Beyond the review… and Beyond Peter Pan…
I reflect that the man who ‘cursed’ all his biographers, has been subject to more than half a century of critiques as thematically complex and commercially astute as the plays he wrote - while the plays themselves have largely remained under explored. From ill researched, sometimes even slanderous and perhaps simply crazy works (I name no names - P.D) to R.D.S.Jack’s two valuable tomes Myths and the Mythmaker(2010) and The Road to the Neverland (1991); both of which are works so horribly overpriced so that no ‘ordinary’ reader can engage with them; there is no shortage of writing ‘out there’ about Barrie and his creative and dramatic works. While many remain wedded to the Disneyfication of Peter Pan, I suspect that many more of us draw our ‘knowledge’ of Barrie from Birkin’s landmark TV series (and book) The Lost Boys. Certainly for me, Ian Holm 'is' Barrie, but for the next generation Johnny Depp may 'be' Barrie. Though it must be said that to mention Birkin's work in the same sentence as Finding Neverland is an exercise in the sublime being followed by the ridiculous! I am old-school enough to think that 'dramatic licence' does have limits, and that Finding Neverland far exceeds these.
I suppose every generation will have its own ‘version’ of Peter Pan and our interpretations of J.M.Barrie are always just that, but perhaps how we 'see' Barrie and his works gives more of an insight into our own motivations and interests than any comprehensive or 'real' picture of Barrie as writer. His prose and plays remain as enigmatic as his personality. There is much work still to be done to bring Barrie’s work back into critical and popular awareness in a nuanced yet respectful way. Our Society Editions at least try to open the doors to affordable copies for the general reader which neither pander to commercialism nor distance through an over scholarly positioning.
125 years ago, S.R.Crockett published this review of J.M.Barrie's work in 'The Bookman' for November 1894.
Some books I am anxious to forget, and with reason: my lean bank-book, the butcher's too plump pass book, the tax-collector's curious little bent-backed , oblong note-book, which he keeps tossing over and over discontentedly at the front door, as if to say that he is quite well aware that in this particular house you would do him ill if you could. Further, I want to forget the book, which the editor wants reviewed, but which I have grown to Hate like poison for its way of looking at me from the shelf. Why is it let us ask the men of superfluous wisdom-that so soon as a book comes in which one has willy-nilly to read, a subtle resentment stirs swiftly, quickening into active dislike in the breast? I think we like the books best that we buy at the railway terminus and pay the full price for. We read them dourly in order to get our money's worth out of them . This is somehow an argument against discount booksellers. But there are other books I am also anxious to forget, and for other but equally good reasons. Among these are Sir Walter's, those of Mr. Stevenson , and above all, Mr. Barrie's-of which last I am now bidden discourse in my own way. I seem perpetually to be sending a plumbline down into the shallows of an imperfect memory to see how much of my favourite books the kindly tide has secured away. I even set examination papers to myself, as thus: "What did Counsellor Pleydell say to Dandie Dinmont when he met him at the stair-foot? Give a description of Tully-Veolan, with an excursus on the state of the gate posts crowned by the Bear of Bradwardine, (a) before, and (b) after, the occupation of the castle by the English troops.". Or the question which stirs me has reference to the physical temperature of the heroes of certain other books. "State whether in your opinion Messrs. Balfour and Breck, or Mr. Hawkins and the Captain, were hotter and more uncomfortable on the top of the rock in the glen or in the enclosurre of the stockade respectively? What was the exact composition and interpretation of the letter set in John B. Maccoll's window at the village of Koalisnacoan? Trace the various adventures of Mr. A. Breck's father’s silver button, and state of what in your opinion the threads were composed which Allan pulled out when the button was cut off." Or it may be (and this happens generally when I am very tired) that I examine myself hopefully upon the doings of yet other and more retiring folk. "State carefuJly (so from ancient habit put it to myself ), on what occasions (1) Sanders Elshioner and (2) Hendry went to the pig-stye, for what purposes, and why did one ‘scratch' and the other ‘poke’ the animal? Also which poked the pig, and how often?" Jf I am able to answer all these questions instantly and satisfactorily, a deep melancholy falls upon me, and I glance more kindly at the editor's shelf of new and uncut tales. Seldom do I read new books unless can remember the old altogether too well. But if I detect a hopeful hesitancy in recalling how many children were in T'nowehead's pew on the day when they sang, "Jerusalem like a city is Compactly built together," I am glad with an exceedingly satisfied joy; and if I forget who it was that accompanied Gavin when he went to "put it to Mag Lownie," I am as glad as if the morning's post had brought me two cheques-or at least, not to put the matter quite so strongly, the feeling of satisfaction is certainly similar in kind, though possibly somewhat less acute. There is a curious, ill-looking, squat-shaped little book somewhere on my top shelves bound up with other collecteana of its year of publication, which relates how a certain number of excellent people might be persuaded that they would be “Better Dead" for the sake of the race. I am satisfied that for me at least Mr. Barrie's books are “Better Forgotten"-because then-why, then, there they are all to be read over again. Or at least scarcely all-for mostly I read in two of them, with choosings here and there from the other three. The three I select from are 'When a Man's Single,' the divine pipe-reek book, 'My Lady Nicotine,' and (reluctant am I to say it), that fine true book, 'The Little Minister.' The first two (Thrums) chapters of 'When a Man's Single,' and the last-the performances of the immortal nephew in ‘My Lady Nicotine,' and the first half of 'The Little Minister,’ are my choice, and the selection reveals rather the limitations of the reader