Book Review: The Real Peter Pan

The Real Peter Pan: J.M. Barrie and the Boy Who Inspired Him
Published By: Thomas Dunne Books
Publication Date: July 12, 2016
Page Count: 418
Source: Kindly Provided by Publisher
Adult - Biography, Nonfiction

Peter Pan, by J. M. Barrie, has been a childhood classic for over century. But if you’re only familiar with the Disney version, you haven’t gotten the whole story. Peter may be named after Peter Llewelyn Davies, but the character in the play and in the later books is actually a reflection of his younger brother Michael, with whom Barrie was obsessed. In The Real Peter Pan, Piers Dudgeon explains how the story of Peter Pan was created and played out in real life between J. M. Barrie and the five Llewelyn Davies boys, and in Barrie’s ongoing relationship with Michael Llewelyn Davies. 

I confess I have divided feelings about this book. I loved learning about the inspiration behind Peter Pan and how it is a story that J. M. Barrie created with the input of the sons of the Llewelyn Davies family through playing in Kensington Park together. I always get a thrill seeing how different people’s creative processes work. But his relationship with the family was odd and not a little disturbing. Barrie would take the boys on vacation with their mother, Sylvia, though her husband and Barrie’s wife did not accompany them. Even given the Edwardian fascination with childhood innocence, Barrie appears to have spent more time with the Llewelyn Davies boys, particularly Michael, than may have been healthy for them. 

 I felt like Dudgeon had a real agenda with this book, but that he may have been afraid to come out and say what he really thought. Near the beginning, he uses the name of Michael Jackson’s estate Neverland as an example of how Peter Pan has permeated popular culture even today. The author can’t have been ignorant of the connotation that would bring of an inappropriate relationship between a famous adult and young children. That cloud of foreboding hung over the entire book, without Dudgeon saying anything definite about whether he thought there was a sexual relationship between Barrie and Michael. He made lots of little hints that something untoward was going on, but stopped just short of accusing Barrie of pedophilia and being the ultimate source of Michael’s (apparent) suicide. 

The Real Peter Pan is a scholarly look at the relationship of J. M. Barrie and Michael Llewelyn Davies. Readers who like to learn about literary history and have a high-tolerance for ambiguity will enjoy this book.

The world has long been captivated by the story of Peter Pan and the countless movies, plays, musicals, and books that retell the story of Peter, Wendy, and the Lost Boys. Now, in this revealing behind-the-scenes book, author Piers Dudgeon examines the fascinating and complex relationships among Peter Pan's creator, J.M. Barrie, and the family of boys who inspired his work. 
After meeting the Llewelyn Davies family in London's Kensington Garden, Barrie struck up an intense friendship with the children and their parents. The innocence of Michael, the fourth of five brothers, went on to influence the creation of Barrie's most famous character, Peter Pan. Barrie was so close to the Llewelyn Davies family that he became trustee and guardian to the boys following the deaths of their parents. Although the relationship between the boys and Barrie (and particularly between Barrie and Michael) was enduring, it was punctuated by the fiercest of tragedies. Throughout the heart-rending saga of Barrie's involvement with the Llewelyn Davies brothers, it is the figure of Michael, the most original and inspirational of their number, and yet also the one whose fate is most pitiable, that stands out. 
The Real Peter Pan is a captivating true story of childhood, friendship, war, love, and regret.