Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1009
James Matthew Barrie was born at Kirriemuir, Scotland, on May 9, 1860, into the family of a poor Scottish weaver. He would one day make his native village famous as the fictional village of Thrums. Despite their poverty, David Barrie and his wife, born Margaret Ogilvy, gave their children all the education they could. The father worked long hours at his loom, so the mother was much closer to their children, particularly in the case of James. It was largely through the influence of his mother that James Barrie became a man of culture and letters, but her influence also made him a sentimentalist and something of a snob.
Barrie’s schooling was acquired in many places, including several schools operated by his brother, A. O. Barrie, himself famous in the British educational world. By dint of hard work, James Barrie graduated from Edinburgh University and took his M.A. in 1882; his university record was undistinguished. Early in 1883, Barrie applied successfully by mail for a job as a writer on the staff of the Nottingham Journal. As a journalist, Barrie turned out thousands of words weekly on many subjects, although none of his writing for the newspapers was remotely of literary quality. His first literary effort to be published was an article entitled “An Auld Licht Community,” in the London St. James Gazette, in 1884. This article was written at his parents’ home, shortly after Barrie had lost his job in Nottingham. Several other “Auld Licht” sketches followed and were published, launching Barrie’s literary career. Filled with enthusiasm, Barrie moved to London, despite the fact that Frederick Greenwood, editor of the St. James Gazette, discouraged the change.
Once in London, Barrie began to write in earnest, and Better Dead, a book based on his experience as a journalist, was published. The following year saw three books which cemented the author’s popularity: Auld Licht Idylls, a sentimental collection about life in Kirriemuir; When a Man’s Single, a novel about life as a journalist; and An Edinburgh Eleven, sketches of famous men of that city. A Window in Thrums was highly popular, but its very success was a mixed blessing for Barrie: It identified him as the leader of the Kailyard School. The term, a derogatory one, was applied by critics to authors who wrote sentimental, humorous fiction about Scottish life, using dialect and ignoring anything which might be considered harsh or ugly. Barrie’s The Little Minister is typical of the type.
Although he began to write for the stage in 1894, Barrie’s career until about 1900 was that of a novelist, for he continued to publish idylls such as Sentimental Tommy and Tommy and Grizel. The 1890’s, however, were an important decade in many ways for Barrie. In addition to changing careers from that of novelist to dramatist, he changed his personal life. In 1894, he married an actress, Mary Ansell. The marriage was unsuccessful, and a divorce followed in 1909. Perhaps the fault was Barrie’s; he clung throughout life to attitudes of adolescence. The influence of his mother, too, may have marred the marriage. This is the evidence implied in Margaret Ogilvy, a biography of his mother that Barrie published in 1896.
As early as 1891, Barrie had plays on the stage. In that year, three of his one-act plays were produced. He dramatized several of his prose works, including The Little Minister. The star of that play was Maude Adams, who appeared also in Quality Street and Peter Pan. When she opened in The Little Minister in New York, Barrie came to the United States, taking the opportunity to deny the authorship of several sentimental and scandalous volumes that had been published there.
By 1903, Barrie’s reputation as a dramatist was something of a sensation. In that year, he had three plays on the stage—Quality Street, The Admirable Crichton, and Little Mary. In the following year, his outstanding success, Peter Pan, appeared; the play has endeared Barrie to generations of children and adults alike. It is important to remember that Barrie achieved critical acclaim—as well as popularity—as a dramatist as early as the production of The Little Minister in 1897. After that time, Barrie’s reputation with critics may have wavered somewhat, but it generally remained high.
Although he wrote many plays, only a few are memorable. The Admirable Crichton, which is (after Peter Pan) perhaps the most enduring of all Barrie’s work, was unusual at the time of its production, for no one had dreamed before of a play with a butler as the leading character. Novel as it was, the play was a success. Another play, Quality Street, illustrates the charm and whimsical grace that Barrie was able to introduce into his plays. Best known to the general public of all Barrie’s works is Peter Pan: Or, The Boy Who Never Grew Up, a play which grew out of games that Barrie played with his friends’ children. Out of the play has emerged a group of immortal characters: Peter Pan, Wendy, Tinkerbell, Captain Hook, Mr. Smee, and Nana the dog.
Two other plays by Barrie also deserve notice: What Every Woman Knows and Dear Brutus. The first play is a well-knit affair telling how a woman makes a success out of a dull husband; the latter is similar to Peter Pan in that it moves into a dream world in which its characters have a second chance at life. In Dear Brutus, as in other later works, Barrie preached his creed that one should prefer a heavenly failure to a too-worldly success.
Critical acclaim and a number of honors came to Barrie before his death. His alma mater, Edinburgh University, and Saint Andrews (of which he was rector from 1919 to 1922) conferred the LL.D. upon him. English universities were not to be outdone; Oxford and Cambridge both awarded him the honorary D.Litt. Barrie was made a baronet in 1913, and he received the Order of Merit in 1922, in recognition of his service to his country during World War I. He died in London on June 19, 1937.
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