‘Gateway to the Modern: Resituating J. M. Barrie’ edited by Valentina Bold and Andrew Nash

‘The life of every man is a diary in which he means to write one story, and writes another’. So writes Gavin Ogilvy in the first chapter of The Little Minister. But in acknowledging the pressure of hidden selves and ulterior motives, he, the author, presents himself as already something like a ghost or at best a fitful, liminal presence: ‘Gavin heard of me at times as the dominie in the glen who had ceased to attend the Auld Licht kirk, and Margaret did not even hear of me. It was all I could do for them.’ The paraded self-sacrifice suggests that the ‘biography’ about to be presented is by a paterfamilias who, though he has abdicated, cannot quite bring himself to accept dethronement: he might ostentatiously announce his sacrifice, but he is unable wholly to extirpate the desire to make it his story. How typical of Barrie, you might say, and how ‘modernist’.

Discreet as these signs are, they point to a modernist instability of identity and subversive ambiguities in the ‘authorial’ role. Andrew Nash, when writing of Tommy and Grizel in his excellent essay, ‘Barrie, Sentimentality and Modernity’, speaks of ‘the narrative awareness [in that text] of the multiple ways in which a story might be shaped, and how different ways of telling a story will induce a different response from the reader’; and he makes a particular point of the narrator’s overt self-interrogation (drawing an interesting parallel with Ford’s sadly-neglected masterpiece The Good Soldier).

Nash adds that the text’s particular narrative awareness was a reflection of the theme of sentimentality itself – a crucial concern in Barrie’s work which he explores with great discernment. Quoting D.H. Lawrence’s modernist contempt for sentimentality (‘Sentimentality is the working off on yourself of feelings you haven’t got … Faked feelings!’), he points out that Lawrence nevertheless identified with the ‘links Barrie makes between sentimentality and artistic creativity, and specifically with the creative artist’s compulsion to invent emotion’. What appealed to Lawrence about Barrie’s fiction ‘was its preoccupation with the psychology and ethics of feeling and sentimentality, and, by extension, of self-consciousness’.

Artistic self-consciousness was the sine qua non of contemporary writers like Barrie and Stevenson whose aesthetic reflected many of the characteristic concerns of emerging modernism. In Barrie’s case this self-awareness is highly visible – in, for example, the deliberate and lengthy interpolations of the authorial voice before the curtain rises on his plays (or even before individual Acts within a play). But it is there, too, in Sentimental Tommy and, even more so, in Tommy and Grizel.

William Archer’s Olympian verdict on Barrie – ‘lacking in philosophic insight [Barrie] seems to be feeling around for a philosophy but he never quite finds it’ – is, as Jan MacDonald says, in quoting the remark in her essay ‘Barrie and the New Dramatists’, to deeply misconceive Barrie’s aesthetic; and in precisely the same way, and in much the same terms, did Archer misconceive Stevenson (though he later tempered this view). If we consider Tommy even for a moment we see at once that this self-delighting artist does not acquire his authority from some newly-minted philosophy: the authorial self that matters for the ‘modern’ artist is the mercurial one expressed in his or her art. As the narrator remarks in Tommy and Grizel: ‘His individuality consisted in having none’.

Nash, however, also makes the important point that Tommy’s sentimentalism is deeply destructive. Douglas Gifford, in his essay ‘Barrie’s Farewells: the Final Story’, which also raises other important issues, displays a similar awareness: ‘In The Little White Bird [Barrie’s] Captain W– manipulates marriages, children and fortunes with that mixture of sentiment and cruelty, compassion and masterfulness, in ways which might well have been Tommy’s had he survived to play his games in London’. But Tommy does survive to play precisely these games though not, for the most part, in London. There is, in fact, a hurtful and supremely selfish cruelty at the heart of this imaginative, exploitative ‘creator’. As Nash says, ‘[t]he sentimental artist has an egotistical desire to replace reality with his own artistic creation’ and he shows how far this takes Tommy when he assumes the role of divine artificer: [of Grizel] ‘what a delicious book you are, and how I wish I had written you’.(110)

Both Nash and Gifford are right to argue that the ‘Tommy’ novels are anything but ‘prentice works’ and that they have ‘begun to assert themselves as fictions which were radically ground-breaking in their time’.(69) And that radicalism, I would argue, has everything to do with emergent modernism.

