Hide-and-Seek with Angels: A life of J M Barrie by Lisa Chaney

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The Independent Culture

Barrie's life is startling, quite apart from the wealth and fame. He is a biographer's dream, indeed, and Lisa Chaney does well by this strange man. One of the seven children of a Scottish weaving out-worker, conspicuously small - not much over five foot when adult - he seems the most unlikely candidate for darling of the Edwardian haut monde. But that is what he was to become: crony of his literary peers, sought after by the great hostesses, host himself to anyone he chose to summon. On one extraordinary evening in 1917, Hardy, Shaw, Wells and Arnold Bennett joined Barrie at his flat in Adelphi Terrace to watch searchlights sweeping over the river.

The historical background is crucial: the First World War, which picked off one of Barrie's beloved Llewelyn Davies boys, the family he effectively adopted after the death of their parents; the doubts and confusion induced by the decline of empire; industrialisation, and the mental landscape of a world after Freud and Darwin. Chaney sees Barrie's work as an attempt to confront these challenges and to explore the tension between fantasy and reality.

There is no question but that he struck a chord: his first books were hugely successful (who, today, has even heard of Sentimental Tommy, a remarkable piece of self-revelation?), the plays took off almost at once - though over the years, and even at his adulated height, he had more than his fair share of flops. His vision of childhood - and he was always seen as reporting on childhood, though not as a writer for children - accorded perfectly with that of the late Victorians and the Edwardians: childhood was the age of innocence and goodness.

Since Lord of the Flies, the Bulger trial and other high-profile events, we don't today feel quite the same. Barrie saw childhood as a utopian place, but at the same time was fully aware that it has to be abandoned, which accounts for the ambivalence and the tragedy at the heart of Peter Pan.

This is indeed a play for children but filled with significance for adults - the best kind of ambivalent writing. Its opening in 1904 was an unprecedented triumph (an evening performance aimed very much at an adult audience) but must have been nerve-racking for performers and production team, with its extravagant effects and elaborate props. The actress playing Wendy was packed off to apply for life insurance before the first flying rehearsal. Peter Pan played continuously from then on, but for the duration of the war the line "to die will be an awfully big adventure" was removed.

Barrie seems to have been the most unfathomable personality. As a young man, he made no impact on women whatsoever. He was to claim that it was his height that made him a writer; had he been a foot taller, "I would not have bothered turning out great reels of printed matter... My one aim would have been to become a favourite with the ladies... The things I would have said to them if my legs had been longer."

An improbable theory: it is clear that the ambition to write consumed him from very early. It saw him through the first hectic years of his career as a tyro journalist, when he turned out 1,500 inconsequential words a day for six days a week ("On running after one's hat'"; "On folding a map"). The experience propelled him into decades of prolific production, fuelled by the copious record of ideas that he piled up in tiny notebooks and stashed away for future use. As for women, the youngest of the Llewelyn Davies boys, Nico, considered with wisdoms of hindsight that Barrie was in fact sexless, that there were no "stirrings in the undergrowth'" for anyone.

His marriage to the actress Mary Ansell may well never have been consummated; it ended in divorce and public embarrassment for Barrie, at a time when divorce was still a stigma. He fell in love with his leading ladies and made no attempt at concealment, and had intense, though entirely platonic, relationships with Sylvia Llewelyn Davies and, later, Cynthia Asquith, who ministered to him in later life and was left the bulk of his estate.

The Llewelyn Davies affair is very rum indeed. Barrie became obsessed with the boys when he came across them playing in Kensington Gardens, and thereafter insinuated himself into the life of the family, to the dismay of some friends and, perhaps, testing the endurance of Arthur Llewelyn Davies. Sylvia, herself vibrant, charming and a universal favourite, seems to have been both fond of and to some degree dependent on Barrie.

He had the most extraordinary way with children. The elaborate games of make-believe with the boys - the springboard for Peter Pan - must have been entrancing for them. Throughout their childhood, he supplied the boys with entertainment, holidays, and to some degree bankrolled the family.

It is difficult to find anything subversive in his passion for the boys; it is the perception of today that insists on smoking out paedophilia where there is none. Barrie worshipped children, and childhood. This may indeed have been his problem, though it was also a source of inspiration.

Arthur died young and cruelly of cancer. Then a few years later, Sylvia too. Barrie was devastated; from then on, the boys became his central concern. He simply moved in and took over; again, somewhat to the annoyance of others close to the family.

He took the boys and their friends on prolonged fishing holidays in Scotland, provided lavish entertainment in the London winters, and maintained a lengthy power-struggle with the former nurse now turned housekeeper. And then tragedy came stalking back: George was killed in the war, Michael (Barrie's cherished favourite) was drowned with a friend while at Oxford. The fantasy of the boy who refused to grow up was given a gruesome twist.

Peter Pan can be seen as a meditation on the problem of time: the ticking clock is always at our heels. The life of its odd, compelling author is in some ways a bizarre reflection of the insights that drove his work.

Penelope Lively's new book, 'Making It Up', is published this month by Viking