknowledge time and negotiate adulthood. While Chaney’s historical overview of Scotland at the time of the Industrial Revolution is perspicacious, her treatment of Barrie’s childhood and relationship to his mother are cursory and timid. In an endnote, the author acknowledges grudgingly that “psychoanalysis has discovered Barrie,” and cites more scathing studies.
The reader craves more than a polite scratch at the literary myth.