Neverland: J.M. Barrie, The Du Mauriers, and the Dark Side of Peter Pan
By Piers Dudgeon, 2009
Reviewed by Tanya B. Avakian
Fairies are found the world over, but the fairy folk we think of when we hear the word are quintessentially British. Several things are true of the British fairies in particular, and are worth remembering in case one should happen to encounter them. The fairies have trouble reproducing: their greatest delight is in stealing human children to replace their dwindling stock, and switching the stolen child with one of their own, a “changeling” born old who will never grow. They are amusing, often charming, but they do not have human souls and cannot feel affection as humans do; and they are dangerous if crossed.
In the Celtic lands fairy belief persisted longer as a reality rather than a sentimental point of reference, and was not uncommon in Scotland when James Matthew Barrie was born in the northeastern town of Kirriemuir in 1860. At five foot three and a half inches, he was a small man, though not impossibly small compared to the average height of Europeans at the time. The repeated descriptions of Barrie as stunted, dwarfish, childlike, etc., are likely to refer to an impression of a man psychologically twisted by hardship. He was believed by many to be incapable of sex. Whether this means that he was physically impotent or celibate by inclination, there is no evidence that he ever consummated a relationship. He was married for a while, to a woman from the theater world who eventually left Barrie because he never spoke to her unless his dogs were in the room. His parents were poor, though how much he suffered from it is not clear. Barrie would give the impression that they were on the verge of starvation, inclining his contemporaries to blame Barrie’s diminutive size on failure to thrive.
A modern form of the same speculation suggests psychogenic dwarfism, arrested growth due to overwhelming childhood trauma. But Barrie’s mother, Margaret Ogilvie (Scotswomen then kept their maiden names), was as small for a woman as Barrie was for a man, with a temperament of tyrannical morbidity. When Barrie’s next-oldest brother David died in a skating accident, his life changed forever. It is hard enough to be the child of a parent who has lost a child if that parent asks one to bear all his or her love, but Barrie was one of the unfortunate minority whom the parent punishes. One famous anecdote has it that when Barrie would enter a room, his mother would ask “David?” to which Barrie had to reply, “It’s no’ him, it’s just me.” Margaret’s rejection of Barrie slowly was replaced by a relationship of increasing intensity. Barrie became the audience for his mother’s self-absorption and her ability to fascinate, expressed in her retellings of folk and fairy tales and her fancified versions of her own life story.
Barrie’s own talents for fable-spinning, fascination, and manipulation were already well developed when he came into contact with the family of Arthur Llewellyn Davies. Llewellyn Davies was a barrister married to Sylvia du Maurier, son of novelist George and aunt of novelist Daphne du Maurier. They were the parents of five boys. They met Barrie when he was already so famous for his children’s stories and plays that he was recognized on walks by children, and their parents, who implored him to entertain the youngsters with his melancholy Scots-inflected brand of whimsy. He became a virtual member of the Llewellyn Davies family and a favorite with the children, but within a few years both parents were dead of grotesque cancers. Arthur Llewelyn Davies died of sarcoma of the jaw after a mutilating operation that left him unable to speak, and Sylvia soon after of cancer of the heart. Barrie became the boys’ legal guardian, possibly by forging Sylvia’s will. Two would die young and those who lived to full adulthood would hint all their lives at a hard-to-describe darkness in their relationship with Barrie. His correspondence and other papers leave little doubt that he loved them, but attest to the possessiveness and joylessness that he inherited from his mother; at the least, the boys had little separate existence for Barrie, other than as a sounding board for his own obsessions. The authorized version of this story is J. M. Barrie and the Lost Boys by Andrew Birkin, written with the guidance of the surviving Llewellyn Davies brothers and sensitively filmed with Ian Holm portraying Barrie.
