Sunday, May 24, 2020

...And Michael Llewelyn Davies

It's been a weird few days--okay, let's be real, it's been a weird few months, with COVID and all. But the point is, I meant to blog about this several days ago and...didn't. In my defense, I did get a lot of sewing done and watched Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 during that time. Which...isn't much of a defense now that I think about it.

I shouldn't be so flippant. The occasion for this blog post is a sad one.

The pictures below are of Michael Llewelyn Davies. He was the fourth of the five brothers who helped inspire Peter Pan. He wasn't even born in 1897 when his eldest brother George met writer J.M. Barrie in Kensington Gardens and the two became friends. Michael was born in 1900, and he was only four years old when Peter Pan premiered. George was the original model for Peter Pan, and Peter gave him his name, but Michael had no small part in inspiring the writing of the play. George was still very much a favorite of Barrie's, but Michael became a favorite among the brothers, too, maybe the favorite.

Here is a picture of Michael, dressed up as Peter Pan in a costume given to him by J.M. Barrie:

And here's Michael a bit older, kitted out to go fishing--which was a favorite activity for the Llewelyn Davies brothers, and which J.M. Barrie encouraged. By the time this photo was taken, both the boys' parents had passed away from cancer. Barrie was acting as guardian, alongside their longtime nurse Mary Hodgson.

Michael was a sensitive child, and the loss of his parents affected him pretty deeply. He had terrible nightmares and had trouble adjusting to Eton at first. But he was extremely bright and talented, both in art and poetry (for the record, his grandfather was an artist and novelist, and his first cousin was novelist Daphne du Maurier, so J.M. Barrie's wasn't the only literary influence in his life). He was athletic, too, making the first elevens at cricket at Eton.

This last picture is Michael in 1919, at Oxford. There was some back-and-forth between Michael and Barrie over Michael's future. Michael had thoughts of studying at the Sorbonne and being an artist in Paris, but Barrie preferred he go to Oxford. Michael actually left Oxford briefly but went back.

It was while he was studying at Oxford that he and a friend, Rupert Buxton, went down from Oxford on May 19, 1921, to Sandford Lasher along the Thames. A lasher is the pool beneath a dam, and this was a place where students sometimes went to swim. Unfortunately, on that day, something happened, and Michael and Rupert were drowned. They were both far too young to die, and it was a devastating blow for Barrie (especially since they had lost George during the war).

Exactly what happened that day isn't clear. I have my own theories, and I could go on and on about this topic, and maybe I will do so later. Many people suspect it was a double suicide, or at least a suicide on the part of Michael--that is, the two young men committed suicide together (the theory is usually that they were homosexual and were distressed by what that might mean in that time and place), or Michael committed suicide (for whatever the reason) and Rupert tried but failed to save him. The official inquest returned a finding of accidental death, however. I tend to believe it was accidental. It was well-known that Michael couldn't swim and was terrified of the water. He might have gotten into some difficulty while swimming, and when Rupert tried to help, Michael, in his desperation, took them both down (this is not unusual in drowning situations). But of course, we'll never know what went on in the heads of either young man.

But it was 99 years ago this past week that Michael Llewelyn Davies passed away. So I wanted to mark the anniversary. Well, roughly.

Monday, May 11, 2020

. . . And Audio of the Real Lost Boys

. . . or at least one of them.

I'll back up and explain. The "real lost boys"--the brothers who inspired the creation of Peter Pan--were the George, Jack, Peter, Michael, and Nicholas Llewelyn Davies.

(If you've seen Finding Neverland, that's--sort of--them, except it's a Disney-fied version of half the story; if you want a more accurate idea of the real story, read my blog entry here; you can also read about my research trip to Yale in New Haven, Connecticut here.)

I have written a novel about the Davies family, which I plan to start shopping around to agents in the near future (that ought to be a joy). In the meantime, I remain slightly obsessed with the true story of these five brothers, and the other day I logged onto This is an amazing site. It's administered by Andrew Birkin, the longtime expert on J.M Barrie and the Davies family and the custodian of a large amount of primary material. He wrote the best available book on the topic, J.M. Barrie and the Lost Boys--buy it here; I highly recommend it. He also wrote and directed Lost Boys, a wonderful (and wonderfully accurate) BBC miniseries on the story from the '70s (it is available used on DVD). The point is, I owe a massive debt to his work.

Among the material Birkin collected is a series of audio interviews conducted in the '70s with those involved in the story who were still alive. He interviewed Nico, the youngest and last surviving of the five brothers, and Jack's widow, Gerrie. He spoke to the sister of George's fiancee and to Robert Boothby, a friend of Michael's at Eton and Oxford. He also spoke to Daphne du Maurier, who happens to have been the brothers' first cousin. The audio files also include recording of speeches by Barrie (not great quality).

(There is also a trove of photographs and letters and other written materials and ephemera that are well worth diving into.)

Some of the info and stories to be found in these audio files are absolutely fabulous. I suppose it helps to know the characters behind the stories, but I was just filled with glee as I listened to a few of these clips that I hadn't listened to before. A few struck me in particular:

1. In this file, Nico talks about being the only one of his brothers with any musical talent at all. I love the story of him and Michael being bought a gramophone by Barrie and given 10 quid to buy music. Nico buys some jazz (this song, actually), and Michael, at about 19 years old, buy Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade. I love "Scheherazade", though Nico apparently thought it was tripe!

2. This one struck was intriguing because I've though a lot about what led Peter, later in his life, to commit suicide. It will never be entirely clear, of course, exactly what led him to do it, but in my mind the trauma of war lingered on, even decades later. It wasn't the only cause (he was in bad health, as was his wife, and they had financial troubles), but I think a major factor. Here, his sister-in-law, Gerrie (Jack's wife) talks about his mental state following the Great War:

3. In this one, George's fiancee's sister, Norma, says he had a lot to be conceited about, though he wasn't at all conceited. Interestingly, she says that Barrie said he thought George would've been a very sad man had he lived. Norma disagrees, but I don't entirely disagree. I think he had a lot of weight on his shoulders after the death of his parents, and he probably would've borne it well enough but been been rather sad underneath. It must be said that Barrie was an incredibly astute man, so maybe he was right. We'll never know, I'm afraid.

4. And a little more from Norma about dear George and how he courted Josephine, the fiancee he left behind when he went off to war:

5. I rather think Norma was smitten with the Llewelyn Davies brothers--the older ones at least, who were closer to her own age. Here she says they had an easy charm that they didn't need to turn on and off; it was simply there:

6. This one I liked very much because Nico talks about how much he enjoyed working alongside Peter in the publishing industry, which just makes me very happy. The sense that Nico made Peter happier, and that Nico enjoyed Peter's company warms the cockles of my cold, dead heart. Also, like Nico I have a love-hate relationship with the publishing industry, so I can totally relate, even if I'm on the author's side of the equation rather than the publisher side.