Wednesday, May 19, 2021

...And Michael Llewelyn Davies and Peter Pan

Oxford.

If you have been keeping up with me at all, you're aware that I'm deeply interested in the story of the Llewelyn Davies brothers, who inspired the creation of Peter Pan--and contributed to it, I should add. Today is the anniversary of a sad event, and even though it's sad, I wanted to mark it in some small way. It was a hundred years ago today that Michael Llewelyn Davies, the fourth of the five brothers, drowned at Sanford Lasher outside Oxford, just shy of his twenty-first birthday.

Michael Llewelyn Davies.

Michael's life, for better or worse, was inextricably bound up with Peter Pan. The seeds of Peter Pan were planted in 1897, before Michael was even born (in 1900). His eldest brother, George, met the Scottish writer J.M. Barrie by chance while playing in Kensington Gardens. Michael was only four years old when Peter Pan premiered seven years later, in 1904. While George was always a favorite of Barrie's, Michael was also close to Barrie, in the way a child is close to a father--that is, it was a tangled, difficult, complicated relationship. Michael lost his own father when he was only seven years old, and Barrie had been a close family friend for a decade at that point. When Michael was ten, his mother passed away also, and he and his orphaned brothers became Barrie's wards. This was partly a practical matter: while the five brothers' relatives weren't financially and logistically able to take on all five boys in one household, Barrie was. He was a wealthy, successful writer, and he was known to and liked by the brothers. They stayed in the family home, with their faithful nurse (nanny) looking after them on a day-to-day basis (although eldest brother George turned seventeen that year and was at Eton, and second brother Jack, a year younger, was at the Naval Academy and didn't really need looking after). Later, Michael and younger brother Nico moved into Barrie's flat on the Strand. Barrie would have been more or less the only father Michael could remember.

Michael was extremely intelligent and talented, and in spite of suffering from terrible nightmares (which Barrie often helped relieve) and being homesick, he succeeded at Eton. He was a good athlete (football/soccer) and was co-editor of the Eton College Chronicle. He wrote some poetry and drew a bit (Barrie wrote that he was distressingly aware that Michael's portraits of other people were good likenesses, which meant that his portraits of Barrie must, alas, be fairly accurate, too), and he became friends with peripheral members of the Bloomsbury Group.

While Michael was at Eton, war broke out in Europe. Having been born in 1900, he was only 14 when Britain declared war, but his three older brothers were old enough to fight in the war. George was twenty-one, Jack was twenty, and Peter (yes, the namesake of Peter Pan) was seventeen in 1914. In March of 1915, George was killed by a sniper's bullet, and in 1916, after spending time at the Front, Peter was sent home for a time with shell shock--only to be sent back to the trenches and win a Military Cross for his valor and then spend years living with an older married woman.

The war went on long enough that Michael came of age to join the army. He was due to enlist, believe it or not, on November 11, 1918. But that, of course, was the day that the armistice took effect. So instead, Michael was left to figure out what his future looked like without a war looming on the horizon. The answer for him wasn't entirely clear. His grandfather, George du Maurier, had been an artist and novelist, and Michael had a notion to take after him and go to Paris to study at the Sorbonne (George du Maurier had not been admitted). By this time, Michael and younger brother Nico had moved in with Barrie, who did not like the idea of Michael going off to Paris instead of going to Oxford. Michael went up to Oxford, then informed the authorities he was leaving, then asked somewhat sheepishly to be taken back, which he was.

It was at Oxford he met Rupert Buxton, a Harrow student who seems to have shared a lot in common with Michael. Both were brilliant and apparently charismatic. Both were troubled. Michael had his nightmares, and Rupert had had a mental breakdown during his time at Harrow and had run away for a brief period. Interestingly, he seems to have had synesthesia. Both young men had lost brothers in the war and had lost parents. They hit it off.