Barrie would not be the only Victorian parent or stepparent to have been a world-class psychic vampire. In the Birkin treatment, what distinguishes him from A. A. Milne, Alison Uttley, and other parents whose children were most valuable to them as creative material was that he was so little parental: a fossilized boy himself, he was on equal footing with his charges and could be outgrown, but never really laid to rest, as the influence of a real parent must be. By contrast, Piers Dudgeon does on Barrie a version of the job that Patricia Cornwell did on Walter Sickert in Portrait of a Killer. For Dudgeon, it all began when Barrie read the novels of George du Maurier, father of Sylvia and Gerald and grandfather of Daphne. (Barrie never met George.) It is likely that the Trilby story appealed to Barrie; it was one of the huge hits of its day, full of cautions for women who got above themselves. But for Dudgeon Barrie was not merely moved by the story of Trilby and Svengali and its parallels with his own longings; nor did he “only” use Svengali as a blueprint for his takeover of the du Maurier family, already highly speculative. Nothing will do but that George du Maurier was a literal hypnotist and Barrie somehow learned the secret, presented as something close to a magic power, from his reading of Svengali. He used his newfound power to mastermind the fates of the Llewellyn Davies and du Maurier families and through them, much of English culture at the time, up to and including the doomed Scott expedition. Barrie’s intention in each and every case was that his captives suffer the worst fate possible. He might have poisoned Sylvia, who after all never had an autopsy, and he caused Arthur’s loss of his mouth because of all the things Arthur longed to say against Barrie and could not.
Up to a point, this sort of thing is fun; revisionist history on such a scale can resemble urban fantasy and offers some of the same rewards. “What if,” we all like to ask: what if one twisted soul did all this damage? In a world where accountability has been fractured, we are comforted by tracking it down to the roots of the roots and, not least, excusing slandered innocents, when we are all more aware of the degrees of separation by which we are implicated in history’s pain. Dudgeon’s book is less a biography of Barrie than a biography of the du Maurier family as seen through the lens of their contact with Barrie. His heroine is Daphne du Maurier. Most of the blurbs on the back jacket are from biographers of the du Mauriers, the slandered innocents of Dudgeon’s fable. Which introduces some complication, because the du Mauriers had problems of their own.
Dudgeon presents a lot of evidence that Daphne du Maurier’s Svengali was her father, whose sexual attraction to her stopped just short from intercourse if indeed it did. This theatrical magnifico, younger brother of Sylvia Llewellyn Davies, comes off as a monster by today’s standards and certainly by feminist standards. But Dudgeon clearly admires Gerald du Maurier as well. If this places him in a pickle, he has a way out: it can all be explained by Barrie’s influence. At this point even Cornwell’s Sickert is not a good example. Dudgeon’s Barrie comes to resemble the version of Yoko Ono cherished by some Beatles biographers, down to his littleness and his humorlessness about his art. And like the Yoko-haters, Dudgeon has a point, but one that is too obvious to require the endless fillips he deduces and begs the question of how much show business personalities may gravitate toward oddities of their own accord. The appeal of Neverland for du Maurier fans resembles the appeal of Yoko-hating for fans of John Lennon, a peculiar man at best but one whose exposés inevitably proffer fans the comfort that Yoko was worse and likely responsible for everything to go wrong for the Beatles after 1968. So while we learn that Gerald du Maurier all but raped his daughter, we can also reassure ourselves that it was Barrie’s idea.
