Barrie gets a bad rap

Rubin is a critic and author of "Sarah Gertrude Millin: A South African Life."

J.M. Barrie wrote many hit plays, including such classics as “The Admirable Crichton” and “Dear Brutus,” but they are little performed today. His fame rests squarely on the immortal “Peter Pan,” a smashing success in its own time and so continuously popular ever since that perhaps immortality is a better word for what it has given its author.

Behind every great work of art like “Peter Pan,” there is, of course, a terrific imagination, and Barrie possessed one of the strangest and most powerful. But there’s also usually a back story, that little grit of reality to stimulate the imaginative oyster to produce the artistic pearl. In the case of “Peter Pan,” there were these cute little boys whom Barrie saw when he and his wife were walking their dog in Kensington Gardens. Soon he came to know the parents, handsome barrister Arthur Llewelyn Davies and his lovely wife, Sylvia, nee Du Maurier, whose novelist father, George, had created the unforgettable Svengali. It is not too much to say that Barrie fell in love with the whole household and inserted himself into it, and so was born the Darling family, whose world is enraptured and turned upside down by Peter Pan. Barrie’s relationship with the family forms the subject of Piers Dudgeon’s “Neverland.”

On stage and screen, the Darlings have enchanted millions in the century since, but not too many years after Barrie met the family, disaster struck. Arthur was stricken with a terrible sarcoma of the face, which soon killed him; three years later, Sylvia died of a thoracic cancer, leaving five sons, ages 4 to 14. Single himself by now (his marriage had never been consummated, and his wife had left him for a younger man), Barrie stepped into the breach, providing a home for the boys and treating them to everything, including lavish vacations and the finest education.

You might think that such overwhelming kindness and generosity would make him a hero, but the boys seemed to take everything Barrie offered for granted and gave him precious little in return. The boys’ extended family seemed content to let him shoulder all the expense and responsibility for raising the orphans while mildly resenting his usurping of a duty they did not seem very keen to provide. And as for posterity’s view, it was Barrie’s fate to die in a century when a post-Freudian mentality tended to impute the basest, most sinister motives to even the most generous acts. Never before, though, has there been a harsher indictment of Barrie than in Dudgeon’s overheated, at times ludicrously prejudiced, account.


Eschewing the most common accusation of conscious or unconscious pedophilia on Barrie’s part, Dudgeon accuses him of something apparently much worse: mind control, a notion he seems to have picked up from Grandpa George Du Maurier. He then proceeds to construct a web whereby Barrie pulled the strings on a group of marionettes, including not only the boys but also their matinee-idol uncle, Gerald, and his daughter novelist, Daphne Du Maurier. In Dudgeon’s perfervid account, even “Rebecca” is not actually inspired by Daphne’s jealousy of her husband’s former lover, as she claimed, but by -- Barrie! The author blames Barrie for everything bad that happens, including Arthur’s cancer. Give me a break.

Dudgeon adopts a prosecutorial tone, but there isn’t a jury that would convict on what he serves up. It never seems to occur to him -- but it will to the reader -- that losing their parents in this hideous manner scarred the Davies boys for life. Surely this, rather than Barrie’s pathetic, exhaustive efforts to compensate for all that loss, was behind the fact that two of the surviving sons later committed suicide. It seems to me just as likely, even from Dudgeon’s own account, that it was the Du Maurier “Svengali” family who ensnared the childish Barrie in its web rather than vice versa. And he ignores evidence that shows it might have been them rather than the playwright benefactor who damaged those children. (After Arthur’s death, with five young sons, Sylvia shared her lonely widow’s bed with her oldest, who was 14!)

Despite Dudgeon’s fervent efforts, his extreme hostility to Barrie is likely to boomerang and make readers sympathize with the poor man. The motto here is “No good deeds go unpunished.” May “Peter Pan” flourish forever, but it’s time to let the players in this sad real-life drama rest in peace.