From 1- 31 May 2010, a new Treasures display at the National Library of Scotland will mark the 150th anniversary of the birth of the Scottish author and playwright, James Matthew Barrie (1860-1937). Since its first stage production in 1904, Barrie’s most famous work Peter Pan has been endlessly reinterpreted – a new production by The National Theatre of Scotland is currently on tour. This month the anniversary is also marked by celebrations in Barrie’s birthplace of Kirriemuir, Angus, listed on the Barrie 2010 website.
Down through the years both JM Barrie’s works and his personal life have been the subject of examination. Some literary critics, such as George Blake in Barrie and the Kailyard School (1951), disliked Barrie’s home-spun and sentimental portrayal of rural Scottish life in his early ‘Thrums’ stories. Andrew Birkin documented Barrie’s relationship with the Llewelyn Davies family in the BBC series The Lost Boys in 1978 and again in his fascinating biography, J M Barrie and the Lost Boys, first published in 1979. Birkin also shares his research online at jmbarrie.co.uk. In 2004 Johnny Depp starred as the playwright in the semi-biographical film Finding Neverland.
While JM Barrie is best remembered as the creator of Peter Pan, he was a successful journalist, novelist and playwright, and as a curator working on our exhibition at the National Library of Scotland, it proved difficult to narrow down a selection from his extensive output. If asked to select a favourite though, his first book, Better Dead, jumps out at me. Perhaps not for its literary merits – indeed Barrie himself once said the cover was ‘certainly the best of it’ – but for the excitement that always surrounds a young author’s first book in print. Having failed to find a publisher, Barrie had the work published at his own expense in 1887, with a cover designed by an old school friend showing blood-stained dagger, revolver and coiled rope! Much later in The Greenwood Hat (1930), referring to himself in the third person, Barrie said, ‘Nevertheless from no other book of his had he such a lively rush of blood to the head as when “Better Dead” was first placed in his hands. For a week or more he carried it in his pocket, he felt for it with his fingers, and slipped into passages to make sure that some sentence was still there’. Perhaps only the opening night of Peter Pan could match that excitement!
The JM Barrie display at the National Library of Scotland runs from 1-31 May and opens daily.