World Literature

J. M. Barrie

 

BORN: 1860, Kirriemuir, Angus, Scotland

DIED: 1937, London, England

NATIONALITY: Scottish

GENRE: Drama, Fiction

MAJOR WORKS:

Auld Licht Idylls (1888)

A Window in Thrums (1889)

Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up (1904)

Mary Rose (1920)

‘‘Farewell, Miss Julie Logan’’ (1937)

 

 

J. M. Barrie. Barrie, Sir James M., photograph. The Library of Congress.

 

Overview

J. M. Barrie wrote dozens of plays in his lifetime and is best known as the creator of Peter Pan. However, he began his career as a journalist, during his early years as a writer composed some forty short stories, and ended his prose fiction career with what is arguably his best story.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

The Victorian Era. Barrie grew up in a time known as the Victorian Era, during which Queen Victoria ruled England and its territories (including Scotland). Queen Victoria sat on the throne longer than any other British monarch, from 1837 until 1901. This period saw significant changes for both Britain and Europe as a whole, with industrialization leading much of the population to jobs in factories instead of on farms as in the past. The era also witnessed an extended period of peace and prosperity, leading many free to pursue intellectual interests and occupy themselves with the complex rules of behavior found in ‘‘proper’’ society.

Early Tragedy. James Matthew Barrie was born on May 9, 1860, in Kirriemuir, Scotland. His parents were Margaret Ogilvy Barrie, daughter of an Auld Licht Kirk stonemason, and David Barrie, a weaver. James was their third son and the ninth of ten children. Some biographers attribute much in his emotional development to a childhood event that sent his devastated mother to her bed for the remainder of her life: In January 1867 Barrie’s thirteen- year-old brother David was knocked down by an ice-skater. His skull was fractured, and he died. Barrie later recounted his attempt to take the place of this favorite son. Only seven years old, he told his mother, ‘‘Wait till I’m a man and you’ll never have reason for greeting [weeping] again.’’ Barrie and his mother loved stories. They often read to each other, and she recalled for him memories of her early life. These times formed the basis of his early work in journalism and his two collections of short stories. At age twelve he regularly received a monthly penny magazine called Sunshine. One month the issue failed to arrive, and he decided to write his own stories to entertain his mother. He wrote in his mother’s biography Margaret Ogilvy that after these early ventures in writing, ‘‘my mind was made up; there could be no hum-dreadful-drum profession for me; literature was my game.’’ His first publication was a piece titled ‘‘Reckollections of a Skool-master’’ (1875) in a journal called The Clown begun by his friend Wellwood (Wedd) Anderson while they were at Dumfries Academy.

‘‘That Scotch Thing’’. Barrie began his journalism career as an editorial writer for the Nottingham Journal, where he worked from January 1883 to October 1884. In the fall of 1884 he submitted an article called ‘‘Auld Licht Idylls’’ to the St. James’s Gazette. Frederick Greenwood, its editor and founder, retitled the piece ‘‘An Auld Licht Community’’ and published it on November 17, 1884. Barrie believed that he had finished with the subject and submitted pieces on different topics. However, Greenwood rejected these articles, returning them with the famous note, ‘‘I like that Scotch thing. Any more of those?’’ Barrie’s responses to this query make up the bulk of his first two collections of stories and sketches. ‘‘That Scotch thing’’ was titled ‘‘Thrums’’ and appears as the second story in his first collection, Auld Licht Idylls (1888). ‘‘Thrums’’ possesses many of the fictional qualities for which Barrie was later both lauded and dismissed—humor, stereotyping, Scots dialogue, realistic setting, sentimentality, and fantasy.

He moved to London on March 28, 1885. Barrie began writing a regular column for the British Weekly; Hodder and Stoughton, publisher of the British Weekly, suggested to Barrie in 1888 that he collect some of his old articles in book form. He chose the Auld Licht stories and created a dominie (schoolmaster) narrator. Auld Licht Idylls was published in April 1888. Immediate critical reaction was enthusiastic, though later critics would waver trying to classify and qualify his prose.