In another excellent – and conspicuously well-written – essay, Paul Fox also deals with modernist issues of identity and artistic self-creation, this time in Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens. In one of his characteristically well-phrased summaries (which again bring Tommy to mind) he has this to say of Peter: ‘his personality is acted out according to those narratives of himself that he creates, and it is in this type of creative role-playing that Peter’s essence is revealed, one which is fluid and always changing, based upon an aesthetic of play unconstrained by fixed identity and the adult world’s expectations of what it means to grow up’.(123)

Fox’s emphasis on ‘the performative aesthetic’ yields valuable insights applied to Decadent literature in general or Peter Pan in particular. His invocation of John Davidson’s poem ‘Thirty Bob a Week’ is, in this context, as illuminating as it is unanticipated (by this reviewer at least). In another felicitous sentence he takes his point further: ‘Davidson maps the history of the universe, rolling it up into the momentary and momentous consciousness of the aesthetic individual, making time itself a creation of the performative will‘ [my italics].(129) He further consolidates his argument with this perceptive summary: ‘Peter joyfully plays the universe into being over and over again with each new narrative he adopts, every new song he pipes and through all the games in which he happily engages’.(130) This is well said and suggests that the editors might have considered another chapter on the role of music in Barrie’s work, for it has an organic role – as it has for Stevenson and, indeed, for some of the giants of modernism like Proust.

Though Fox is here talking about ‘the Decadent Moment’, he is well aware that this is subsumed in the aesthetics of modernism more generally. Jan MacDonald describes how this aesthetic nourishes Barrie’s play-writing where ‘[the] performative element links with his use of metatheatricality as a vessel for his comment on current theatrical practice’.(14) She also draws our attention to Barrie’s use of the burlesque to act as vehicle for his metatheatrical critical commentaries which ‘although less sustained than those of Shaw, Archer or Barker, share much in substance'(6); and again we are reminded of the manner in which that other Scottish harbinger of change and innovation, Robert Louis Stevenson, displays – indeed, flaunts – his modernist credentials precisely through his sophisticated incorporation of the burlesque. Anna Farkas is the only essayist in the collection to give attention to the extremely important (and evolving) role of the burlesque in emerging modernist writing. […]

Professor MacDonald’s essay is also interesting in the way it deals with Barrie and the ‘Woman’ question. Her conclusion is that in this context he reveals himself to be ‘fundamentally a reactionary’. But gender relationships – particularly in the dramas – have many layers and a dynamic that is far from straight-forward. A streak of cruelty runs through Barrie’s work and it emerges at times as something approaching the sado-masochistic. There are a remarkable number of allusions to a sort of parodied master/slave engagement of the sexes; the power-play, which is what it is, is consensual, but it also reflects modernism’s challenge to fixed identity and hierarchy.

R.D.S. Jack’s contribution to this volume is an important one, but in the prelude to his discussion of form and meaning there is a perceptive sentence designed to put us on our guard when reading Barrie: ‘Barrie’s consistent appeals to be judged on two levels, satirically and quasi-allegorically, can profitably be used to explain why those who read the opening acts of Barrie’s Romances on one level comically fail to understand the art of the man whom Hugh Walpole nicely described as knowingly tricking those who “have taken him at his surface-word” (my italics; 34-35). The sleight-of-hand implicit here is a feature in modernist writing: what it does is well-described by Linda Hutcheon in Narcissistic Narrative: the Metafictional Paradox: ‘By reminding the reader of the book’s identity as artifice, the text parodies his expectations, his desire for verisimilitude, and forces him to an awareness of his role in creating the universe of fiction’.

Though his discussion of the plays is illuminating (it is particularly gratifying to find him drawing attention to the role played by music), the real burden of Jack’s densely-packed essay could be said to be found in his disquisition on the meaning of certain important antitheses like ‘sentimental’ and ‘realistic’ where he discusses the influence of David Masson on Barrie’s choice of terms, so that ‘sentimental’, for example, can be taken to cover a wider range of meaning than we now attach to the word. Reviewing the battle between idealism and realism – a vital part of the debate from the mid-century on – he draws attention to the fact that David Masson’s re-definition of these terms (showing that far from being each other’s impermeable antithesis they were reconcilable) was likely to have influenced Barrie.

