Or, The Barried Life
John Logan’s play, ‘Peter and Alice’ was an eye opener not just for the countless number of times children authors had influenced our entire childhood but also for the lives that inspired the characters we grew up worshipping. This particular discussion pivots around a figure who was unknown to me until I was seventeen has found a profound treasure in my heart.
We’ve all been captivated by J.M Barrie and his most seminal work, ‘Peter Pan’ unless of course we resort to Disney’s animated movie and Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet’s ‘Finding Neverland.’ A very frugal number of people have actually read the unabridged story of the boy who never grew up. My anger is directed more at publishers who in the course of selling it to a target audience of toddlers have eliminated the dark essence that went into the weaving of this ageless tale. Peter Llewelyn Davies in his childhood had lost his father that opened the gateway for the arrival of a man that would have an insurmountable influence on him, influence not specifically of the good kind. Left to cater to the upbringing of five children, mother Sylvia would be frequented and assisted in her herculean task by J.M Barrie. Barrie had befriended and later adopted the Davies boys when their mother had passed away only three years later. Barrie had published the first account of Peter Pan in ‘A little white bird’ in 1902 describing the character as an infant who had escaped Kensington Gardens. Pan’s own independent story would later envisage the eponym of Peter and Barrie’s own re-surfacing childhood traumas. The Boy who never grew up had actually created been on the character of Barrie’s older brother, David, who died in an ice-skating accident the day before his 14th birthday. With the mother left devastated, the six-year-old Barrie could never fill his place. In death, Barrie’s mother found comfort in the fact that her dead son would remain a boy forever, never to grow up and leave her. Overshadowed, Barrie tried relentlessly to be loved the way his late brother had been to the extent of dressing up in his clothes and whistling in the manner he did. The hint of success made Barrie carry on this charade with his mother and the two immersed themselves in the retelling of her childhood escapades.
Making Peter, therefore, the central figure of his unfortunate eulogy, Barrie immortalised the memory of his brother into the identity of Peter and persevered, even compelled him to be an eternal representation of the same. For long, the association of the character and the personification of the devil may care attitude had meddled with his diurnal chores and incurred the wrath of Barrie who had been keen to commercialise this enterprise with Peter being the living and breathing manifestation of his long dead brother. For Peter, it was extremely difficult to grow out of the shadow and leave his Peter Pan days behind. This dysfunction to accept Barrie as his guardian and walk on his pre-set path was escalated since Peter returned from the war, unable to integrate into normal civilian life after witnessing the gruesome bloodbath of the trenches. Recovering from the trauma of his brother’s death in the field, Peter often took to alcoholism and exhibited a sharp deviation from the image Barrie was trying to mould him in. Peter’s decision to live in with Vera Willoughby, a 27-year-old married woman with a daughter older than he scandalised Barrie and caused a rift between the two. The idea of Peter Pan died when the real Peter decided to get used to the grown-up world to the dismay of Barrie who believed that Peter would ultimately inherit the legacy of his late brother David.
Although Peter retired from war service and opened up a publishing house with the financial aid of Barrie himself, he could never fully escape the weight of the character thrust upon him. In 1960, after having published his first cousin Daphne Du Maurier, Peter was compiling his family letters into a book called the ‘Morgue’ shortly after Barrie’s death. Within days of its completion, Peter threw himself under a train at Sloane Square as the train was pulling into the station. He was 63. The jurists and his family had speculated that he was driven into depression that took a more acute turn when he came across the documents hinting at his brother Michael’s supposed suicide and could no longer fight against his emphysema. Most hint to the disruption of ‘the fine balance of his mind’ to have been the cause of his suicide while others blame Barrie’s over-imposition of fiction and its perpetuation onto Peter’s shoulders.
The reason Peter Pan should be read and read again is not to eulogise and romanticise either the author or the character or the ones who had been caught in the crossfire. It was a story born out of incidents that had a deep-seated influence in the lives of both Barrie and Peter. The devilry of fame does not excuse the tragedies of normal life. And the progenitors and perpetrators of this misery can never be immune from the side effects of its toxicity. Peter Llewelyn Davies was a hero in his own rights and the first of his kind to be exempted from the stereotypical conclusion of a ‘Happily Ever After.’ One should not be deluded to accept the hero-worshipping Barrie had advocated in the classic tale, neither should one tear down something peremptorily that is meant to be taken at its face value. But the legacy of Peter, the man behind the story, should not be estimated only with respect to the tale he has tried so hard to forget.