April 1888 through January 1889 brought a flurry of publishing activity for Barrie. When Greenwood left the St. James’s Gazette, Barrie began looking for another sympathetic editor, finding one in William Ernest Henley, founder of the Edinburgh weekly the Scots Observer. Barrie became one of ‘‘Henley’s young men,’’ a group that included Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, H. G. Wells, and William Butler Yeats.

The Kailyard School. In 1891 Barrie wrote a novel called The Little Minister, which along with Auld Licht Idylls and A Window in Thrums placed him in what came to be known as the Kailyard (cabbage patch) School, a term first used by Henley when he titled an uncomplimentary article by J. H. Millar in the New Review of 1895 ‘‘Literature in the Kailyard.’’ Barrie, as well as Scottish Free Church ministers and authors S. R. Crockett and John Watson, were the primary laborers in the Kailyard. Even detractors of the school, however, recognized that Barrie was the most skilled of the three writers.

Barrie married Mary Ansell in 1894. In 1895 his joy would be replaced, however, with devastation: His beloved sister Jane Ann and their mother died three days apart. Yet by 1896 he had completed a novel, Sentimental Tommy, and his mother’s biography. He had also set about dramatizing The Little Minister. The play opened to appreciative reviews in 1897. In this same year, Barrie made the acquaintance of a family that shaped his most famous work: the Davies family, with their three sons George, Jack, and Peter. Barrie became a frequent visitor to the Davies household, and named his most famous character after one of them. His play Peter Pan, or, The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up (1904) captured the spirit of youth Barrie witnessed in his time with the boys. After the death of their parents in 1907 and 1910, Barrie was trusted to help raise the Davies boys along with their two younger brothers, Michael and Nicholas.

One Last Success In his final year, Barrie did manage to go through his old stories and articles and compile The Greenwood Hat (1937). These ‘‘delvings into the past,’’ wrote biographer Denis Mackail, ‘‘released something,’’ setting ‘‘the secret processes to work,’’ and Barrie was once again motivated to write fiction. The result was ‘‘Farewell, Miss Julie Logan,’’ and the critics were almost unanimous in their approval. Barrie wrote one more play, The Boy David (1936), but was unable to attend the opening performance in Edinburgh because of his failing health. He died on June 19, 1937, at age seventy-seven and was buried next to his mother and his brother David in Kirriemuir.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Barrie's famous contemporaries include:

Neville Chamberlain (1869-1940): British Conservative politician who assumed the post of prime minister in 1937.

Rudyard Kipling (1835-1936): India-born English author known for his popular children's works, including The Jungle Book (1894) and Just So Stories (1902).

Joseph Carey Merrick (1862-1890): British gentleman who suffered a physical deformity that caused him to be known as ''The Elephant Man.''

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939): Irish poet and playwright who co-founded the Abbey Theatre and spearheaded the Irish Literary Revival.

 

Works in Literary Context

Victorian Style. Barrie’s plays were for the most part well received, but he seems to have emerged full-blown as a short-story writer. His stories—providing a transition to the more distinctive fictional voices of James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and D. H. Lawrence—offer a clear view of an accepted style of fiction common to late Victorian writing.

In his major collections Auld Licht Idylls and Window on the Thrums, the narrative device is the observant yet unobtrusive schoolmaster; the subject is an amusing family; and by the last stories there is a true thematic unity. At the center of the thematic content of his stories are characters who depend upon strict patterns in church, family, and work to deal with the stresses of daily living. In this respect his stories mirror their composer, who fiercely sought evidence that ignoring life’s challenges could eradicate them. Barrie saw himself as a writer rather than an artist, and in fairness, his skill at creating dialogue, setting, mood, and humorous plots must be recognized. He simply had no interest in delving into the realities of the Industrial Revolution, which changed the lives of his fellow Scots, nor in exploring, for example, the effect of World War I upon his countrymen in England.