Dudgeon goes further: he insists that it was Barrie’s influence that somehow transmitted George du Maurier’s hypnotic gift down to Gerald and thus caused Gerald, or Barrie, to direct Daphne du Maurier’s life like a play written by Barrie, making Barrie responsible for all of the turmoil experienced by a woman who was an incest victim by almost any reckoning. Whatever Barrie did or did not do to the Llewelyn Davies boys, getting Gerald off the hook in this fashion is ludicrous. The disturbing undercurrent in the book is the suggestion that however bad Gerald was, he was “normal,” a man, while Barrie wasn’t. It resembles some critiques of priestly celibacy that focus on abstinence as impossible for males, rather than questioning the Church’s tacit encouragement of sexuality without accountability. And like antipapist Gothics of Barrie’s time, Dudgeon gives Barrie magic powers, if not literally then through his membership in a cabal. Dudgeon rightly locates the trauma of Barrie’s childhood in his mother’s rejection of him after David’s death, and goes further, suggesting that Barrie was responsible for the accident. It’s not impossible, and at least Dudgeon doesn’t quite say it would have been on purpose; a novelist, as opposed to a historian, would not be out of line in imagining the young Jamie punished by an induction into his mother’s world of loveless manipulation, “maimed” and “programmed to maim.” The line is crossed for a novelist, let alone a historian, in saying that the programming could cross generations and bloodlines in Barrie’s adoptive du Maurier family. The rationale is that if Barrie was capable of all that we already “know” he did—ruining the lives of Sylvia du Maurier’s family—then why not Gerald and Daphne du Maurier; why not Robert Scott? One could go further in Dudgeon’s vein and ask if Barrie was Ian Fleming’s model for Blofeld, given that a niece of his secretary would marry the creator of James Bond.
All kidding aside, there are serious issues involved here which are not served well by whimsy. To begin with, it risks falsifying the historical record in a sociological as well as a personal sense. Both Cornwell and Dudgeon are limited by an anachronistic focus on their subject’s freakishness. It is true that the “man of his time” argument is always suspect. While much of Sickert and Barrie’s known behavior was not especially unusual for its time–Sickert’s misogyny and morbidity, Barrie’s predatory voyeurism—we should not take that as a sign that either man was not capable of nastier things, including much that would have been considered disreputable but normal. However, the biographers of both men make the mistake of interpreting their subjects’ potential for sociopathy through the lens of their own time, indeed seizing every chance to emphasize how abnormal Sickert or Barrie would have appeared to a contemporary—at least, one who knew anything about their private lives. Cornwell and Dudgeon go on to hypothesize what deviance either might have been capable of when they were marked as deviant within their societies. Clearly, goes the reasoning, if they were such anomalies, there were no bounds on the degree to which they could violate their own culture’s standards; they were capable of anything. And that is simply not true. Sickert’s known vices extended to a fondness for prostitutes and images of violent death, especially the death of women. The average patron of a Victorian or Edwardian men’s club would have seen worse.
Barrie, in turn, was a man whose behavior would have raised few eyebrows had he been female. He was a prototype of the Victorian spinster who wants to love children but cannot begin to understand them, having neither children of her own nor bearable memories of childhood, and who is inevitably entrusted with children who have already been traumatized by loss. The average Victorian would have agreed that it is not unusual for a spinster to compensate for the things she has been deprived of by manipulating others, especially their children. She finds ways of making herself indispensable and if tragedy strikes, she may well become invaluable. The needy can take their chances if her personality is difficult, as Barrie’s was.
Even as a male, Barrie must have looked like an obvious choice to take over. The Llewelyn Davies children were orphans and Barrie a close (and wealthy) friend of their parents. The theater world was no longer off-limits in a class sense, but it remained a world within a world and it was not surprising that someone inside it became the boys’ guardian. Dudgeon more or less assumes that Barrie was homosexual, but goes on to say, correctly, that if this was a known fact it is unlikely that he would have been entrusted with a family of boys. Nobody would have given much thought to whether it might have been just as traumatic for them to be given to a man who had been at least emotionally involved with their mother, a man who had once made a point of his attraction to women (he claimed they would have been more interested in him had he been taller). Today’s readers may be surprised to hear that it was not only accepted but expected for Edwardian married women of quality to take lovers. It was better if they stopped short of sex, but pretty much anything was allowed provided it was discreet and did not lead to divorce. Thus Barrie crossed a line that literal lovers never did by taking Sylvia Llewelyn Davies’ children from her. It would take a heart of stone not to appreciate the comedy of Barrie cast as Barry Lyndon. Even without the possibility of Barrie’s impotence, it must have galled many would-be Lyndons that it was the whining little Scot of low birth who had managed it.
