Peter Pan – The True Story

It was the man Shakespeare who observed that “Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.” In Twelfth Night if you’re curious. Nowhere is this more true than in the case of Peter Pan.

See if you can spot the subliminal message in this picture.

See if you can spot the subliminal message in this picture.

Peter was created by J. M. Barrie for the episodic fantasy novel The Little White Bird, in which he was seen hanging out with fairies in Kensington Gardens. Not in the Clapham Common sense if you know what I mean. He was then spun off into a play, Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. This was adapted into a novel, Peter and Wendy. Since then, the character has appeared in countless adaptations, from the official (the 2006 sequel Peter Pan in Scarlet) to the highly dubious (Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie’s eye-blisteringly pornographic Lost Girls). And don’t even get me started on the Disney version.

What is less well-known is the truth behind the character. Like Lewis Carroll’s Alice and A. A. Milne’s Christopher Robin, Peter was based – to a certain degree – in reality. Like many children’s authors, James Matthew Barrie identified strongly with children in a way that, these days, would arouse suspicion. There is no evidence of paedophilia – at least, by the standards of the age in which he was writing. However, it’s worth noting that his elder brother David, his mother’s favourite son, was killed in a skating accident at the age of thirteen. His mother took the loss very badly, and the six-year-old James attempted to comfort her by copying the dress and mannerisms of David. Suddenly, the “boy who never grew up” takes on a disturbing significance. Indeed, it’s easy to see J. M. Barrie in much the same way that Michael Jackson would later portray himself – someone robbed of their own childhood, trying to compensate as an adult.

In 1897, Barrie made the acquaintance of the Llewelyn Davies family -Sylvia and Arthur, and their sons George, John, Peter, Michael and Nico. He became firm friends with the boys, becoming known as “Uncle Jim” and, upon the death of their parents, becoming a sort of unofficial guardian. From the literary point of view, Barrie’s games with the boys would form the basis of Neverland, playing at pirates being a particular favourite.

Michael Llewelyn Davies in costume

Michael Llewelyn Davies in costume

The boys themselves, as you might imagine, were the inspiration for the Lost Boys (an early incarnation of whom appeared in the games they played with Barrie). Peter himself cannot be pinned down to any one of the brothers, but the one who seems to have provided the most input was Michael, pictured right. We can be sure that he was the physical basis for Peter, as Barrie intended that the statue of Peter in Kensington Gardens should be based on him.

Unfortunately, Michael himself did not make it far into adulthood, drowning along with his close companion Rupert Buxton at the age of 21 in Sandford Pool, Oxford. The exact circumstances remain uncertain, but it has been strongly suggested by acquaintances of the two that their relationship was considerably more than friendly. Some eyewitness accounts suggest that the drowning was a suicide pact devised by the morbid Buxton.

George Llewelyn Davies would also die at the age of 21, whilst serving on the Western Front during the First World War. He was the originator of the line “To die will be an awfully big adventure!”, a quote which I found rather disturbing at the age of 8.

Peter Llewelyn Davies, aged 20

Peter Llewelyn Davies, aged 20

If you’re familiar with the Peter Pan mythos, you’ll no doubt have noticed that several of the characters therein were named after the Llewelyn Davies boys, and therefore you’ve probably worked out that Pan himself takes his name from Peter Llewelyn Davies. You aren’t the only one. Peter became sick of the association between his name and that of the character. To make matters worse, upon Barrie’s death in 1937, his fortune went to his secretary. The rights to Peter and Wendy went to Great Ormond Street Hospital. Peter, who had provided inspiration for Barrie’s most enduring work, and who felt he had suffered for it, would receive no benefit from his fictional counterpart whatsoever. He was somewhat given to depression and, in later life, suffered from alcoholism. In 1960, whilst under the influence of alcohol, Peter made his way to Sloane Square station and calmly jumped under an incoming train. His death made headlines, but largely because he was indelibly known as the real Peter Pan.

It rather puts a new spin on the story. Not one that I can see Great Ormond Street Hospital acknowledging any time soon, I have to say.

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10 Comments

Filed under 19th century, 20th Century, History, Kensington, Literature, Notable Londoners

10 responses to “Peter Pan – The True Story

  1. zoe

    this is wonderful

  2. Janie L. Reed

    I was looking for information on the actual story of Peter Pan. This was a little depressing for me. This is just an humble opinion,please don’t take offense.

  3. i wonder who was wendy anyways

  4. Rose

    wow. this is amazing to find out

  5. It is interesting that this story came out of sadness within his own family but even sadder is that the REAL Peter took it so seriously that he wanted to die. Ironically the story embodies the struggle to go on living no matter what happens in your life.

  6. barry waterfield

    Whilst Peter Davis provided the name for Peter Pan it was largely Michael that provided the character. Michael and George being the two favourites of J.M.Barrie they were the boys that Barrie thought of as being the seed, and to be truthful I think Michael was the ultimate model. Of the remaining boys Jack didn’t like Barrie all that much and Nico seemed to hold no fascination for him.

  7. barry waterfield

    I think it more likely that Michaels death was caused through panic. I agree they were most likely an item but I don’t think there was a suicide pact. Michael was frightened of water. I think he got into difficulties and Rupert, (who went to his aid) approached him from the front instead of approaching from the rear ( seriously that’s how you’re supposed to do it ) and consequently Michael panicked,Rupert could not contain the situation and down they both went. In lifesaving I was always told, approach the sinking person from behind and hold them fast under the arms and round the neck/ shoulders. If they still struggle turn them round and knock them out if necessary . Approach from the front is lethal, they’ll struggle hit out and be a danger to both of you.

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