Influences. Two important influences mark Barrie’s writing: his storytelling sessions with his mother and her retelling of her own past. It is also evident he was a consummate reader—of penny dreadfuls, the works of R. M. Ballantyne and James Fenimore Cooper, and more. Barrie also followed what was suggested to him by his editors; Greenwood, Robertson Nicoll, and Henley provided him with a formula, and he chose never to deviate far from it.

Fellow writers Robert Louis Stevenson, George Meredith, Thomas Hardy, and H. G. Wells admired Barrie’s work, but it seems to have had no impact on their own writing. Barrie’s major influence is seen only in the works of S. R. Crockett and Ian Maclaren, who are usually mentioned only as examples of the usually deplored Kailyard School.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Barrie did focus some of his writing on social concerns, but his most popular works are those magical worlds accessible only to children. Here are a few works by writers who have created memorable fantasy worlds for children:

Alice in Wonderland (1865), a novel by Lewis Carroll. In this magical tale, Alice falls through a rabbit hole into a world of Mad Hatters and giant caterpillars, all with the gift for words of nonsense.

Winnie the Pooh (1926), a novel by A. A. Milne. Christopher Robin's toy bear comes to life and has simple adventures that result in constructive lessons.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), a novel by L. Frank Baum. In this adventure story, Dorothy and her dog Toto are taken on a journey and must find the Wizard of Oz to return home, meeting along the way some unique characters who also have specific needs.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950), a novel by C. S. Lewis. In this novel, four siblings reach the land of Narnia by passing through the back of an old wardrobe. Once there, they find themselves caught up in a fierce struggle against the evil White Witch, who has plunged Narnia into never-ending winter.

 

Works in Critical Context

Though later viewed as the sentimental outpourings of a man who refused to grow up and of a writer who dodged the harsher realities of poverty and the severity of the Church in his native Scotland, Barrie’s short stories were typically well received in their time. Immediate enthusiasm for Auld Licht Idylls, for example, is demonstrated in a review by William Wallace in Academy: ‘‘[Barrie’s] descriptive power, which is little if at all inferior to his humour, and, like it, has the saving grace of self-restraint, reminds one sometimes of Mr. Thomas Hardy.’’ A generation later, however, critics attempting to place Barrie’s short stories within a body of Scottish literature found the humor of Auld Licht Idylls heavy-handed and the quaintness of his unusual Lowland rural folktales unrealistic.

A similar combination of views is found in later criticism, which, while tending to lump Auld Licht Idylls and A Window in Thrums together, still manages to find some maturing of Barrie’s writing. Critic Eric Anderson notes that ‘‘the greatness of this minor masterpiece [A Window] lies not in its humour and pathos, nor even in the brilliance of its dialogue and the spare prose of its descriptive passages, but in the sense of significance with which Barrie invests the humble life which he describes.’’ Yet another critic, George Blake, sees the whole book as ‘‘sorry stuff in terms of life’’ and as ‘‘a debauch of sentimentality.’’ However, the analysis of modern scholars like Leonee Ormond suggests a new willingness to discuss his writing apart from his life, his unfortunate classification as a Kailyard writer, and the easy dismissal of him as a sloppy sentimentalist.

Granted, few of Barrie’s earliest pieces qualify as short stories by most modern definitions. But a consensus of critics have found some redeeming qualities in later stories—a knack for moving the narrative ahead with dialogue, which presages his transition to drama in the early 1890s; a comical sense of the absurd; interesting historical depictions of early nineteenth-century Scottish traditions, customs, and language; and a mature portrayal of human sensibilities. Such skills are seen in stories like ‘‘Farewell, Miss Julie Logan.’’