One can also overestimate the destructiveness of the known effect on the adult children. It is true that one and perhaps two of the boys committed suicide in adulthood, including the one named Peter, but both deaths implicated life stress. Michael Llewelyn Davies, drowned perhaps by accident, was almost certainly struggling with his sexuality and Peter, at sixty-three, with the fatal illness of his wife: Peggy Davies had Huntington’s disease and had passed it on to all three of their children. But the newspapers could not resist the irony of Peter Davies’ name and his death so soon after that of Lady Cynthia Asquith, Barrie’s secretary and companion. Lady Cynthia was a beautiful woman whose admirers had included D. H. Lawrence. She was the sort who lived maybe a rung or two below Virginia Woolf in terms of emancipation. While the Bloomsbury set had contempt for the Lady Cynthias, they had blazed as much of the trail as the suffragettes. The sister of Woolf’s Greek teacher would teach it to Cynthia, though it was characteristic of Cynthia and her generation that she learned, not in a political spirit, but in one of getting her own way. Never less than respectable, she dabbled in acting, one of the first generation of noblewomen who would not thus be put at once beyond the pale; her family owned stately homes but she had no interest in managing them, instead given to what she called “cuckooing”—staying over for months at a time in friends’ accommodations, stately or otherwise; and she was adept at the version of courtly love practiced by her generation and that preceding, of which more later. Her mother, Lady Elcho, had gone further: she bore an illegitimate child by one admirer, and it was rumored (not very seriously) that Lady Cynthia was the daughter of another: the Scottish-born politician and eventual Prime Minister, Arthur Balfour, whose aloofness, mysticism and seeming asexuality somewhat recall Barrie, if without most of Barrie’s malevolence.
Being used to the attentions of effete men, Cynthia Asquith does not seem to have experienced Barrie’s influence as deathly, rather as demanding in the manner of a wearisome old auntie. It thus stands to reason that Dudgeon should present her as a mercenary siren, since she represents a sizable fly in the ointment of his Barrie curse. Lady Cynthia was admittedly seen that way by some of her peers in the Barrie saga, suggesting that her toughness also challenged their own strongly Barrie-influenced life narratives. In return for her services to him he gave her a salary and a surviving spouse’s income from the will some (Dudgeon included) believe that she forged, but as importantly, he gave her an identity. He gave her work when women of her class worked only at marriage. She was one of few people around Barrie who managed to retain some self-interest. This was enough to cast her as a cuckoo in the nest, the “bad mother” or “evil stepmother” who looks out for herself. The Llewelyn Davies children did not care for Cynthia, who had children of her own in whom Barrie would take his usual interest; worst of all, she had her own Peter Pan, a backward son who would die in an institution. She never permitted this son and Barrie to meet. But her two normal sons enchanted Barrie and together with everything else, they must have caused the Llewelyn Davieses some jealousy, aggravated by Cynthia’s own tepid nature as a parent.
George Llewelyn Davies would not survive World War I. As the closest to “Uncle Jim,” he took with him any adult perspective he would have gained on the relationship and thus on its malignity or otherwise. John and Nicholas lived quiet lives of normal length. While John did not trust Barrie, he does not appear to have suffered much from his guardianship. Nicholas, the youngest, had the least to do with Peter Pan but gave the most assistance to Birkin. So we can take two normal lives out of five, one outwardly normal one (Peter’s) that ended relatively late, the obligatory war death of the brothers’ generation, and we are left with one, Michael’s, that might have been Barrie’s fault; or not. But it is part of the Peter Pan story’s appositeness to its moment that the Llewellyn Davies children be “lost” and even doomed by Barrie’s narrative. The brothers’ story would be cast indelibly by the First World War and the loss of an entire generation of beautiful young boys who would never grow up. The guilt accruing to Barrie is just as convenient: the lost boys were the victims of their parents’ hothouse idealism, for which the war generation’s survivors would blame their parents with the bitterness of those mourning not only their terrible losses, but their own gullibility in acquiescence. Vera Brittain describes herself before 1914 as a “sensitive plant” and laments that fools are always punished worse than villains. The burden of the war generation’s adulthood was the cry in the Irish ballad, “Blackwaterside”:
There’s not a girl in this whole town
As easily led as I
And when the sky does fall and the seas they do run dry
Why it’s then you’ll marry I.
