Peter Pan? He grew up long ago...

It's a brave writer who takes on J M Barrie. But the biggest problem, says Mark Bostridge, is not the curse laid down by the great man. It's the brilliance of an earlier biographer
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JM Barrie once insisted that there was more in him than met the eye. The secret to his success as a dramatist - at one time five productions of his work played concurrently in the West End and he undoubtedly made more money from his writing than any of his contemporaries - was that his audience were enticed by his "lightness of touch". They were disarmed by a surface brilliance and conventional approach which allowed him to introduce more profound and complex themes at a deeper level.

This is certainly true of Barrie's most lasting creation, Peter Pan, which celebrated the centenary of its first appearance on the London stage (at the Duke of York's theatre) at the end of 2004. The message of Peter Pan himself is, of course, that he will always return, and the play has been endlessly revived, most regularly as a Christmas spectacular in which traditional pantomime elements are always well to the fore. I remember being taken as a child to one of these Christmas revivals at the (now demolished) Scala theatre in Charlotte Street, and shouting for dear life to ensure Tinker Bell's survival.

Yet Peter Pan's link with pantomime has always been an ambiguous one. Its title may play on the connection ("Mr Barrie's Peter Pan-tomime", as one early critic put it), but in other ways - most crucially the fact that it was never a play for children but rather for adults - Peter Pan is open to darker interpretation. Long ago, the director Tyrone Guthrie called for a production of the play that got to the "heart of the matter, which presented a version of the Oedipus legend more horrifying because it is coated with rose-pink poisoned icing sugar". And in 1982, as if in answer to his prayer, the RSC presented Peter Pan as a tragedy: the title role was played by a man instead of a leggy starlet, and a version of the sombre 1908 ending (performed only once) was included, where Peter returns to find Wendy grown up and the mother of a young daughter.

Before and after Peter Pan, in early fiction such as Sentimental Tommy, and later plays including Dear Brutus and Mary Rose (perhaps the best of the lot), Barrie was preoccupied with the passage of time, the tribulations of memory, as well as with his own fundamental problem, of how to make reality rather than fantasy the centre of a human life. In Peter Pan, as Lisa Chaney, Barrie's latest biographer, points out, Barrie is not simply setting youth against age as a golden ideal. More revealingly, he shows us how seductive the appeal of eternal youth can be when set against the human dilemma of change and death. But he knows too that this fantasy of endless youth is "flawed, profoundly tragic and ultimately impossible".

Such was Barrie's own tragedy. He existed through a Never Land of his own making, one in which imagination was all and where the pretence that growing up never happens was kept alive through the manipulation of art and of relationships. He was born in 1860 at Kirriemuir, a weaving town in the foothills of the Grampians, and his early childhood was marked by poverty and traumatised by the death of his older brother David in a skating accident when Barrie was six years old. To comfort Margaret, his distraught mother, Barrie reminded her that she still had another son. He spent much time trying to make her forget David by imitating his brother, but had to admit failure. He could not make her forget "the bit of her that was dead". The only comfort Margaret derived was that, in dying a boy, David would remain young forever. The seed of Peter Pan was sown, and 30 years later, Barrie's growing involvement with the five Llewelyn Davies boys would result in the personification of childhood - Peter himself. The part played by Barrie's own Lost Boys in his creative process was publicly acknowledged in the dedication to the 1928 edition of the play (the first published text) in which he wrote that he had made Peter "by rubbing the five of you violently together, as savages with two sticks produce a flame".

