Was the author of Peter Pan a pedophile?

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Dear Cecil: I have a friend who continually insists that various historical figures were pedophiles. She’s made accusations against such diverse notables as Richard the Lion-Hearted, William Wallace, Julius Caesar, and James Barrie, the author of Peter Pan. I find the accusation against such a beloved figure as Barrie particularly objectionable. I put it to you, O Great Dispenser of Wisdom: Was James Barrie a buggerer? Pufnstuff, via e-mail


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

One might have phrased this a bit more delicately, Puf. Then again, what’s the point? With the release of Finding Neverland, a film about the story behind Peter Pan starring Johnny Depp as Barrie, it’s certainly the first question a lot of people will ask. So here’s the answer: I don’t think so. Of course, that’s what I said about another guy with an unusual interest in kids, Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll), right before those pictures of naked little girls showed up. But I deal in the world of what’s known.

A nicely understated account of the matter may be found in J.M. Barrie & the Lost Boys: The Love Story That Gave Birth to Peter Pan by Andrew Birkin (1979). The seventh child of a Scottish weaver, Barrie possessed the two prerequisites of artistic greatness: talent and an unhappy childhood. Two things contributed significantly to the latter. First, he was short, barely five feet tall by age 17. Second, he ranked a distant second (if that) in the affections of his mother, whose favorite was his charming, handsome, etc., brother David, who was killed in an accident when not quite 14. James, then 6, attempted to console his desolate parent by adopting the mannerisms of the dead youth. On some level he never stopped, and in spirit remained a boy all his life.

Still, he was a boy who could write. Barrie moved to London in his mid-20s and enjoyed quick success, first as a journalist, then a novelist, and finally a playwright. Though shy and moody, he met a pretty (and short) young actress named Mary Ansell and married her in 1894.

The marriage was not happy. Barrie was later rumored to be impotent, but it seems more accurate to say he had little interest in sex. At any rate he never succeeded in getting Mary pregnant, though she was anxious for a child. Barrie too loved children — he just preferred to let other people make them. He and Mary began taking walks with their dog in Kensington Gardens, a park near their London home. He became a favorite of the children brought there by their nannies, entertaining them with his antics and stories about pirates and fairies. The children Barrie was fondest of were the young sons of Arthur and Sylvia Llewelyn Davies. He was an aspiring lawyer; she was beautiful and sweet. Barrie charmed Sylvia as he had charmed her kids and soon insinuated himself into the household, visiting frequently and joining the family on holidays, somewhat to the distress of Mary and Arthur. Ever in need of material, Barrie began incorporating his experiences with the Llewelyn Davieses into his work. The pirate stories he told the boys — eventually there were five: George, Jack, Peter, Michael, and Nico — became the basis for his 1904 play Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Would Not Grow Up. It was unlike anything ever seen on the stage, among other things requiring an elaborate apparatus to permit the players to fly, but proved a huge hit in Britain and the U.S.

Barrie remained close to the Llewelyn Davies family. When Arthur and Sylvia died of cancer within a few years of each other, the playwright found Sylvia’s handwritten will in which she requested that Jenny, the sister of the boys’ nanny, help look after them. In copying the document for Sylvia’s mother Barrie mistranscribed “Jenny” as “Jimmy,” i.e., himself — unintentionally, according to Birkin. But even if he did it on purpose, family and friends agree he alone had the resources to take care of the boys, and he became their guardian. Judging from their correspondence, Barrie was part father to the five, part mother, and part … well, lover gives the wrong idea, but he was emotionally attached to a degree some found morbid, to George and Michael particularly. George was killed during World War I, however, and Michael drowned at Oxford in 1921. (Some suspected it was suicide.) Peter, who became a successful publisher, threw himself under a London subway train in 1960. You may think: these were troubled folk. Maybe so, but no evidence survives to pin the blame on Barrie, who died in 1937. As for pedophilia, Nico offered what, barring some shocking revelation, will surely stand as the last word on Barrie’s sexuality, or lack of it: “He was an innocent — which is why he could write Peter Pan.”

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.