The options for the survivors and their younger siblings coming of age just after the war were evenly divided between full-time mourning and cynicism. Freeman Dyson, a survivor of the second war whose traumatized response resembled that of Vera Brittain and her contemporaries, eventually came to see through the British cult of losers that flourished after the Somme and Passchendaele; for instance, he pointed out that Roald Amundsen put together a far more competent Pole campaign than Robert Scott, and deserved his victory. Most commonly, though, the cult of losers found its voice in the tinsel shrillness of the humor associated with the Brideshead generation, the Mitford sisters and many others of about 1904-vintage, blending mostly unexamined privilege with a rebellion like Barrie’s: If their older brothers could not now grow up, well, they would not. And Peter Pan appeared on the stage at just about the time most of the Bridesheads were born.
This accident of history, though, tends to disguise rather than highlight the most sinister mythos behind the play and the source of much of Dudgeon’s credibility. It was an age at which, as the jacket flap puts it, “the late nineteenth-century world of the occult gave way to the new science of psychology.” People examined themselves and others much more than before, and the new science indulged in experiments in “mentalism” and “mesmerism,” some of which was a form of hypnosis and some, what would today be called brainwashing. Nobody can have been more predisposed to find these escapades delicious than the band of high-minded, mostly aristocratic, politically connected, somewhat bohemian notables known as the “Souls.” The “Souls” included a Viceroy of India and at least one Prime Minister as well as several hostesses, writers, actors and artists. Their queen was Lady Ettie Desborough, one of Cynthia Asquith’s role models, a matron of blameless life in the letter of the law but much given to romantic friendships and often with very young men. Her son Julian Grenfell was groomed to suit her fantasies much as the Llewellyn Davies children were manipulated by Barrie, and escaped to die in battle just as Michael did. Lady Desborough has been forgotten, and Vera Brittain has not, because Brittain’s mood is closer on the surface to the heirs of Vietnam, Iraq and AIDS than Ettie’s nauseating private memoir of her sons; but if we know only the sweetness of the England of Brittain’s childhood, we cannot gauge her loss. Her bitterness makes even more sense when we read Lady Desborough’s effusions. Lady Desborough and others like her were models for the poisonously charming Flyte family in Brideshead Revisited, and their destruction of their most vulnerable member, the Peter Pan-like Sebastian, is a version of the Barrie effect.
The Barrie poison was not unique, to be sure; nor did it go unremarked. If one weakness of the “man of his time” fallacy is that it fails to account for a lack of true deviance, the flip side of that weakness is that real nuttiness is sometimes noticed amid all that is normal for an age. Contra Albert Goldman, for instance, the weirder aspects of the Lennon-Ono relationship were noticed in 1968, making it problematic for Goldman to set himself up as a lone ranger of truth amid the lies; likewise there were quite a lot of people around the Llewelyn Davies family who didn’t like Barrie. Bias also played its part here. The manipulation was seen as heinous in that it was perpetrated by a man of no physical or hereditary stature and in a manner typically female. Peter Pan himself is always played by a woman. As mentioned, Dudgeon is very interested in Barrie’s connections to Daphne du Maurier, author of Rebecca, and it would be remarkable if du Maurier had not been influenced by such richly dramatic material as in Barrie’s life at least somewhere in her work. For Dudgeon Rebecca is Barrie, the evil spirit haunting Maxim de Winter, who is identified with Daphne’s father and his wife with Daphne herself. That Peter Pan and Barrie had an influence on du Maurier’s work is likely, and it is tempting to read Rebecca as a woman who need not “grow up” into subservience and forced heteronormality. But no child of actors could have ignored psychic vampirism as a theme, Barrie or no Barrie. Moreover, Rebecca tells a story that is recognizable from Jane Eyre, The Tale of Genji, and Genesis (Rachel and Leah), not to mention a South American novel that du Maurier may have plagiarized. If there is a place for Barrie in the Rebecca story it is less likely to be in Rebecca herself than in Mrs. Danvers, the widow-spinster of servant class who transmogrifies her lady into a Peter Pan-like force of nature. It would be ironic if du Maurier’s lesbian haunting owed this much to Barrie, for one could not imagine more of a cuckoo-like subversion of his mother-son plot.
