Du Maurier December: ‘Neverland: J.M. Barrie, the du Mauriers and the Dark Side of Peter Pan’ by Piers Dudgeon ***

When I stumbled across it during a fruitless Internet search for The du Mauriers, I thought that Piers Dudgeon’s Neverland: J.M. Barrie, the du Mauriers and the Dark Side of Peter Pan sounded fascinating: ‘Neverland is a true story of genius and possession at a crossroads in time…  Two suicides, a hundred-year-old family secret, and a resentful interloper with a desire to control the fate of those he loved set the scene’.

The book’s blurb alone is rather dark; it goes on to say, ‘Immediately after George du Maurier’s death, [J.M.] Barrie made his move on the family.  He assumed George’s mantle of authority, using his powers of persuasion to captivate George’s children and, more maliciously, his grandchildren, who inspired many of the characters in Peter Pan.  Barrie emerges as a Svengali without conscience, driven by a compulsion to dominate and destroy.  Neverland reveals in horrific detail how Barrie brought his victims to nervous breakdown, early death, and suicide, and how three authors formed an image of their dark side in Svengali, Peter Pan and Rebecca – through the immortal characters in their novels’.

Neverland was published in 2009, and whilst I had not heard of the author before, it turns out that he met du Maurier herself in 1987, two years before her death, and discussed a semi-autobiographical project about her beloved Cornwall with her.  The book which he wrote instead, after du Maurier’s death, ties together the lives of Daphne du Maurier, her cousins, the tragic Llewelyn Davies boys, and J.M. Barrie.  He was intrigued by the fact that du Maurier ruled that her adolescent diaries could not be published for fifty years after her death, and wondered which secrets they may contain.  When he began to dig into her childhood to come up with an answer to his question, he found that Barrie cropped up an awful lot: ‘he was so interested in Daphne, in particular the special relationship that developed between her and her father, that when she was ten he wrote a play about it, which troubled her deeply, even into old age’.

Neverland is split into six sections, which range from ‘Sylvia, the Lost Boys and Uncle Jim: the Peter Pan Inheritance’ to ‘Michael, Daphne, and Uncle Jim: ‘An Awfully Big Adventure”.  The book has been widely well received by critics, including those who have written about du Maurier herself – Justine Picardie, for example.  The book begins with a helpful du Maurier-Llewelyn Davies family tree, and illustrations and photographs have been included throughout.

Dudgeon then goes on to set out the suicide of sixty three-year-old book publisher Peter Llewelyn Davies in 1960, which ‘provoked wide press coverage and speculation, perhaps because some reporters remembered that he had been one of the “lost boys” of Peter Pan, and noted that the tragedy more or less coincided with the centenary of the birth of J.M. Barrie’.  As one might expect, this portion of the book is incredibly sad.  Peter’s eldest son Ruthven had this to say after his father’s death: ‘From the moment I was old enough I was aware that my father had been expolited by Barrie and was very bitter…  He didn’t really like him.  He resented the fact that he wasn’t well off and that Barrie had to support him.  But when he was cut out of the will, he was livid and tremendously disappointed… and he started drinking heavily…  He was virtually a down-and-out by the time he died’.

Dudgeon soon brings in the parallels between Barrie’s influence upon Daphne and her cousins, and her own fiction; a lot of her short stories were inspired by events which involved the famous author, and they also contributed to her own state of mental health.  When writing about du Maurier’s story ‘The Blue Lenses’, for example, Dudgeon believes the following: ‘The power of the story is that only Marda… can see the truth.  The weight of this knowledge is shattering because no one believes her.  Awakening to truth is the first step to breakdown when no one believes you, when only you can see’.

Margaret Forster, the author of an excellent biography of Daphne du Maurier, writes: ‘She felt betrayed, exploited and, worst of all, fooled’ by J.M. Barrie and the power which he held over everyone.  A lot of psychology has consequently been included.  Dudgeon digs into the mysterious and covered-up elements within the family history, and it is in such instances in which he really comes into his own. He presents the family and J.M. Barrie as one does not see them on the surface.

Oddly, whilst Neverland is well written, parts of the book feel rather impersonal; it is as though Dudgeon is writing about his subjects without having any real compassion for any of them.  He appears rather dismissive at times, and the elements of mesmerism which he speaks about are quite overdone.  Some of the themes – and even the quotes from outside sources – are repeated, sometimes word for word.  Something which I found rather irritating and not at all necessary was the way in which Dudgeon seemed utterly obsessed as to whether those he was writing about were good-looking or not.  Given its length, Neverland is a relatively quick read.  It is well crafted and thought has been given to its appearance, but as a general biography, it is not one which I would go out of my way to recommend.

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6 thoughts on “Du Maurier December: ‘Neverland: J.M. Barrie, the du Mauriers and the Dark Side of Peter Pan’ by Piers Dudgeon ***

  1. Goodness, I had no idea there were so many dark and unpleasant secrets in these families… I almost wish I hadn’t known, as it spoils my enjoyment of Peter Pan. Have you seen the film ‘Finding Neverland’? I suppose that shows a more benign version of events.

    • Neither did I! I was so surprised by some of the things that ‘Neverland’ threw up. I agree completely; sometimes it’s better to remain in the dark. I have, and I think that’s why I was so surprised by this in part – I wasn’t expecting what I learnt to be so sinister!

  2. Brilliant post Kirsty. I read this a few years ago, as I think I told you. I found it absolutely fascinating as I love Daphne du Maurier and have always loved and been intrigued by the story of Peter Pan. I don’t remember too many details about Dudgeon’s writing but I remember loving the book. I think I would recommend it to anyone with an existing interest in the subjects as it is a very specific book about a very specific set of people, if that makes sense. The psychology of the whole thing is fascinating too. I’d love to read other reviews of this and hear some more opinions. Thank you for such a great post.

    • Thank you so much, Lizzi! That really made me smile. You are the only person I know who’s read it, so I was really excited to dig in when I heard you had so enjoyed it. Oh, definitely! It’s like the very best of literary criticism in a lot of ways, and it links the du Mauriers et al. so cleverly. I’d love to see more reviews of this too!

      • you’re very welcome. i’d love to see others reviewing it as well – i think it could have quite a broad appeal as so many people love daphne du maurier and peter pan, though they are quite different. so it’s very interesting to see how they connect!

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