‘‘Farewell, Miss Julie Logan’’ (1937). The critics were almost unanimous in their approval of this last short story, featured in Barrie’s 1937 collection, The Greenwood Hat. A review in Commonweal represented the positive reaction, calling it ‘‘a marvel of construction, of characterization, deft humor, and amiable sentiment... with just that touch of fancifulness that distinguishes the highest artistic creation.’’ In this story Barrie creates, perhaps for the first time in his short-story career, an atmosphere rather than an attitude. The character of Adam Yestreen, a learned man open to new ideas and to a romantic approach to life, is fully realized, as is the voice of the narrative, knowing yet not sly. In addition, the supernatural element gives the piece an underpinning of intellectual suspense. Barrie also finally achieves a thematic treatment of adult romantic love. Many years after the publication of ‘‘Farewell, Miss Julie Logan,’’ critics continue to find charm and skill in Barrie’s last short story.

 

Responses to Literature

1. J. M. Barrie is perhaps unfairly relegated to the Kailyard School and incorrectly credited with founding this minor literary movement. In an effort to decide whether you think Barrie should be remembered in this context, research the Kailyard School. Consult literary encyclopedias and other useful resources, and discover where the term originally comes from, what characterizes a Kailyard writer, and who else was included in this movement. You may also wish to discuss with peers why the Kailyard School is considered a ‘‘minor’’ rather than major literary movement. Do you think this had to do with attitudes toward Scottish people in general? Toward Scottish writers?

2. Go online to literary sites and databases and find one aspect of Victorian literature to investigate. This could be Victorian literary style, esteemed Victorian writers, lesser-known Victorian writers, publishing venues of the period, differences in the Victorian Era writing of different cultures, or even the events and concerns that influenced Victorian themes. When you have printed out examples, return to share your new area of expertise with the group.

3. Barrie’s most famous character is Peter Pan, from his play of the same name. This character was based not only on one of the young boys Barrie helped raise but on the feisty and mischievous Greek god of the woodlands, Pan. Research the Greek background for Pan. Then look into other Greek gods and goddesses. How have these ancient figures made their way into other literature and art? How are they similar to our human heroes and celebrities?

4. Peter Pan in Barrie’s play is the ‘‘boy who wouldn’t grow up.’’ Barrie was sometimes criticized as a man who refused to grow up. In the 1980s, psychologist Dr. Dan Kiley proposed The Peter Pan Syndrome: Men Who Have Never Grown Up (1983). What constitutes this popular psychological syndrome, and where else in literature or film can you identify the refusal to be anything other than a child?

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Anderson, Eric. ‘‘The Kailyard School Revisited,’’ in Nineteenth-Century Scottish Fiction: Critical Essays, edited by Ian Campbell. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1979, pp. 130-47.

Barrie, J. M. Margaret Ogilvy. New York: Scribner’s, 1896.

Blake, George. Barrie and the Kailyard School. New York: Roy, 1951.

Dunbar, Janet. J. M. Barrie: The Man Behind the Image. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970.

Knowles, Thomas D. ‘‘Ideology, Art and Commerce: Aspects of Literary Sociology in the Late Victorian Kailyard,’’ dissertation. Gothenburg, Sweden: University of Gothenburg, 1983.

Mackail, Denis. Barrie: The Story of J.M.B. New York: Scribner, 1941.

Ormond, Leonee. J. M. Barrie. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1987.

Periodicals

‘‘Farewell, Miss Julie Logan,’’ review in Commonweal (December 28, 1932).

Hubbard, Tom, ‘‘The Divided Scot: Scottish Fiction between the 1880s and 1914.’’ Chapman, 9 (Winter 1986-1987): 54-60.

Wallace, William, review of Auld Licht Idylls. Academy (May 26, 1888).

Web sites

Angus Council. People ofAngus: James Matthew Barrie 1860—1937. Retrieved February 24, 2008, from http://www.angus.gov.uk/history/features/people/JMBarrie.htm.

Birkin, Andrew. Sir J.M. Barrie. Retrieved February 24, 2008, from http://www.jmbarrie.co.uk/.