Jack enlarges on this to underline the vital link between Barrie and Ibsen. Quoting the Ibsen scholar Daniel Haakonsen he writes ‘Ibsen, as Haakonsen saw, makes an immediate realistic appeal but “[on] a deeper level the action has a different, deeper and freer ideality, or constantly tends towards it”‘. It is an important point and is augmented by his directing our attention to Toril Moi’s illuminating study, Henrik Ibsen and the Birth of Modernism.

In ‘Peter Pan’s Make-Believe: Place, Uncertainty, and Wonder’ Ralph Jessop makes a more philosophical entry into not altogether dissimilar territory. However, while there is an argument here in his analysis of the role of wonder, his categories are rendered so opaque by his labyrinthine syntax that one hesitates to make judgements.

Farewell Miss Julie Logan is a story full of discordant echoes, all very deliberate. It starts with the title, for if ever a title could be said to be ‘modernist’ this would be one such. (Professor Gifford rightly points out that it does not seem to be in Adam’s ‘voice’: it has, in truth, more than a whiff of the coming cinema-age.) Here the title is that of an apparently traditional Scottish story of the supernatural showing close kinship to its distinguished predecessors. But that is just a beginning – and a bit of a feint at that; for the entire narrative is presented through an English perspective, it would seem. However, this is only the first of many frames or archways: Barrie’s modernist credentials are everywhere in this richly-freighted story, and this needs to be spelt out clearly for it is a tale which, as Gifford suggests, has yet to be accorded its true place in the modernist Scottish literary canon.

The narrative is cast in the form of a diary, but characteristically, it is a text subjected to a commentary from another text, for we hear of another diary kept by a predecessor of Adam’s which has a sinister bearing on his tale. Perhaps Professor Gifford could have extended his analysis of the tale further along the lines of his admirable aperçu where he explores Barrie’s modernist device of having Adam see all that is going on in the Grand House in a reflection in the lake. He is unquestionably right to assert the importance of this work in the Scottish literary canon for in it Barrie has fittingly rounded off his life’s work with a novella which is, unequivocally, both modernist and Scottish.

Other contributors to this collection deserve mention – Jonathan Murray for example for his informative chapter on Barrie’s serious attraction to the cinema (which demanded to be taken further); and Margery Palmer McCulloch, whose succinct and well-focussed essay on Barrie and MacDiarmid is a pleasure to read. Her comments on the way the Doric is deployed in her brief extract from A Window in Thrums, particularly ‘the rhythmic movement of the exchanges’, draw attention to that symphonic richness inherent in the language used by poets and peasants in rural Scotland. McCulloch makes the shrewd point that what we see in Barrie’s handling of exchanges like this one is ‘exactly the kind of skill in manipulating dialogue a successful stage dramatist needs’. Two other essays, on Barrie and Bloomsbury and on children’s responses to Wendy, while of interest, have little to do with modernism –; though both could have been made to advance the promise in the book’s title had they been given a sightly wider focus.

In Gateway to the Modern: Resituating J.M. Barrie the editors have given us a valuable collection of essays which will undoubtedly increase the impetus for further research into Barrie’s work. Just one reservation of a substantial nature remains: what is meant by the word ‘modern’ in which Barrie is to be resituated? The temptation to play games with the name and nature of ‘modernism’ is one to which many of us who have written on the subject have unblushingly succumbed, but it needs to be resisted. All that was needed here was a chapter devoted squarely to an analysis of modernism’s constitution as it emerges in Scotland in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, and the collection would have been even more firmly anchored.


Gateway to the Modern: Resituating J. M. Barrie edited by Valentina Bold and Andrew Nash is published by the Association for Scottish Literary Studies, 2014.

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Alan Sandison

Alan Sandison is Emeritus Professor in the Faculty of Humanities, Arts, Social Sciences and Education at the University of New England, NSW.

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