Sir James Matthew Barrie

The British dramatist and novelist Sir James Matthew Barrie (1860-1937) is best known for his play Peter Pan.

James M. Barrie was born in Kirriemuir, Angus, Scotland, on May 9, 1860, the son of a poor, hardworking weaver. Influenced by his mother's interest in literature and art, the ambitious Barrie studied at the University of Edinburgh and then wrote prolifically for a Nottingham newspaper for two years. Determined to earn his living as a writer, he moved to London.

After achieving literary success, Barrie married the actress Mary Ansell in 1894. Their childless union was perhaps marred by the influence of his mother, and they were divorced in 1910. During this period he had become attached to Sylvia Llewellyn Davies and her sons. The tragic death of Mrs. Davies in 1910 hardened the heretofore lighthearted writer. He was further grieved by the accidental deaths of Mrs. Davies's two sons, whose guardian he had been.

Barrie received many honors in his lifetime. He was made a baronet in 1913 and was granted the Order of Merit for his service during World War I. He died in London on June 19, 1937, and was buried at Kirriemuir.


His Works

Like his immortal Peter Pan, Barrie never wanted to face the pain and unhappiness of the adult world. Thus much of his writing is emotionally sentimental as well as thematically autobiographical. His first published fiction, Auld Licht Idylls (1888), is a collection of folktales set in "Thrums, " a town based on Kirriemuir. These stories and his novel The Little Minister (1891) found immediate acceptance.

His play The Professor's Love Story (1894) and the dramatization of The Little Minister (1897) proved so successful that Barrie decided to concentrate on writing for the theater. He did, however, continue to produce outstanding prose works, among them Margaret Ogilvy (1897), which was a biography of his mother. The character of the hardworking "little mother" evident in this work recurs in several of his plays and novels.

Barrie's reputation as a dramatist was firmly established with productions of Quality Street (1901) and The Admirable Crichton (1902); both works possess charm and easy grace. Peter Pan, his greatest success, was based on a story created for Mrs. Davies's sons. The drama promptly became a classic following its initial performance in 1904. The character of Wendy in this play appears to be an amalgam of Barrie's mother and Mrs. Davies.

In his social comedies—The Admirable Crichton and What Every Woman Knows (1908)—Barrie satirizes a topsy-turvy society whose class structure is rigid and antiquated. The Twelve-Pound Look (1910) criticizes feminine emancipation, and Dear Brutus (1917) advocates heavenly failure over worldly success. Mary Rose (1920), while light on the surface, has an underlying cynical vein.


Further Reading on Sir James Matthew Barrie

The authorized biography of Barrie is Denis MacKail, Barrie, the Story of J.M.B. (1941). Also see Janet Dunbar, J. M. Barrie: The Man behind the Image (1970).

Additional Biography Sources

Allen, David (David Rayvern), Peter Pan & cricket, London: Constable, 1988.

Birkin, Andrew., J. M. Barrie & the lost boys: the love story that gave birth to Peter Pan, New York: C. N. Potter: distributed by Crown Publishers, 1979.

Darlington, William Aubrey, J. M. Barrie, New York: Haskell House, 1974.

Darton, F. J. Harvey (Frederick Joseph Harvey), J. M. Barrie, New York: Haskell House, 1974.

Hammerton, John Alexander, Sir, J. M. Barrie and his books; biographical and critical studies, New York: Haskell House Publishers, 1974.