Barrie, Conan Doyle and Buchan.
This month we look at the other half of our Edinburgh Boys, also blighted by their Bestsellers.
J.M.Barrie is best known for – and totally blighted by – Peter Pan. His writing on ‘the boy who wouldn’t grow up’ has permeated all aspects of knowledge about him, and led to all manner of frankly ludicrous claims about his personal life and proclivities. If ever a writer was blighted by a character, never mind a book (and indeed in Barrie’s case a drama) it was Barrie.
It seems that all discussion about Barrie and his work have to be mediated through the prism of Peter Pan. I think this is both unfair and inaccurate.
The seeds of the character of Peter Pan are generally thought to have been found in The Little White Bird, (1902) and of course in Barrie’s relationship with the Llewelyn Davies boys – credited jointly as the inspiration for Peter. Barrie wrote: ‘I suppose I always knew that I made Peter by rubbing the five of you violently together, as savages with two sticks produce a flame. I am sometimes asked who and what Peter is, but that is all he is, the spark I got from you.’
But Barrie’s underlying interest in the psychology of childhood is also seen in his more autobiographical works Sentimental Tommy and its sequel Tommy and Grizel. If you note that Sentimental Tommy was first published in 1895, two years before Barrie met the Llewelyn Davies’, the seeds of a more complex and different story emerge.
The ‘Tommy’ stories challenge the Victorian view of ‘sentimentality’ and juxtapose fantasy with reality in a very interesting way. They also show that Barrie was already well along the path of considering the nature of childhood in general and ‘boys’ in particular before either the Llewelyn Davies boys or Peter Pan the character were ‘born.’
The often dragged out simplistic story which attributes a sort of macabre fascination on the part of Barrie with boys to the fact that his older brother David died in a drowning accident from which his mother never recovered, leaving Barrie like a puppet trying to fill his place – is developed through Tommy and through Peter to become something quite sophisticated. Obviously Barrie suffered some level of childhood trauma. But he was also well aware of and fascinated by the nature of childhood in all its conscience free state. He sets boys up as a kind of noble savage against the restrictions of ‘civilized’ Victorian/Edwardian society. His unique combination of socio-psychology meets socio-political commentary is, I believe, Barrie’s great legacy. Beyond the fiction, in his dramatic works he places his socio-pscyhological lens firmly at the mores of his own society and the class system (with ne’er a boy in sight). The Admirable Crichton, What Every Woman Knows, and even Dear Brutus and Mary Rose all show evidence of this. Barrie was not obsessed with boys and boyhood – but perhaps his audiences were. Childhood was undergoing a reappraisal in Barrie’s time as profound as that of the 1950’s/60s which saw the emergence of the teenager, and the more recent social phenomenon of kidulthood. It seems society is still obsessed with not growing up – and this is hardly a crime to be laid at Barrie’s door. He offers much in the discussion of this field but he is horribly blighted because of his candour. He still suffers under the mug slinging of ‘inappropriateness’ in his relationship with children, but for me, Barrie is only ‘inappropriate’ in the fact that – as he claims in The Admirable Crichton one may look at society and instead suggest that ‘what’s natural is right.’ Despite being knighted, he is not a fully paid up member of the establishment by any means.
For me, the further you delve into Barrie and the further you depart from Peter Pan mania, the more you learn of what a singularly great writer he was. A Well Remembered Voice both as a play and a short story, is incredibly moving and delves into some very uncomfortable places. Even his first foray into fiction Better Dead offers something quite unusual and unique.
Barrie is in the process of being reinvented or ‘claimed’ by modernists as a ‘fantasy’ writer – a modernist before modernism really came into being, but I think this is just another branding exercise and I think Barrie resists such confines. Yes it’s right to free him from the blight of Peter Pan – but not to simply pigeonhole him into another straightjacket. He deserves better. He deserves readers who set aside their prejudices and come to read him where he was, with an understanding of all that he has to say about society. It is time for us, the reader, to grow up in our attitude to J.M.Barrie.
(Sir) Arthur Conan Doyle was as blighted by a character as Barrie. In his case, Sherlock Holmes was the bane of his life, the character and story no reader could get beyond.
There is something else shared by Barrie and Conan Doyle and it is an interest which was broadly prevalent at the fin de siécle and which found increased public interest post First World War. This was spiritualism. In several of Barrie’s stories and plays you find an exploration of otherwise seemingly rational people ‘dealing’ with the supernatural elements. I think this can be reasonably well explained – at least in its latter stages – as a ‘shock’ response to the horrors of the First World War. But Conan Doyle took the baton and charged with it. His interest in Spiritualism had been sparked as early as 1886 but in 1916 he ‘came out’ as a Spiritualist. This rocked a world who had seen in Sherlock Holmes, the father of scientific rationalism as the way to be.
