Sunday, October 6, 2019

. . . And the Llewelyn Davies Family Papers

If you've been following along, you will know that the five Llewelyn Davies brothers (George, Jack, Peter, Michael, and Nico) were the inspiration for Peter Pan and that I recently completed a novel about them. And that I've been, oh, let's say "mildly obsessed" with them for a while, especially since taking on the project of writing a novel about them.

In any case, a few months back, I discovered that an extensive cache of Llewelyn Davies family papers are held at Yale University's Beinecke Library. They are, more or less, the extent of the extant material on the family, including extended family. It was, it seems, deposited there by Andrew Birkin, writer of my main source for my novel: J.M. Barrie and the Lost Boys. Why the material went to Yale, I don't know, but it's lucky for me, since New Haven, Connecticut is a five-and-a-half-hour train ride away from me instead of an ocean away.

Now, to be clear, a whole lot of this material is in Birkin's book. So I wasn't expecting massive amounts of new material or any bombshells (except the artillery shells described in Peter and George's letters home from the trenches of WW1--see what I did there? bit of a joke). Spoiler alert: I didn't find anything earth-shattering. After all, I'd already finished writing the novel, so a bombshell would've been . . . problematic. But that wasn't really the point. The point was to see some of these things with my own eyes, hold them in my hands.

So I made my plans and headed up to New Haven on Sunday, ready to get my research started as soon as the library opened the next morning. I walked over to the Beinecke Library on Monday morning. I got there at opening (10 a.m.) and got myself all set up--I left most my belongings in a locker and went down to the reading room. The staff at the library, I must say, were really wonderful. They were much friendlier and more helpful than the staff at most other research institutions I've been to. Too often, the people working at these places are impatient and.or condescending when I don't automatically know their particular request system and protocols. But the staff at the Beinecke Rare Manuscript Library were helpful and thoughtful and a joy to work with.

In any case, the first box I got was actually box 10, which was an oversize box with only two items, certificates for Peter's marriage and for the birth of his son George (named for his brother George, of course). The second box was box 1, full of letters. There are some very moving letters from Arthur, the boys' father, to Michael and Peter at the time he was very ill with cancer. You can feel the protective love oozing from the letters--he's metaphorically smiling while knowing that his condition is very serious. On the back of one letter is MICHAEL in large, block letters. Most likely it was Michael himself who wrote the name on there, though it might have been Arthur (it does look more like a child's hand, but you never know). There was also a letter listed in the collection guide as from Nico to "George" in 1915. It's pretty clear that this is to his brother George (our George), not least of all because there's a drawing on the last page of a man labeled "Belgian". Well, at that point, George was in the fields of Flanders. I can't imagine 11-year-old Nico was writing some other George in Belgium.


Box 2 contained lots more letters. I was interested in particular in the letters between George and J.M. Barrie while George was in the trenches in 1915 (again, if you're keeping track, George and the other boys were Barrie's wards by this time because their parents had both passed away). I was interested because I've read the last letter Barrie sent George and that George sent Barrie (thanks to Birkin's book), and they're remarkable letters (if I recall, Birkin quotes bits of other letters the two sent each other, as well). It wasn't so much that I wanted to read those letters (since I had already done so), as that I wanted to see them in person, get to touch a bit of history. I also wanted to see if there was more to see--any letters that weren't in Birkin's book. As it turns out, there are three (if I recall correctly) letters from George to Barrie, and two coming the other direction. As I said, they're moving; George is clearly trying very hard to be upbeat, and he's talking about things in a general sense, and if he talks about the danger of being in the trenches, it's always to downplay it. At one point, he mentions that a man standing within a yard of him stuck his head slightly up over the top of the trench and had it blown off. Then (tellingly) he says that he really shouldn't have told Barrie that. Barrie's last letter is a real cri de coeur, full of his worry for George. He says he wishes George were a girl of 21 instead of a boy of 21, so that maybe they could talk about things more openly. He also says he has lost all notion he ever had of war being glorious. George's last letter back is, again, reassuring. He tells Barrie that if he's to stop a bullet, there's no reason it should be in a vital place. He tells Barrie to keep his spirits up. A few days later, he was shot by a sniper and instantly killed.