But there is that short story of du Maurier’s, the one about one “Barry,” an actor who stops being impotent when he thinks about little boys. And though Dudgeon doesn’t consider du Maurier’s novel My Cousin Rachel, there may be pay dirt here. Du Maurier herself attributed the novel to the end of an unhappy love affair, its antiheroine based on a woman with whom Daphne wished to be done. If Rachel was also based on Barrie, it indicates somewhat more uncertainty on du Maurier’s part about his intentions than in the “Barry” story. A cousin of the narrator’s marries Rachel and leaves a deathbed message: “She has done for me at last, Rachel, my torment.” The narrator tracks her down and finds Rachel to be charming, described as “small” with “large eyes” and “a sensible woman, good company,” like a couthie Scotswoman. Du Maurier emphasizes Rachel’s childlike physique: “I had never seen hands so small before on an adult person. They were very slender, very narrow, like the hands of someone in a portrait painted by an old master and left unfinished… Anger seemed futile now, and hatred, and as for fear–how could I fear anyone who did not measure up to my shoulder…” She is inevitably named as “cousin Rachel,” as if in hope that someone reading would consider who Daphne du Maurier’s first cousins were. The narrator becomes involved with her and falls ill; he suspects he is being poisoned but cannot prove it. Rachel dies, a possible suicide like Michael, leaving the narrator to wonder if she was or was not also a poisoner.
There is no evidence that Barrie was an active pedophile, though there also is none that he wasn’t. Dudgeon is convinced it was not so. That is striking, since it is the best chance to present Barrie as the evil influence Dudgeon is sure he was. He makes the denial in a chapter on Barrie’s friendship with Michael Llewelyn Davies, where even if we can’t be sure about fire there is smoke. It appears at least one person had suspicions: when Barrie invited the two youngest boys to live with him, the girls’ nanny pushed a letter under the bedroom door for Peter to read: “Things are going on in this room of which your father would not have approved.”
It was a convention of the time to write about sex in terms of psychic possession. The Turn of the Screw extends the trope to pedophilia, in language so delicate that many adults have not understood it. James’ story was published too soon to be inspired by Barrie, and Dudgeon does not suggest that it was an influence on his work or his behavior, though it is apter as such than Trilby. (When asked what sort of construction a reader should put on the story, James answered: “The worst possible construction.”) But perhaps mentioning The Turn of the Screw would leave Dudgeon hoist on his own petard. He is simply more interested in spookiness than smut. Dudgeon gives some length to an article written by a journalist who was freaked out by Barrie’s sister’s claim to be in touch with his, the journalist’s, own dead mother. Dudgeon’s words are worth quoting: “In such a context, is it not credible that what had been ‘going on’ with Michael in Barrie’s bedroom at Campden Hill Square, and what Nanny Hodgson had tried to report, was not sex, but a psychic ritual of some sort, hypnosis or perhaps a séance?”
It’s possible; it is likelier that Nanny Hodgson had some suspicions about sex, but like many others close to Barrie, she wasn’t quite sure. Dudgeon suggests that she would not have permitted it to go on if she had known it was true. Perhaps; but it is incredible that a woman of her time could have left such a letter in a bedroom without knowing how it would be read. It seems likeliest that Barrie’s impropriety was too subtle to permit of intervention until things became critical. Then Nanny Hodgson might have stressed the case, implying that Barrie and Michael were physically involved as a last-ditch attempt to get the boy out of Uncle Jim’s clutches. Barrie might well have invited Michael to his bedroom and exposed him to the endless silences described by the journalist Cardus, giving rise to Hodgson’s worries. Or she might have known Barrie’s influence was unhealthy and lied on purpose. Or maybe she’d seen all she could take.
