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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By J. M. Barrie (1860–1937)

SIR JAMES MATTHEW BARRIE (created a Baronet in 1913) was born May 9th, 1860, at Kirriemuir, Scotland (“Thrums”). He has lovingly portrayed his father, a physician, as “Dr. McQueen,” his mother and sister as “Jess” and “Leeby”; and he has paid a direct tribute to his mother’s character in the beautiful little study that bears as title her own name, Margaret Ogilvy. After an academy course at Dumfries, he entered at eighteen the University of Edinburgh, where he graduated M.A., and took honors in the English Literature class. A few months later he took a place on a newspaper in Nottingham, and in the spring of 1885 went to London, where the papers had begun to accept his work. Above all, the St. James’s Gazette had published the first of the ‘Auld Licht Idylls,’ November 17th, 1884; and the editor, Frederick Greenwood, instantly perceiving a new and rich genius, advised him to work the vein further, enforcing the advice by refusing to accept his contributions on other subjects. To his mother he owed much help in this early work. In answer to his excited letters, she “went in for literature,” racking her brain for memories that he might convert into articles, and dictating them to his sisters. “How well I could hear her saying between the lines: ‘But the editor-man will never stand that, it’s perfect blethers.’”

He had the usual painful struggle to become a successful journalist detailed in ‘When a Man’s Single’; but his real work was other and greater. In 1887 ‘When a Man’s Single’ came out serially in the British Weekly; it has little merit except in the Scottish prelude, which is of high quality in style and pathos. His first published book was ‘Better Dead’ (1887); it works out a cynical idea which would be amusing in five pages, but is diluted into tediousness by being spread over fifty. But in 1889 came a second masterpiece, ‘A Window in Thrums,’ a continuation of the Auld Licht Idylls from an inside instead of an outside standpoint,—not superior to the first, but their full equal in a deliciousness of which one cannot say how much is matter and how much style. ‘My Lady Nicotine’ appeared in 1890; it was very popular and has some amusing sketches, but no enduring quality. ‘An Edinburgh Eleven’ (1890) is a set of sketches of his classmates and professors.

In 1891 the third of his Scotch works appeared,—’The Little Minister,’—which raised him from the rank of an admirable sketch writer to that of an admirable novelist, despite its fantastic plot. ‘Margaret Ogilvy’ appeared in 1896; the novel ‘Sentimental Tommy’ and its sequel ‘Tommy and Grizel’ in 1896 and 1900; ‘The Little White Bird,’ a story, with many touches of fantasy, of an old bachelor’s love for a child, in 1902. Before 1902, he had written several plays, all fairly successful, but not notably original: ‘Walker, London,’ ‘The Professor’s Love Story,’ ‘The Little Minister’ (dramatized from the novel), ‘The Wedding Guest,’ and ‘Quality Street.’ Since 1902, he has written almost entirely for the stage, and has become one of the most popular and most individual of contemporary English dramatists. Among his more important plays are ‘The Admirable Crichton’ (1902); ‘Peter Pan’ (1904); ‘Alice Sit-by-the-Fire’ (1905); ‘What Every Woman Knows’ (1908); ‘The Legend of Leonora’ (1914), and ‘Der Tag’ (1914). Four one-act plays—’Pantaloon,’ ‘The Twelve-Pound Look,’ ‘Rosalind,’ and ‘The Will’—have been published under the title ‘Half Hours.’ Of these dramas ‘Peter Pan’ is the most noteworthy. As ‘Peter and Wendy,’ it has been published in the form of a fairy-tale (1911).