Michael and Nicholas (Nico)
Llewelyn Davies

What happened next is unclear. But on May 19, 1921, Michael and Rupert went down to a pool below Sanford Lasher outside Oxford. There, the Thames splits around an island; to one side there are locks, to the other a dam. Below the dam is a pool. It's here that Michael and Rupert went swimming and were both drowned.

This is the great mystery. What happened, and why? An inquest found that it was an accidental drowning, but people have suggested ever since that it might have been mutual suicide, that the two might have been homosexual in a time when being homosexual was dangerous. There's no evidence they were romantic--though there is, of course, no proof they weren't. There simply is no way to know what was in their minds. We can never know what those two young men intended that day. And it's entirely possible that each of them intended something different--that perhaps one tried to drown himself and the other tried to save him but both were drowned in the attempt.

Acknowledging that, I believe it was accidental. It was well-known that Michael couldn't swim and was, in fact, afraid of water. The very fact of being afraid of the water could have made him more likely to panic and drown. People underestimate how easy it is for a drowning person to bring down a would-be rescuer. It's possible that Rupert tried to help Michael and that Michael, in his panic, brought Rupert down, as well. The opposite is less likely but still possible: perhaps Rupert got in trouble and Michael tried to save him but, being a poor swimmer, failed.

A swan on Sanford Lasher
In any case, other underclassmen had drowned there before, and it was called a "very good place to drown yourself in" by Jerome K. Jerome. There is a monument there now to the young men who died there. Michael and Rupert's names are etched on it, along with the date: 19 May, 1921.

Whatever the case, it seems that Michael was seeking his place in the world as a young man when he died. This isn't unusual for someone of that age. And he had had some traumatic experiences as a boy, losing both his parents and his eldest brother. It can't have been easy to also be so closely attached to Peter Pan, and it doubtless affected him in deep and unnerving ways, but there were many other things in his life that could have led to a potential suicide (if it were suicide). While it's tempting to make a quick and easy association between Peter Pan and J.M. Barrie on the one hand and Michael's death on the other, life is not so simple. Even if it were suicide, you can't lay the blame solely on Peter Pan or J.M. Barrie.

The dam above Sanford Lasher.
                                                                                         
In the 1970s, Nico told some wonderful stories to Andrew Birkin about Michael (and other things). My favorites are the story of the two brothers teasing J.M. Barrie ("Uncle Jim") when he received a baronetcy. They called him "Sir Jazz", mostly because Barrie disliked jazz and partly because Jas. is an abbreviation for James (Barrie's given name was James). Speaking of music, Nico tells a cute story of how Barrie bought a phonograph and gave the boys some money to buy music (I think Nico says it was ten quid, but that seems like an awful lot). They separated to pick out what they wanted and met back up to compare. Michael had bought Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade (which I happen to love) and Nico had bought Paul Whiting's The Whispering (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tOhkc1a-zCo); this one is pretty catchy, too! Their choices are a bit telling of their personalities. (You can hear Nico tell the story here: https://jmbarrie.co.uk/audio/nicos-love-of-music-and-playing-the-piano-unlike-his-brothers-his-story-of-going-off-with-michael-to-buy-their-first-gramophone-records.)

The monument to the young men who drowned
in Sanford Lasher.

I've covered most of this in other posts, and I had hoped to do something a bit more exciting to commemorate this big anniversary of his passing, but real-life things have been getting in the way of me accomplishing much recently, so I'm afraid I will have to let this anniversary pass with a minimum of fanfare. I had had the vague hope of having my novel about the Llewelyn Davies brothers published by now, but alas, that hasn't happened, either, and the publishing business being what it is, chances are slim that it will ever happen. Ah well, here's to hoping for some good luck!

Further Reading

To learn more about the Llewelyn Davies brothers, I HIGHLY recommend Andrew Birkin's J.M. Barrie and the Lost Boys. It's certainly the best source out there.

My trip to Oxford and the site where Michael and Rupert drowned.

My trip to key Peter Pan-related sites in London.

Last year's anniversary post

No comments:

Post a Comment