Peter's letters are no less harrowing, and maybe more so, though in a different way. Peter did survive the war. At the beginning, Peter expresses his desire to get into the action. Nearer the end, he says something about remembering a time when he was eager for the fight, and that he's been cured of all such desire now. He writes some really fabulous descriptions of artillery shellings and seems to have seen a kind of dark beauty in some things, although only at a surface level--and at the same time, it was clearly eating him alive. I was starting to run out of time after reading about half of Peter's letters (there are thirty or so), so I started taking pictures of them. I'll go back and read them as soon as I get a chance.

I should note that Peter's handwriting is the most legible of them all, and George's is, for the most part, legible. Michael's can get very sloppy, and JMB's is almost entirely illegible. Staring at some of his letters, I literally could make out one or two of every ten words. I have no idea how the people he wrote to had any idea of what he'd written.

This box also contained letter to and from the boys' nanny, Mary Hodgson. Again, time was not on my side, so I skipped all those letters, though I'm sure there was good stuff there, too. There were two letters from Daphne du Maurier (the boys' first cousin), which were, blessedly, typewritten. They were written in 1960 right after Peter's death. There is also a letter from Lord Tennyson's son, Aubrey, who was able to find out details on George's death and burial site. He relayed the information to Peter. There's also a polite little note from JMB to Lady Northbourne, mother of Nico's wife, saying how much he (JMB) enjoyed meeting Mary.

Box 3 was a bit lighter as far as what I wanted to see. There were a number of letters between extended family, but there was also a letter from the War Office informing JMB where George had been buried (which I believe he already knew from Aubrey Tennyson).

There followed a slight snafu, in that box 5 was ready but box 4 was not. I gave a shrug and took box 5, knowing that, given the time, I was going to have to stop with that box. (The library closes at 7:00, but I was hungry and tired and had been there since 10:00, so I cut myself off with this box, which ended up meaning I left a little after 6:00.)

Luckily, I was in for a treat to end my day. This box was photographs, which are always fun. Now, a lot of these photos are out there, online and/or in various books. I was, in fact, familiar with most of them in one form or another. There were a few group pictures--George and Jack and Peter at Black Lake as young boys (a wonderful picture of them in the clothes their mother sewed for them and in adorable little hats, wielding toy swords and axes), and Michael and Nico as teens. Pictures of Arthur and Sylvia, the boys' parents. And a folder of pictures of George. Here, I hit pay-dirt, so to speak. There were a bunch of pictures here that were FABULOUS and that I hadn't seen before. There was an AMAZING full-length picture of George in all white and a white cap, looking like Jay-effing-Gatsby (even though this was a full decade before Gatsby is set). It must have been 1913 or maybe early 1914, because he's a young man, and I suspect it is, in fact, a costume for a play, since he was in the Amateur Dramatic Club at Cambridge, and there are a few other pictures of him clearly in costume for a play. And he also seems to have mostly worn black suits, like most men at the time. A full-white get-up doesn't quite seem like him.

In fact, my favorite picture of the bunch was definitely a picture from a play: he's wearing a striped jacket with a high collar, knickers, shoes with big buckles, and an amazing hat, and it's clearly a costume from what I take to be the 1790's. I'm not all that precise on men's fashion, but it seems like a foppish look from about that time. It's just so delightful and charming, and I'd never seen it before.

I would LOVE to freely share these pictures. I did take pictures with my phone. But, well, there was a lot of glare because most the photos were in protective plastic covers that I wasn't allowed to remove. Also, a phone camera isn't going to give great-quality pictures. And last but definitely not least, I'm hazy on the copyright of all these materials, and I'm just going to play it safe and not share publically.

Well, with that delightful find to end to my day, I trundled off to get some dinner (Shake Shack), and head back to my AirBNB, where I watched some Netflix and chilled.