But Conan Doyle felt (and was) eternally blighted by Sherlock Holmes. He created not just a character, but an entire genre and was unable to escape from it, however hard he tried. It is interesting, then, to speculate how far Doyle was aware (or cared) that his reputation as the creator of Sherlock Holmes was damaged by his later adoption of Spiritualism. Was it a determined and conscious effort to free himself from a blight he did not want?
Most, if not all young writers (especially if they need money) dream of achieving greatness through their work – either through a style or a character. But it’s often a case of be careful what you wish for. Many writers discover that once they are ‘discovered’ they are then pigeon-holed and it becomes difficult to impossible to write outside of the box of fame. It is often claimed that writers only have one story and retell it time and again. I think this is unfair. I think that writers generally have a range of areas of interest which they play with time and again – twisting and turning and exploring all sides of the matter in their stories – but this is not the same thing as retelling the same plot endlessly (which is what market-driven publishing demands).
Conan Doyle is a salutatory example (as is John Buchan after him) of a writer who could not escape from his bestseller blight.
Sherlock Holmes first saw the light of day in the story A Study in Scarlet published in the 1887 edition of Beeton’s Christmas Annual. He next appeared in serial form in The Sign of the Four in 1890. And thence in short story/serial formats almost continuously from 1891-1893 by which time he had fully caught the imagination of the mass market. Trying to kill him off in The Final Problem in 1893 didn’t work and following The Hound of the Baskervilles in 1901-1903, Conan Doyle offered more Sherlock Holmes stories in a steady stream from 1903 right through till 1927. Conan Doyle was like a rock star who kept disappearing from live touring only to return once he’d done his ‘studio albums.’ For extended periods he wrote other things – things that he would much rather be remembered by – but it was Sherlock Holmes who brought home the bacon. It is also important to note that, as with other of our Edinburgh Boys, the money to be made was primarily in serial fiction. Novels were spawned out of this but the ‘siller’ as S.R.Crockett called it, was in the serialisation. Barrie of course broke this mould with his dramatic works, but the serial form was lucrative for our ‘boys’ from the 188o’s onwards. Stevenson was less affected by this form and of course Scott died before it came into its own.
To get a truer picture of Conan Doyle it’s worth reading some of his lesser known works – The Lost World, The White Company and The Crime of the Congo are just three which stand out – but there are plenty more to choose from. Whereas for ‘success’ it seems that an ability to create variations of the same thing infinitely is what gets one noticed, for me, it is in the breadth of skill that we should praise writers for – and if you want to relieve our Edinburgh Boys from the blight of the bestseller, the onus is on you to read around their other work. I can guarantee you won’t be disappointed.
Last but not least this month, we come to John Buchan. His status as Edinburgh Boy is perhaps more tenuous than the others, given that he was not educated at Edinburgh University, but came to it as Rector in later life (once already successful.) However, like Conan Doyle before him, Buchan was blighted by his bestseller – The Thirty Nine Steps (1915) and the character it spawned Richard Hannay. Like Conan Doyle, Buchan produced a number of Hannay Novels –including Greenmantle, (1916), Mr Standfast (1919) The Three Hostages (1924) and The Island of Sheep (1936). Hannay, to my mind, stands as a kind of precursor of James Bond but his creation had at least as much to do with Buchan’s status as foremost propaganda writer during the first world war as anything else.
Buchan was much more than a writer of fiction though. He was a lawyer, historian, politician and he wrote in all of these fields. Like Conan Doyle, Hannay was a foil who became a blight. Be careful what you wish for strikes again. It is well worth remembering that the young Buchan experimented (not entirely successfully) with historical fiction at a time when it was dominated by S.R.Crockett. A comparison of the Covenanting novels of Buchan and Crockett showed how much Buchan had to learn in the art of writing historical fiction in the 1890s. He was, of course, just a young man then - and when his ‘chance’ came he took it. He was hugely successful in the thriller/spy genre but it was certainly not his first love, nor his favourite topic to write about. He was as blighted by the rest.
In conclusion, we should consider who is responsible for the continuing blight? The fact is that with all our Edinburgh boys, the blight continues only as long as readers act like sheep and succumb to the marketing hype. If readers develop a habit of reading around the bestsellers they can lift the curse. We do not need to ask if you believe in fairies – but simply to suggest that if you believe in writers you do them the best service you can by reading their work in its entirety, not being too captivated by the ‘bestseller’ claims. Because as we have seen in this series of posts, none of the writers would self-define by their bestsellers and all of them have a lot more to offer than first meets the eye. Happy reading.
Next month I will consider the role of memorials in the lives of our Edinburgh Boys.
To find past articles please use monthly archives.