The case is as ambiguous as its closest cognate in Lewis Carroll’s fascination with Alice Liddell and her sisters. Barrie did not observe normal boundaries with children, and there is evidence of attraction to children in The Little White Bird (“I discovered that he wanted me to take off his sock… I think I remained wonderfully calm until I came somewhat too suddenly to his little braces, which agitated me profoundly… I cannot proceed in public with the disrobing of David”) and a few surviving letters to Michael Llewelyn Davies (“I am very fond of you, but don’t tell anybody”). (Peter Davies destroyed most of the letters, saying they were “too much.”) The very coyness and even the title of The Little White Bird are chilling, suggesting that Barrie might have counted on readers who knew his meaning. Still, thinking about it isn’t the same as doing it. The worst passages are not as clear when read in context, hard though that may be to believe. There is a self-consciousness about them almost as if Barrie were trying on pedophilia, as he tried on everything else in a quest for some kind of sexuality; sexual hints in his work grew less and not more common as he became close to the Llewelyn Davieses; and I tentatively agree with Dudgeon that Barrie’s real interests maybe lay elsewhere. Even the undressings in The Little White Bird partake more of possession than sex, with the thrill coming from the right to the child (disrobing and all) rather than the child himself. If this seems far-fetched, we need only consider some of the lengths to which possession of children drives people under no sexual suspicion today. But the suspicion cannot be dispelled.
Having watched his mother’s grief for his dead brother, Barrie knew that the children of adults, the children he would not have, represented a huge soft spot, accessible either by his power over children or his supplanting of them. He had this power in common with women of his class who took the largest part in raising the children of the upper classes. The career of the Scot born poor and dropped into a tribe of privileged dilettantes now suggests a wolf among sheep, now an eternal child who had found his place among other children, depending on how you look at it. But the Souls chose not to grow up, and Barrie couldn’t, for reasons perhaps having to do with early deprivation. As a Scot childhood was Barrie’s stock-in-trade, his entry into fashionable literature and thus into privilege. He was already famous when he wrote Peter Pan as the most successful author of the “kailyard” (cabbage-garden) school of Scottish writing devoted to the land’s sweet auld rural ways and speech. The heartland of the kailyard school was Scotland’s tough, freezing, desolately poor northeast, which would be described very much as-is by twentieth-century writers such as Lewis Grassic Gibbon and Jessie Kesson; for Americans, the contrast with the kailyard school can best be understood as the difference between the Maine of such working-class writers as Stephen King and Carolyn Chute, and the Maine of Cabot Cove on Murder She Wrote. The childhood Barrie remembered may not have programmed him to be quite the monster Dudgeon imagines, but it certainly made him a child to be reckoned with, one who could prey on other children like Margaret Atwood’s childhood nemesis Cordelia, of whom she writes that children are little to grownups but to each other, they are life-size.
None of it might have happened had the Victorian cult of motherhood given much time to actual mothers. Barrie co-opted the power Victorians gave to the mother in ideal as well as her weakness in practice, when mothers of quality were not supposed to do their own child-rearing. Women were supposed to remain children, like the Celts. They were in competition with actual children for the love of men. Barrie’s compulsion toward children may have been to punish his women by stealing their children, just as changelings are supposed to do, and replacing the children with himself. He almost confessed as much in The Little White Bird: “It was a scheme conceived in a flash, and ever since relentlessly pursued—to burrow under Mary’s influence with the boy, expose her to him in all her vagaries, take him utterly from her.” In any case it is clear that Peter Pan took some of its inspiration, like Rebecca, from the Victorians’ and specifically the Souls’ idea of womanhood: “She the other Law we live by, is that Law and nothing else.” And we all know what women have the power to do to their children. Barrie’s desire to “expose” women to their own sons is deeply suggestive of a man’s betrayal by his own mother and desire for revenge, but it is one in which his society colluded wholesale. Barrie and his women resemble Waugh’s figure of Lady Teresa Marchmain, the Flyte matriarch who destroys the life of anyone who comes too close with her basilisk’s mixture of charm, unworldliness and narcissism. Lady Marchmain may have been modeled quite closely on one or more Souls women such as Ettie Desborough and Mary Elcho; if so, it would be a characteristic joke on Waugh’s part to replace their worship of romantic love, and Lady Desborough’s cult of her sons, with Lady Marchmain’s Catholic pietism. Sebastian is the focus of interest as the boy betrayed by his mother and replaced by her in his best friend’s affections, as the ultimate love object for the Souls was a mother of sons; but the tropes are subverted, in Ryder’s humbling by exposure to adult love, to heterosociality (Brideshead has not one but three female leads), to faith, to money-making, to sacrifice and finally to war. At the end of the novel he is in pain, but he has grown up.