The plays, and the novels and stories, reveal different sides of Barrie’s genius. As a writer of fiction, some of his characteristics are not hard to define. His wonderful keenness of observation and tenacity of remembrance of the pettinesses of daily existence, and his sensitiveness to the humorous aspects of their little misfits and hypocrisies and lack of proportion, might if untempered have made him a literary cynic like some others, remembered chiefly for the salience he gave to the ugly meannesses of life and the ironies of fate. But his good angel added to these a gift of quick, sure, and spontaneous sympathy and wide spiritual understanding. This fills all his higher work with a generous appreciativeness, a justness of judgment, a tenderness of feeling, which elevate as well as charm the reader. He makes us love the most grotesque characters, whom in life we should dislike and avoid, by the sympathetic fineness of his interpretation of their springs of life and their warping by circumstance. The impression left on one by the studies of the Thrums community is not primarily of intellectual and spiritual narrowness, or niggardly thrift, or dour natures: all are there, but with them are souls reaching after God and often flowering into beauty, and we reverence the quenchless aspiration of maligned human nature for an ideal far above its reach. He achieves the rare feat of portraying every pettiness and prejudice, even the meannesses and dishonors of a poor and hidebound country village, yet leaving us with both sincere respect and warm liking for it; a thing possible only to one himself of a fine nature as well as of a large mind. Nor is there any mawkishness or cheap surface sentimentality in it all. His pathos never makes you wince: you can always read his works aloud, the deadly and unfailing test of anything flat or pinchbeck in literature. His gift of humor saves him from this: true humor and true pathos are always found together because they are not two but one, twin aspects of the very same events. He who sees the ludicrous in misfits must see their sadness too; he who can laugh at a tumble must grieve over it: both are inevitable and both are coincident.

As a literary artist, he belongs in the foremost rank. He has that sense of the typical in incident, of the universal in feeling, and of the suggestive in language, which marks the chiefs of letters. No one can express an idea with fewer strokes; he never expands a sufficient hint into an essay. His management of the Scotch dialect is masterly: he uses it sparingly, in the nearest form to English compatible with retaining the flavor; he never makes it so hard as to interfere with enjoyment; in few dialect writers do we feel so little alienness.

‘The Little Minister’ is developed from the real story of a Scotch clergyman who brought home a wife from afar, of so alien a sort to the general run that the parish spent the rest of her short life in speculating on her previous history and weaving legends about her. Barrie’s imagined explanation is of Arabian-Nights preposterousness of incident, and indeed is only a careless fairy-tale in substance; but it is so rich in delicious filling, so full of his best humor, sentiment, character-drawing, and fine feeling, that one hardly cares whether it has any plot at all.

‘Sentimental Tommy’ is not only a great advance on ‘The Little Minister’ in symmetry of construction, reality of matter, tragic power, and insight, but its tone is different. Though as rich in humor, the humor is largely of a grim, bitter, and sardonic sort. We feel that the writer’s sensitive nature is wrung by the swarming catastrophes he cannot avert, the endless wrecks on the ocean of life he cannot succor, and hardly less by those spiritual tragedies and ironies so much worse than any material misfortune. The novel is a study of a sensitive mobile boy, a born poseur, who passes his life in cloud castles where he always dramatizes himself as the hero, who has no continuity of purpose, and no capacity of self-sacrifice except in spasms of impulse, and in emotional feeling which is real to itself; a spiritual Proteus who deceives even himself, and only now and then recognizes his own moral illusiveness, like Hawthorne’s scarecrow-gentleman before the mirror; but with the irresistible instincts of the born literary creator and constructor. These instincts spell danger to their possessor in a world of facts. In ‘Tommy and Grizel’ Tommy has grown up and won fame as an analyst of the emotions. Confronted with difficult situations, especially in his relations with the single-minded and sincere Grizel, who loves him and suffers through him, Tommy fails. He is merely an artist in the emotions—not a man. All experience is to him material for books; he is dominated by his artistic faculty, in spite of his efforts to control it. All that was wrong with him (as his creator says) was that he could not always be a boy, and live in a world of illusions. His death is the merest accident. The real tragedy is his failure to achieve manhood.

A delicate combination of the fantastic and the realistic, of the improbable in incident and the true in feeling and character, is typical of the “Barrie play.” A feminine subtlety of insight into character and a childlike concreteness of imagination give us truth to human nature masked in fantasy, which ranges from the slight to the most extravagant.

In ‘The Admirable Crichton,’ an earl, whose hobby is equality and who entertains his servants once a month as social equals, is wrecked with a party including his family and his butler on a remote island. Crichton the butler, who had never approved of the earl’s hobby, now displays the capacity for leadership and the practical sagacity required to organize life on the island. He is ruler—they his grateful inferiors. The return to conventional surroundings throws them all back into the old rôles. The play is full of whimsical situations and of keen satire of social conventions.

