The notorious refusal of J.M Barrie to leave boyhood behind was perverse and, in the end, destructive. Yet it became the foundation of his success, as a widely celebrated playwright, a wealthy baronet, and a leading figure in literary London. The stories and plays that led to these grown-up dignities were, as he understood them, grounded in a child's make-believe. What makes him the most sophisticated and most troubling of those who constructed the early 20th-century cult of childhood is that the illusions he could never escape did not deceive him. Peter Pan's appeal to the audience to save Tinker Bell's life is irresistible: 'Do you believe in fairies? Say quick that you believe! If you believe, clap your hands!' Brave little Tink is saved every time. Some really did have faith in fairies. Barrie's friend Arthur Conan Doyle, champion of fictional rationality, was perfectly convinced of their existence. Barrie knew them for what they were. And he knew that Peter couldn't fly from the grown-ups for ever. A stage direction added to a 1928 edition of Peter Pan is unusually explicit about the fissure that runs through his work: 'No one is going to catch me, lady, and make me a man. I want always to be a little boy and to have fun. (So perhaps he thinks, but it is only his greatest pretend.)'
LRB 1 September 2005 | PDF Download