Other Literary Forms
The sheer volume of Sir James Barrie’s literary output, together with the fact that his most successful and enduring works were written for the stage, tends to obscure recognition of his talent in other genres. His success as a playwright came when he was already launched as a writer. The vignettes and anecdotes of his literary apprenticeship had formed the basis for the successful Auld Licht Idylls (1888), and Barrie might have been content to continue drawing on his Scottish experiences in the form of articles and essays in the then popular “Kailyard” (cabbage-patch) style but for his determination to write a novel. Success in this genre came eventually with The Little Minister (1891), written in the same vein as the Auld Licht Idylls.
Barrie returned to the Scottish setting in Margaret Ogilvy (1896), a biography based on sentimental recollections of his mother. Questions were raised as to the genre of the work, and reviewers in Scotland were shocked by the detailed ruthlessness of his observation. No less revealing is the largely autobiographical novel Sentimental Tommy (1896), which, together with its sequel, Tommy and Grizel (1900), throws considerable light on Barrie’s complex personality.
The novel The Little White Bird (1902) contained a blueprint for the development of the Peter Pan theme, but it was the successful dramatization of The Little Minister that finally channeled Barrie’s literary efforts away from the novel toward the stage. The foundation of Barrie’s career as a playwright was his determination to master the novel and to capitalize on his potentially limiting Scottish background and childhood experiences.
Sir James Barrie was a prolific and versatile writer who enjoyed great popularity in his day, but he tends to be remembered only as the creator of Peter Pan. This enduringly popular work was the most successful play of Barrie’s entire career, but it is uncharacteristic of his writing in that it was aimed at a children’s audience. The secret of its undiminished popularity lies in Barrie’s ability to appeal on different levels to both adults and children.
The bulk of Barrie’s writing has now sunk into relative obscurity. It may be that his other works, and particularly his plays, are too closely tied to the spirit of the age in which they were conceived, or that their psychology is too naïve and their characters too transparent for modern taste. Nevertheless, Barrie’s achievements as a playwright should not be assessed on the merits of Peter Pan alone.
Taken in the context of his dramatic works as a whole, Peter Pan can be seen to be a natural development of an escapist tendency that frequently motivates Barrie’s plays. Often his plots center on a juxtaposition of a fantasy world with the “real” world as it is represented on the stage—real for the characters themselves and accepted as such by the audience. Barrie’s preoccupation with psychological escapism can be attributed to his own tendency to fantasize in his closest personal relationships. Additionally, by involving his characters in the mechanics of a fantasy world as distinct from a theatrical representation of the real world, Barrie gives himself much greater scope for social criticism: Fantasy worlds are used to highlight the shortcomings of the real world.
Asquith, Cynthia, Lady. Portrait of Barrie. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1955. Written by Barrie’s friend and secretary, this biography is a sympathetic portrait of an enigmatic man, his early life, his relationship with his mother, his friendships (notably with H. G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw), his unhappy personal life and its attendant depressions, his shyness, his genuine modesty, and his extraordinary generosity.
Chaney, Lisa. Hide and Seek with Angels: A Life of J. M. Barrie . New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2006. Using interviews conducted with Barrie, along with his diaries and notebooks, Chaney provides readers with a fresh look at the life and works of this complex writer. The book...
(The entire section is 1,337 words.)