‘What Every Woman Knows’ strikes the note of fantastic comedy in Act I, when the Wylie brothers, three canny Scotchmen, surprise the poor student John Shand breaking into their house at night, to read their shelf of the best books. A bargain is struck: they will educate Shand, if he will marry their sister Maggie, who to their chagrin has been unwooed. Maggie lacks what she defines as charm,—”a sort of bloom on a woman; if you have it, you don’t need to have anything else, not even education; and if you don’t have it, it doesn’t matter what else you have.” But Maggie has humor, penetration, and an inventive brain, which prove of invaluable (though unrecognized) help to her husband in his Parliamentary career. How she finally wins the unsmiling egoist, Shand, to love, and—hardest of tasks—to laughter, is the theme of the play, worked out with truth of characterization in an atmosphere of smiling make-believe.

More fantastic still is the situation in ‘The Legend of Leonora.’ Leonora is on trial for murdering a man, whom she pushed off a moving train because he refused to shut a window, despite the fact that her little girl had a cold. Leonora feels no remorse, and discerns no discrepancy between the offense and the punishment of her victim. She directs the procedure of the court, establishes confidential relations with the judge, embarrasses her own lawyer with her explanations and admissions, hopelessly ruins her case, legally, to the despair of the judge, accompanies the jury when they retire, and is pronounced “not guilty.” Extravagantly burlesque in incident, it is full of keen analysis of motive and entertaining satire. What it all signifies is expressed by the judge, as he dismisses her:—

  • “Leonora, you are one of those round whom legends grow even in their lifetime. This is the sort of thing you might have done had your little girl had a cold. And this is how we might have acted had you done it…. You are not of to-day, foolish, wayward, unself-conscious, communicative Leonora. The ladies of to-day are different—and wiser. But as we look longingly at you, we see again, in their habit, as they lived, those out-of-date, unreasoning, womanish creatures, our mothers and grandmothers and other dear ones, long ago loved and lost.”
  • The modern woman, too, has her say in the clever one-act comedy, ‘The Twelve-Pound Look,’—the look of the woman capable of “going on her own.”

    Something of Margaret Ogilvy is in nearly all the heroines her son created; “he tries to keep me out,” she said gleefully, “but he canna.” Motherliness, as Mr. W. D. Howells has pointed out, is what he is always finding in women, “who are supposed by most dramatists to be mainly sweethearts and wives at the best, and flirts and adulteresses at the worst. He has thus added a grace to comedy which has seemed beyond or beside the reach of its art.” This motherliness is woven into the fantastic fabric even of ‘Peter Pan,’ revealing itself not only in Mrs. Darling, but in the child Wendy, who mothers the Lost Boys in the Neverland.

    ‘Peter Pan’ is a fairy play, a dramatization of the topsy-turvy daydreams of childhood. Peter himself, playing his pipes like the god Pan, and crowing delightfully at his own exploits, is the boy who never grew up. He flew away the day he was born, because he heard his parents planning a career for him, and he wanted always to be a little boy. So he ran away to Kensington Gardens and lived for a time among the fairies. His adventures there are related in ‘The Little White Bird.’ Peter flies into the nursery of the Darling children—Wendy, John, and Michael,—looking for his shadow; and presently they fly away with him to the Neverland, the enchanted island on the sea of dreams, where the Pirates hunt the Lost Boys, and the Redskins hunt the Pirates, and the Man-eating Beasts hunt the Redskins, round and round. Among the delights of the island are Tinker Bell, a most original fairy, made up of a gleam of light and a bell; a wonderful crocodile, which has swallowed a clock that goes on ticking inside; the terrible Captain Hook, and the pirate Smee, with his lovable ways (“for instance, after killing, it was his spectacles he wiped, not his weapon”). There are thrilling adventures without end; and there is the cosy underground home of Peter and the Lost Boys, to which Wendy gives a charming air of domesticity. We are over the borders of Fairyland, and yet have not lost our old familiar world.

    After his victory over the terrible Hook, Peter cries out in the play, “I’m Youth—eternal Youth! I’m the sun rising! I’m the poet’s song. I’m a little bird that has broken out of its egg. I’m joy!” To the creator of Peter Pan may be applied the words he used of Stevenson: he is “the spirit of boyhood tugging at the skirts of this old world of ours and compelling it to come back and play.”