Dreams and reality. J M Barrie is often seen as a man in pursuit of an impossible eternal childhood. Yet what is most striking about his life is not the Peter Pan fantasies, but the series of real deaths that shaped it. By A S Byatt

Hide-and-Seek With Angels: a life of J M Barrie

Lisa Chaney <em>Hutchinson, 402pp, £20</em>

ISBN

''All children, except one, grow up." This is the first line of Barrie's 1911 Peter and Wendy, a story version of the tale of the immortal boy, written some time after the play, which was first performed in 1904. It is a commonplace of accounts of Barrie's life to identify him with his creation, a man in pursuit of an impossible eternal childhood. He understood his own predicament better than, say, Kenneth Grahame ever understood his own prolonged boyhood. Lisa Chaney, in her excellent new biography, gives Barrie credit for an intelligence and subtlety others have not noticed. He was a phenomenon, and lived a phenomenal life, coming from an impoverished Scottish home to become world-famous, hugely rich and uninhibitedly productive.

What strikes me, in this account, is not the childish fantasies, but the series of real and dramatic deaths that shaped the whole of his life. If it weren't true, it would be melodramatic. According to Barrie, he began telling stories to comfort and distract his mother after the death at 13 of his older brother David, her favourite, in a skating accident. The week of their wedding, his beloved younger sister's husband-to-be fell from a horse Barrie had given him, and was killed. Barrie devoted himself extravagantly to his sister, as to his mother. The tale of the origins of Peter Pan is well known. Barrie met the Llewelyn Davies boys in Kensington Gardens, fell in love with the whole family and inserted himself into it, offering holidays and presents and entertainments. Arthur Llewelyn Davies died of a horrible jaw-cancer. Barrie presented a copy of The Little White Bird, a sentimental tale of borrowed and invented-unreal children, to "Sylvia and Arthur Llewelyn Davies and their boys (my boys)". Lisa Chaney comments: "Apparently he didn't appreciate the insensitivity of adding '(my boys)' in the book that he presented to their dying father." Three years later Sylvia was also dead, of cancer, and Barrie was in loco parentis to her five sons, sending them to Eton, taking them on Scottish fishing holidays, devoting himself to them.

In 1906 Arthur Addison Bright, Barrie's agent, was discovered to have appropriated £28,000, including £16,000 of Barrie's money. Barrie was always vague about his financial affairs. Bright committed suicide, to Barrie's distress. When the First World War broke out, Peter Pan's defiant "To die will be an awfully big adventure" was taken out of the play as the young men began to die. The eldest Llewelyn Davies boy, George, was killed in March 1915. Charles Frohman, the American impresario without whose boundless energy, faith and support that oddity Peter Pan would never have been staged, insisted on travelling to Britain on board the Lusitania in May to help Barrie rescue a new play. When the ship was torpedoed, Frohman refused a place in a lifeboat, and is reported to have said: "Why fear death? It is the most beautiful adventure in life."

Michael, the fourth Llewelyn Davies son, was the boy Barrie most loved. They exchanged thousands of letters (later destroyed by Michael's brother Peter). Michael went up to Oxford and in 1921 was drowned with a friend, "swimming". (Michael could not swim.) A suicide pact was suspected. Barrie was distraught. Lisa Chaney attempts, in the cases of both David Barrie and Michael, to suggest that Barrie ascribed to disaster the black moods of despair that she believes originated in his mother "not seeing him" when he was little. I think this is somewhat conventionally psychoanalytic of her. Barrie's meteoric success is one side of him. Tragedy is the other. Disasters and deaths are disasters and deaths, and those that afflicted Barrie were unusually shocking and terrible. It would have been hard for him not to feel selec-ted for tragedy - even to feel that his success had somehow invited it.

It is hard now for us, with our occult and overt interest in paedophilia, and also with our post-Freudian conviction that sexuality is the beginning and end of a human life, to make the imaginative attempt to understand how Barrie saw boyhood and its imaginary islands, as it is to know exactly what Lewis Carroll was feeling when he asked little girls for kisses. Chaney understands this, and is discreet with the (to us) more than embarrassing scenes in The Little White Bird where the solitary Captain W, who has invented a lost (dead) son of his own, manages to have the little boy David to sleep in his bed. As she says, the reviewers at the time found this touching - though it is interesting that David Garnett, to whom W H Hudson gave a copy when he was a boy, found it so unpleasant that he sent it back to the donor. Part of the trouble with the published story versions of Peter Pan, as opposed to the play, is, as Jacqueline Rose perspicaciously points out, that there is no decent or manageable tone for the narrator, neither adult nor child, neither arch whimsy nor complicit fantasist.

This does not apply to the plays. Chaney is very good on Barrie's writing in general, starting with her selection of quotations from his compulsive notebooks, full of ideas for plays, in which he analyses the problems of his failing marriage, for instance, always in the third person, always halfway to heard dialogue. She quotes his notes from the day following the tenth anniversary of his marriage to Mary Ansell. He starts with a row between a couple where the husband has forgotten their tin anniversary.

. . . he remorseful & swears to make it happy day yet for her (thinks he's doing finely) then she shows true self - says can quarrel over little things . . . but not over big things. Too late to talk of love & his giving it to her, she no longer wants it . . . Sometimes for dif[ferent] reasons - as good mood or [because] he's going off to dinner &c. he paws her & and [sic] he keeps old custom of kissing her goodnight. She asks him not to do these things as her Tin Wedding gift.

This is savage self-knowledge externalised already as an "Idea" for a drama. The stage is, as a book is not, an alternative Never Land. Barrie was given to falling in love with actresses. Chaney is very good on his stagecraft and on the very real achievement of both The Admirable Crichton, with its merciless mockery of the upper classes, or of Dear Brutus and Mary Rose, which mix Shakespearean conventions with a Scottish sense of otherworlds, lost and dangerous magic woods and islands. She is also good on Sentimental Tommy, a portrait in novel form of a man who was a child fantasist at heart, of whom Barrie said: "He passes between dreams and reality as through tissue paper."

And it is the brilliant staginess of Peter Pan that is its glory. Children can fly. Captain Hook is wonderful not because he is Mr Darling's alter ego but because he blusters in velvet and periwig, and is pursued by a ticking crocodile, an invention almost as great as the eternal boy who gnashes his milk teeth on the window sill, and has lost his shadow. Max Beerbohm paid tribute to Barrie's genius, and said that Shakespeare was too logical - too grown-up, he implied - to "indulge in that wildness and incoherence which are typical of all but the finest dreams. Credible and orderly are the doings of Puck in comparison with the doings of Peter Pan." There is where the shut-out child and the tragic, competent genius meet.

A S Byatt's most recent work is The Little Black Book of Stories (Vintage)