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Who Is J. M. Barrie?

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  • Written By: Niki Foster
  • Edited By: Sara Z. Potter
  • Last Modified Date: 26 June 2014
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J. M. Barrie was a children's author, novelist, and dramatist best remembered for his book Peter Pan (1911). The title character, with whom Barrie experimented in other works before writing his novel, was inspired by the Llewelyn-Davies boys, five brothers of the author's acquaintance who became the author's wards after their father died.

Barrie was born on 9 May 1860 in Kirriemuir, Angus, Scotland, the son of a weaver. He was the ninth of ten children. His childhood was difficult, as his father David was distant to the point of neglect and his mother Margaret, though loving, became severely depressed after the death of her son David in 1867. Barrie craved his mother's attention, but had difficulty breaking through her grief. He wrote a glowing biography of Margaret after her death in 1896, and his relationship with her would remain an influence throughout his life. Conversely, the author rarely mentioned his father in his writings.

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At the age of 13, Barrie left home to attend school. He became interested in theatre and literature early on and was a diligent student, earning his Master's degree from Dumfries Academy at the University of Edinburgh in 1882. He worked briefly as a journalist before moving to London, where he wrote freelance, in 1885. Three years later, he published his first novel, a humorous work entitled Better Dead. Many novels and plays followed, some using Barrie's Scottish background as inspiration. His first play, The Little Minister, began as a book in 1891 and was dramatized to great success in 1897.

Barrie's friends and acquaintances read as a Who's Who of Victorian literature, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Robert Lewis Stevenson, Jerome K. Jerome, P. G. Wodehouse, and A. A. Milne. The author married actress Mary Ansell in 1894, but their marriage was childless and allegedly unconsummated and ended in divorce in 1909 following Mary's infidelity. He first met the Llewelyn-Davies, who would become his surrogate family, in Kensington Gardens in 1897.

The relationship with the Llewelyn-Davies and the stories he made up for the boys inspired the first literary incarnation of Peter Pan, in the 1901 adult novel The Little White Bird. The character was named after Peter Llewelyn-Davies and the Greek god Pan. Later, the story evolved into a stage play premiering in December 1904 and finally emerged as the 1911 novel. The book's heroine, Wendy, takes her name from a nickname of Barrie's, and the novel was responsible for popularizing the name for girls, as it was a quite a rare name before. J. M. Barrie became the Llewelyn-Davies boys' guardian and trustee after their father's death in 1907 and unofficially adopted them when their mother died in 1910.

Peter Pan made the author a beloved celebrity in England and beyond. He became a baronet in 1913 and received the Order of Merit in 1922. Later, he became the lord rector of St. Andrew's University and the chancellor of Edinburgh University. He died on 3 June 1937.

Though his children's books brought joy to many, Barrie was in many ways a tortured figure whose tragic childhood never left him. Some biographers have speculated that Peter Pan, the boy who wouldn't grow up, was a veiled expression of Barrie's own predicament, as he never grew past 5 feet (1.5 meters). Others believe that Peter Pan may refer to his brother David, who died as a child. J. M. Barrie also suffered the death of two of the Llewelyn-Davies boys, George at the age of 22 on the World War I front, and Michael in a swimming accident and possible suicide just a month before his 21st birthday. However, he remained close to the other Llewelyn-Davies and had continued success as a playwright and author.

J. M. Barrie's life was the subject of a 1978 BBC mini-series starring Ian Holm, entitled Lost Boys. The 2004 film Finding Neverland, starring Johnny Depp, offered a fictionalized account of his life.

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