Friday, November 20, 2020

. . . And Peter Davies's Signature

I think that my blog-related to-do list needs to include a "short story" version of the Llewelyn Davies family history. The more I write about it, the more I want to have a short version I can send people to to catch them up if need be, rather than doing a summary every time I write about the Ll. Davieses.

But in any case, here's the short-short version for the purposes of this blog: 

Peter Llewelyn Davies was one of five brothers who inspired the creation of Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie. The character ended up with Peter's name through happenstance: Peter was a baby in a pram when Barrie started telling Peter's two older brothers, George and Jack, stories about how baby Peter could fly. The stories morphed, as they do, and eventually we ended up with the Peter Pan we know, the one who never grows up. The real Peter, however, did--of course--grow up. He was seven years old when the play Peter Pan premiered in 1904, and from that time he couldn't disassociate himself from the character, especially because of his name.

Within six years of the play's premiere, Peter and his brothers were orphaned and became Barrie's wards. Peter was at Eton (on scholarship, I feel I should add, rather than on Barrie's dime like his other brothers) and was in the Officer Training Corp when war broke out in 1914. He and big brother George immediately signed up. He was 17 years old, which was old enough to sign up for the army but not old enough to be sent to the front. George went off to the trenches, while Peter remained in England in training. In March 1915, George was killed. At the end of that year, Peter was sent to France. He had a bad experience during the war, watching friends die and cowering under the unrelenting threat of the artillery shells. At one point, he was sent home to England to recover from shell shock, but then he was sent back to the front. He was a signalling officer (meaning he laid and repaired telephone wire, etc.), but during the fighting he, at twenty-one or twenty-two (I should check the dates...), became the commanding officer after all the senior officers were killed. For several days, he led a fighting retreat, and as a result he was awarded a Military Cross.

Last autumn, I had the immense pleasure of viewing the Llewelyn Davies papers at the Beinecke Library at Yale University. Among the papers are Peter's 37 letters home from the trenches to J.M. Barrie, whom he and his brothers (except Jack) called Uncle Jim. (As a note, Peter later carefully added the year to the date of each letter and numbered them--or at least, I'm fairly certain that that's Peter's handwriting. Also worth noting, it was kind of insane to be holding actual letters sent from the actual trenches of the Great War, in fact the actual letters from Peter to J.M. Barrie.)

I've been working on transcribing the letters. They're incredibly rich and vivid, and there's a strong undercurrent of world-weariness and nerviness, with a good dose of acerbic, very English, wit. For instance, he says the whole unit is in good fighting order, including "the signalling officer"--which is, of course, himself. This isn't a joke, but it's a wry way of stating things that I greatly appreciate. There are also some really descriptive, affecting bits, like this: "It is quite delightful going out under the trees with a book and Balkan cigarettes and a box of chocolates while the gramophone plays. One almost forgets the practically permanent noise of the guns." Peter is an excellent writer, in spite of being very young. I find his words at least as evocative as those of his adopted father, J.M. Barrie, perhaps more so for being less sentimentalized.

I got about two-thirds of the letters done, then took a break. I'm only up to mid-1916, but you can begin to see the psychological effects the war is having on Peter ("Honestly, Uncle Jim, I can't write about it - I don't believe anyone could, and I'm not particularly anxious that anyone should."). One of the things that struck me is the signature. He begins his correspondence signing himself "Yr affectionate Peter". Later, it's "Yr loving." In one of the last letters, here, it's what appears to be just "Your" or "Yr" or "Yrs". As you can see, the signature in 1918 is pretty untidy. Though his handwriting is mercifully fairly legible throughout (unlike JMB's!), it does appear to get looser and quicker towards the end of the war, as evidenced by the signatures. Of course, he was writing these letters from the field, and sometimes conditions necessitated him to write quickly or on a less-than-ideal surface, which might explain the sloppiness. In any case, I thought it would be interesting to look at Peter's signatures when he set out for France in 1916 and after two years in the trenches and a struggle with shell shock (a struggle which I contend he never really won and, in fact, lost in 1960 when he committed suicide):


Peter's signature late 1915: Y[ou]r affectionate Peter

Peter's signature 1918: "Ever"? "Your"? Peter

You can see a definite deterioration there, though this isn't scientific and it's impossible to say why the 1918 signature is so sloppy. But he definitely missed the "t" he was meant to be crossing...


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