It's a brave biographer that takes on James Barrie, not just because of the curse that this "astounding little Scottish genius" laid on anyone who attempted to write his life, but also because Andrew Birkin's extraordinary book about Barrie's relationship with the Llewelyn Davies family, J M Barrie and the Lost Boys, (revised edition, Yale 2003), though more than a quarter-of-a-century old, continues to stick as firmly to Barrie's identity as the shadow that Wendy sews back onto Peter. Birkin, together with his researcher Sharon Goode, unearthed a rich and detailed archive of letters and over 400 photographs (auctioned at Sotheby's at the end of last year and accessible on Birkin's website, www.jmbarrie.co.uk), closely documenting Barrie's attachment to Sylvia (née du Maurier) and Arthur Llewelyn Davies' sons following his first meeting with Sylvia in 1897. Drawing on this, Birkin wrote a trilogy of plays for television, produced in 1978 as one of the most memorable contributions to the BBC's golden age of drama, and out of it also came the book. This magnificent series with an outstanding performance by Ian Holm as Barrie has now, thankfully, been released on DVD. I say "thankfully" because there was a danger of it being forgotten in the wake of the recent vastly inferior feature film Finding Neverland, which not only took liberties with the facts, but also produced a sentimental manipulation of the story that fully lived up to its Hollywood origins.

Birkin's book presents a major problem for Chaney. The best part of the story has already been told - and largely in the protagonists' own words, making it all the more moving - and, though she adds some new material, she can't match the emotional impact of the earlier work. What her biography does achieve is a more rounded portrait of Barrie in the context of his other relationships, with the literary society of the time, and in the Establishment circles in which he increasingly moved. Chaney also successfully expands on the ideas of writers like Jacqueline Rose, who questioned the place of Peter Pan in the canon of children's literature. Unlike other great writers for children, Barrie - and he may be unique in this respect - wrote stories that include no idea "of negotiating with and becoming adult".

Barrie's seduction, then capture, of the Llewelyn Davies boys using his wealth and celebrity is, of course, deeply unsettling (and somehow made more so by current unfortunate associations with Michael Jackson's "Neverland" ranch). The fact that it is the desire of a man for little boys that lies at the heart of a celebrated children's classic should also disturb us (not so much perhaps as it has disturbed the Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital which at one time received a third of its income from Barrie's gift of the rights to Peter Pan). Yet it's pretty clear that Barrie, whose marriage to Mary Ansell probably failed because of his impotence ("the boy who couldn't go up", as someone unkindly said), never had a sexual relationship with any of his brood. Like Lewis Carroll, Barrie took numerous photos of his charges, but unlike Carroll, he never lost interest in his boys as they grew up. The real sadness of his situation was that they, naturally enough, tired of him and began to resent his suffocating influence. The two that were closest to him, George and Michael, both died young: George on the Western Front in 1915, Michael in a swimming accident at Oxford in 1921 that may have been suicide. This last death cast a cloud over Barrie's remaining years, and also gave his life a terrible symmetry. Michael, like David Barrie over half-a-century before, became "the lad that will never be old".

The enfant terrible of Latin American literature, Roderigo Fresani, has rather surprisingly turned his attention to the Peter Pan myth in his latest novel, Kensington Gardens. In a curious blend of biography and surreal narrative, the character of Peter Hook, "the most successful children's author of his generation", tells his own story and that of Barrie and the Llewelyn Davies boys. It's an uneasy mix and much of the book is little more than a somewhat unconvincing rehearsal of Birkin's version of events.

Still to come is the official Peter Pan sequel to be written by Geraldine McCaughrean, three times winner of the Whitbread Children's Book Award. Her working title is "Captain Pan" and the condition imposed by Great Ormond Street is that it must feature the original characters. Significantly, the judging panel, including Barrie's great-great-nephew David Barrie, has announced that the sequel will appeal to both children and adults. Whether this new Peter Pan will remain caught in his Never Land of isolation and fantasy remains to be seen. "I think J M Barrie would have liked McCaughrean's style", says David Barrie. "If I'm wrong, he'll be back to haunt us."

Lisa Chaney's 'Hide-and-Seek with Angels: a Life of J M Barrie' is published by Hutchinson (£20). 'Kensington Gardens' by Roderigo Fresani is published by Faber (£12). To order these books at a discounted price, with free p&p, contact Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897.

Mark Bostridge will be appearing at the Ways With Words Festival at Dartington Hall in Devon on Wednesday 13 July. For more information, call 01803 867373 or visit www.wayswithwords.co.uk

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