“Charm, unworldliness and narcissism” may sound like a recipe for the peculiarly destructive quality of British culture for many who have come into contact with it, native or otherwise, but it omits the fourth key element of the English character: humor. Waugh’s Lady Marchmain was humorless and so, by and large, were the Souls. Much of Barrie’s work suggests that he never understood a joke in his life, although some who knew him speak of his humor. It may have made a difference that he was not English. Scotland was not then a modern country in the same way as England, and superstition was taken for granted in its culture as in most peasant societies. Children who acted in Barrie’s amateur theatricals remember the seriousness with which he took it all. When Scottish earnestness and pain met English decadence, the result was lethal. “I’d like to hear you tell them it was only a bloody game,” says Michael Caine’s working-class detective when he is shot by Laurence Olivier at the end of the film Sleuth, and for all his fondness of games Barrie’s message to the du Mauriers may have been similar. It would be a message a lot of Britons would learn in the twentieth century; those who were left with severe trauma would find out what happened to the English once they knew they were children. Trauma worked on some Englishmen and women like a binding spell on the fairy folk, obliging them to negotiate the real world through the stages of a long growing-up, but it is no accident that there should not be many examples to place beside Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth and Freeman Dyson’s Disturbing the Universe. More commonly the results have been awkward, as with Evelyn Waugh’s wasted old age; or J. G. Ballard being so good as to share his car-crash fetish with the rest of us (only a bloody game?); or Stevie Smith’s brilliance which could not quite see its way to admitting the implications of the Holocaust. The insufficiency of British fortitude when met with reality after the fact was summed up by William Golding at the end of Lord of the Flies, where Ralph is transformed at once from a tribal chieftain to a runny-nosed little boy in need of a good scrub. Asked by his rescuer if the boys have been having a war, he looks around himself at the burning island, like a planet plundered by the British Empire and torn apart by two world wars; he realizes what has happened, and snivels helplessly.
This is what we see if we pursue the implications of the Peter Pan story to their end. However, the end is not often that bitter. There is something in the British temperament that fights the truly apocalyptic down to the skin of its teeth. Lord of the Flies may have gone all the way, but the more usual inclination is to ramble, to crack wise, to avert the eyes in the last minute toward survival on a modest scale. That is why one can only be exposed to most specimens of British catastrophism, from Animal Farm to Pink Floyd, so many times before one imagines how their cognate comedians might have sent them up. The worst tragedy to befall England begat full-time mourners such as Vera Brittain, but it also begat Saki and Waugh, who begat the Goons, who begat the Beatles, who begat Monty Python, and so on. These are Peter Pans of a different sort; as an admirer of Stevie Smith wrote of the British sense of humor, the source material was dreadful, and yet the anti-apocalypse prevailed. In the spirit of this saving humor, we might be allowed to conclude with a quote from Daphne du Maurier, on the deaths of Cynthia Asquith and Peter Llewellyn Davies:
Let them have it out with Uncle Jim telling them both where he himself got off (and he has had plenty of time to find that out) and then to the huge relief of Granny (who would hate any unpleasantness) both Cynthia and Peter shake hands, everything settled at last; and Cynthia evaporates to her own clan, and Peter rushes to Aunt Sylvia’s arms, because really it was about time he did, having regretted them for about fifty years.