The Cock That Crowed and Crowed and Crowed: Thomas Carlyle and J. M. Barrie

By Tarr, Carol Anita | Carlyle Studies Annual, January 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

The Cock That Crowed and Crowed and Crowed: Thomas Carlyle and J. M. Barrie


Tarr, Carol Anita, Carlyle Studies Annual


THAT THOMAS CARLYLE HAD A MAJOR IMPACT ON nineteenth-century writers, philosophers, and politicians is undisputed. His writings influenced - indeed, inspired - countless novelists, including Dickens, Hardy, George Eliot, Joseph Conrad, and Virginia Woolf. But Carlyle 's prophetic calls to reform in his grandiloquent, righteous prose were heard not only by the exclusive literary set, but also by many common readers, who set their On Heroes and Hero-Worship next to their family Bible. One such devoted reader was Mrs. David Barrie, née Margaret Ogilvy, mother to J. M. Barrie. Her reading aloud from Carlyle had an enduring effect, even cast a giant shadow, upon the future creator oí Peter Pan.

The Barrie household was an industrious one, with the father David heading up a group of weavers and mother Margaret running a household of eight children (plus two who did not survive childhood). At night, the parents and children sat down by the fire to read. In their village of Kirremuir in western Scotland, it was not unusual for the weavers to be avid readers ; some even read their books while bent over their looms. Margaret's reading, though, even in this atmosphere seemed to be exceptional. In his biography of his mother, Margaret Ogilvy, Barrie explains that "[her] delight in Carlyle was so well known that various good people would send her books that contained a page about him; . . . and given a date she was often able to tell you what they were doing in Cheyne Row that day" (283). Perhaps the reason the Barries were especially enamored of the Carlyles - and Burns, too, of course - is because both families hailed from the same area of Scotland. In later years, more substantive similarities came to exist between Thomas and James (J. M.), which would bring Margaret to fantasize that Carlyle was James's literary, if not biological, father.1

Peter Pan, first performed on stage in 1904, and published as the novel Peter and Wendy in 1911, is still performed to live audiences and is often adapted, offering us prequels and sequels, among many other revisions including, of course, Walt Disney's. What is not generally known is that during his lifetime Barrie also wrote several novels and was best known for being a playwright. For at least three decades his many plays earned him critical and financial success: he had by the 1930s accumulated more wealth from his plays than any other artist up to that time, and the critics applauded as well. He was friends with Thomas Hardy, Henry James, George Meredith, and Arthur Conan Doyle, to name just a few luminaries.2 However, his most legendary character, Peter Pan, the boy who won't/can't grow up, has diminished Barrie's reputation, to the extent that Neverland has come to mean only a laughable fantasy or, worse, the house and gardens of Michael Jackson, the iconic man/boy of modern times.

Barrie's writings are about love and loyalty, grief, remorse, second chances, and the nebulous border between fantasy and reality. He also, in his plays, championed women's causes (The Twelve Pound Look, 1914) and criticized class distinctions The Admirable Crichton, 1902, places a butler and his aristocratic employers on a deserted island, where roles are reversed and the butler deservedly becomes the master). Barrie was a very hard worker, a trait he learned undoubtedly from his parents but also from Carlyle.3 Biographer Andrew Birkin relates that while attending Dumfries Academy, Barrie and his friend James McMillan "would go for long walks in the neighboring countryside, seeking out their hero, Thomas Carlyle . . ." (10). Barrie's writings demonstrate that he deliberately fashioned himself after Carlyle; though he recognized that he could never equal "the great man," he could trudge down the same path that Carlyle had emblazoned before him. Like Carlyle, he had an excessive love for his mother (both mothers were named Margaret) ; like Carlyle, he graduated from Edinburgh University and then went on to London for greater literary success; like Carlyle, he could be loquacious one minute and taciturn the next; like Carlyle, he was obsessed with the question of genius; like Carlyle, he was brilliant at bringing the past to life by making individual people walk and talk as if they were alive. …

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