than those of the writer. For others whose judgments would trust before my own, manifest and uphold precisely opposite likings. But let me to the other two books which, like a little girl's best doll, have kept to the end. I would have a copy of either of them lying along with a box of cigarettes within reach of every armchair in the house. For I know how a house should be arranged if people would only leave things alone. But alas! they never will. The late Mr. Robert Wodrow, of Eastwood, was of opinion that the Scriptures would be part of the entertainment of heaven. "At least," he says, discriminatingly, "I am sure that the great things in them will!" So if we do not read Mr. Barrie where Wodrow hoped to read the Scriptures, of a verity his best things are fitted to make much of our best entertainment here below. The delightful 'Idylls' and the famous 'Window ' are victual for kings. Indeed, kings rarely get meat and drink half so good. Mr. Barrie keeps his cup lying beside the well of pathos. It is to him a drinking fount, not a bath . He does not wallow in it like Mr. Kipling's buffalo bull in the mud. But the feeling is there, that one may drink as one drinks caller water from a village spring. Nor is the vessel other than fitting-not like that dish (as it is related in an excellent tramping paper in last month's Macmillan), which a canny Scotswoman gave the writer to drink from, with the compliment, "I keep the tinnie for tramp bodies. It saves bowls "-or words to that effect. If Mr. Barrie does not give us butter in a lordly dish, exactly, he gives us at least homely scones and crisp farles of Angus cake on an ashet, clean as even Leeby's deft hands could make it. Mr. Barrie steals our hearts by means the simplest-indeed, just in the way our own bairns get round us, taking the strings of our feelings in their hands or as babes grasp at a finger, holding with a palpable feather-weight that we cannot break. So we love the singer of Thrums epics, with his Virgilian sense of the tears in mortal things, just because we cannot help it. Mr. Barrie is like that king of France who kept back the deluge by getting himself named the "Well Beloved," with this difference, that the writer of the 'Window 'deserves the title. Yet I read oftenest in the 'Idylls,' because there is no forlorn laying away of all the beloved-Jess, Hendry, Leeby, among the standing stones on the windy bill; and, above all, no Jamie going over the commonly, looking behind him like a hunted thing. For as I read the 'Window,' I am haunted by the thought of these two chapters at the end of the book, and they weigh on my heart like going into a house where in one of the white unentered rooms a babe lies dead. There is a book by the author of 'Typae' and 'Omoo,' wherein is (or rather was) a description of a punishment at sea with cat-o'-nine tails. I liked the book, and wished to continue to read in it; but that chapter daunted me. So I carefully tore it out-foolishly also, for the lacking leaves made a place for the volume to open at, and I remembered more clearly than ever. So I had to get rid of it. I gave it to a library. In a week the librarian wrote a polite note to say that he had been collating the "book of travel," and regretted that he had found it to be imperfect. (What business have librarians with the insides of books, anyway?) He was sure that I must have been unaware of this. Perhaps I would see my way to presenting them with a new copy. He was mistaken . I knew it perfectly. But I sent instead a set of the works of A.L.O.E., and I believe the librarian is at present usefully employed in collating these. However, he has had time to return me the imperfect work of Mr. Herman Melville. Happily there is a bridge of sorts near at hand, and a river. I, dropped Mr. Melville in, and thought, "There is an end of you!" On the next day but one a very raggetty little boy came to the front door. He had a bleached book in his hand, and the look in his eye meant sixpence. Alas! the 'White Jacket' had had my name on it. (Moral: Never write your name on your own books.) But I have the better of the thing at last. Duly at dead of night I buried it-deep, very deep-in a remote quarter of the shrubbery. But this is an excursua, and has nothing to do with Mr. Barrie, but it is just these unrelated things which make literature-and help to cover the paper. So, as I say, I like to read the 'Idylls' best. I love, for instance, the sound of the wire when the birds lighted on it in the frosty morning ; and I am not deeply concerned if, in the light of many other things in the book, the period was too early for the introduction of wire fences and Oxonian inspectors. The schoolmaster's hens, which he took into the lonely schoolhouse on the day after Wester Lunny’s lassie made the notable announcement that Glen Quharity school would no longer keep, "because she wasna comin' the morn," are dear to me as my wife's second cousins. I like them very well, but with a finely modified, once-removed joy. I am glad that I do not live in the kitchen whose floor they diversified at long range by dropping their feathers upon it from the baulks. Again, at the corner of the square I stand and watch the Quakerish maids go by to their Saturday night shopping, and I slap my knee as I think of a good thing I might have said to the one who passed last but three. So 'tis easy to see what a great thing it is to forget Mr. Barrie's books, in order that one may begin and go over the whole from the beginning. It even pleasures you to find that he says the same thing over and over again, as though he had forgotten it himself. There is time enough to forget anything in quiet·moving Thrums. But it has just struck me that I have quite forgotten the end of that greatest of all Mr. Barrie's chapters, the 'Tale of a Glove.' This is surely good reason enough for cutting short this ramble of appreciation. In which pious logic I hope the editor will agree with me. Any way I shall cease from troubling, and read it over again. S.R.Crockett
John Donne said 'No man is an island.' Barrie disagreed. Islands feature in much of Barrie's work and we might even say he developed a 'Theory of Islands'. If you want an introduction into this, why not check out Barrie's own 1894 article 'Wrecked on an Island' and Cally Phillips' 2018 conference paper 'Islands and Identity'
The place for people to find out more and exchange their thoughts about Barrie's work