The first thing I ever saw on stage was Peter Pan. I stood in wonder at it for the whole two hours, apparently (I do have a dim memory of this, although it has been partly wiped by seeing Peter Pan in later life, on film, on stage, and also in the biopic film Finding Neverland, which I rather liked. And I’ve also recently read and admired The Lost Boys, Andrew Birkin’s study of Barrie, which first came out in 1975 – and is the version I read). Oddly enough, the first film my son saw at a cinema was Peter Pan, too, although he complained so bitterly about its tedium (he was too young, younger than 4) that he had to be taken out by his mother.
But read Piers Dudgeon’s Captivated, published last year, and you will probably come away feeling you have been hoodwinked by Barrie (the book’s full title is Captivated – J.M.Barrie, Daphne Du Maurier & The Dark Side Of Neverland and it’s published by Vintage for £9.99). I do recommend that you read it, too. My only gripe with it is that it contains some sentences in which the clauses are sufficiently badly arranged as to trip you up (takes one to know one), and that, because of its very complex structure, perhaps necessary, it can be confusing. But the drift of it of it is that Barrie was a sinister man, the son of a sinister mother, that he was a friend and acolyte of George Du Maurier, the very sinister author of Trilby (which features Svengali), and that the sinister pair were so involved in hypnotism, auto-hypnotism and illusions that they wreaked two generations of havoc in the Llewelyn Davies family (the boys in the family were the ‘lost boys’ who were the inspiration for Peter Pan, and the very least one can say about Barrie is that he insinuated himself into their lives before their father, and later their mother died, going so far as to forge a name in their mother’s will, not for financial but for personal gain – for ownership of the children). Dudgeon also traces the effect on George du Maurier’s grand-daughter, the author of Rebecca.
Barrie’s influence is depicted, almost unceasingly, as malign. Certainly, two of the five boys were suicides, and there were many breakdowns in the du Maurier family. Almost apologetically at times, Dudgeon takes Barrie apart. He also disentangles several myths about the origins of Peter Pan, and, because he has really done his homework on the lesser known fiction of all the writers, he builds up a really astonishing case against Barrie. (The trigger for his work was meeting Daphne du Marier late in life, and Dudgeon is easily able to trace a connection between the writings of the three protagonists, and he is very persuasive indeed about the curiously emotionless inner life of Barrie. He plainly believes that Barrie had strong paedophile tendencies: and this is not the kind of Lewis-Carroll-took-mucky-photos allegation you get levelled against late Victorians, but something altogether more disturbing.)
It’s interesting how feet of clay can be attached to famous people, and also how easy it is to shoe them with magic slippers (as in Johnny Depp’s portrayal). The famous remark of Peter Pan by Anthony Hope (the author of The Prisoner Of Zenda) – ‘Oh! for an hour of Herod!’ – has now sprung back into my head. Read this book, and you will have doubts about Barrie for the rest of your life.