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.
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.
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.
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.