In the morning, I was up and at 'em, ready for more research at the Beinecke Library at 9:00. I only had until about 11:30, because I needed to check out of my AirBNB and then get to my train departing at 1:37 (actually, the train didn't leave until after 4:00 because of a delay, and it was a nightmare, and Amtrak treated me horribly, but that's a whole story unto itself).


The first box I got on day two was Box 4, which contained what Peter referred to wryly as The Morgue. This was a project he undertook in the '40's, to collect family papers and compile an annotated family history. It's not really clear whether the intent was to actually publish this. It is comprised of handwritten page after handwritten page, Peter copying out family letters and then adding his own comments. It's hundreds of pages long, and a lot of it is material that, frankly, I wasn't especially interested in. I certainly didn't have time to read it all or even photograph it to read it later. In this case, I had to content myself with skimming it. I wish I'd had a couple hours to examine it. After that handwritten book, there are two folders of typewritten pages, which seemed to be the manuscript, just typed up. If I'd known I didn't have to go on reading Peter's handwriting and could've read something type-written.... Oh well. (Peter's handwriting was okay, but still much harder to read than type.)

The next two boxes were more photos--of Jack and Nico and Michael and Peter. There was Peter in uniform with the little mustache he grew. And there's Michael at Eton, making a game attempt at his own little mustache. For Peter, the mustache stayed, but not for Michael. Jack looks very sharp in his naval uniforms. There are photos of JMB with Nico's daughter Laura in 1928. She wasn't the first of the "grandchildren"; Jack already had a child, but he wasn't as close to JMB, and I'm not sure JMB ever actually met Jack's children. There were some lovely drawings of Sylvia, and pictures of the family home in Berkhamsted (beautiful place with a lush, almost Eden-like garden), and JMB's flat in Adelphi Terrace House. There's also a photo of JMB's funeral in 1937, with Jack and Peter and their wives. There were also some pictures of Nico apparently in uniform during WWII, which surprised me, as I had had no idea he served--and I still have no idea in what capacity he may have served. I thought he would be too old, but I suppose he was about 35 when that war broke out.

The final box, box 8, had a collection of items. There were newspaper clippings, centered around Arthur's death, Michael's death, and Nico's wedding (the press would not shut up about how "Peter Pan" was best man at his brother's wedding--that must have driven poor Peter up the wall). I managed to miss a few things, like Arthur's notes, written after he had had a surgery to remove part of his jaw and was unable to speak easily, and Eton cricket match results. But at this point, time was really running low and I had to hit the highlights. There was a floorplan of the ground floor of the house the family lived in last, before some of the boys went off to college and Michael and Nico moved in with JMB. Amongst the items in this box was also a copy of two poems that Michael wrote while on holiday at Eilean Shona in Scotland with JMB, Nico, and other friends. One poem was crossed out, but he was apparently pleased with the other one, which is just titled Eilean Shona.

The very last items I viewed were locks of Michael's and Nico's hair. It's a little odd, I guess, but saving locks of hair used to be very common (to be clear, these locks were saved when Michael and Nico were little boys). Michael's hair came in two small ringlets. His hair was a rich brown, about the same shade as mine, actually, and, I take it, slightly curly if not cut short. Nico's hair was lighter and had a hint of red in it. I did not take pictures of the locks of hair. I gently tipped them to the edges of the envelopes they were in and touched each gently with the tip of my finger. I took a moment to let my mind be boggled. Then I slipped them back into the envelopes, returned everything, and ventured back outside. I gathered my things and made my way home (I didn't get home until 10:00 p.m., but, again, that's another story).

It was a very successful trip.

Detail of envelope for letter from George to JMB. The red stamp says
"Passed by censor" because this was coming from the trenches of WWI, so
all letters had to pass a censor to be sure no sensitive info was being passed on.
The round stamp is "Field Post Office", which seems pretty self-explanatory. The address
is "Sir James Barrie, Bart [Baronet], 3 Adelphi Terrace House, Strand, London, WC"

[PS, I'm a littler unclear about copyright and am wary of doing anything that
might violate any copyrights, so I'm not going to share any of the pictures I took of the pictures
and documents, though I very much would like to do so.]

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